Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice
As I walked through the back door and only entrance of the small studio, I’m hit with welcoming warmth, and the scent of incense. An older woman greets me at the desk in a pink fluffy North Face jacket. After singing in a getting settled with my “tools” I took a gander around the classroom. There were only five of us, and an obvious wide range of age and ability. There was one woman propped up against the wall with an assortment of pillows who I would soon learn is to some extent physically disabled. She moved through the poses in the “gentle hatha” class a bit slower than the rest of us, but with the same determination. The instructor both encouraged and assisted in her effort. After my initial experience I was left with mixed emotions, but it wasn’t long before I realized I had stumbled upon something special.
The “gentle hatha” class was not particularly challenging, but I didn’t expect it to be, as that was how it was advertised on Soni Yoga’s website. The instructor, Jackie, was a very sweet older woman, but it was apparent that her experience was limited. The poses seemed chopped together and she read them from a small piece of paper she kept on her mat. I would later learn that she is still taking classes with the studio’s owner, Soni, and will be graduating within the coming weeks. A particular instance that sums up the experience pretty well was when while seated in shavasana (Muktibodhananda, p. 98), she instructed the class to roll our necks around and around, an exercise which she has coined, “snap-crackle-pop asana.” Though entertaining and sweet, it was not the experience I was hoping for. As I was leaving class I stopped to talk to her about getting in touch with the owner. She told me I had to take her Sunday morning class in order to understand what Soni was all about, and so I did.
As I entered the studio filled with people, it felt like a different place. Everyone was stretching, meditating in shavasana or talking with Soni, a bubbly Indian woman dressed in flowing white garments. The room carried and energy and excitement that wasn’t present in the class I had taken on Thursday. Before class begins a woman walks around with a box of tissues and advises everyone to blow their nose before we begin in order to prepare for the pranayama (Muktibodhananda, p.149) practice.
Soni begins the class will a welcoming smile, asking everyone how he or she feels. She asks who is tired, and when half the class raises their hands, she assures us that this time will pass. She explains that in the fall, we fall. We are not as sharp as we are in warmer months of the year, but not to worry, everyone else is going through the same thing, so no one will even notice its happening. She advises everyone to start eating warm foods and trade in their cold foods like ice cream, and granola for soups, cinnamon and cloves. This attention to a practice as important to bodily health as the exercise we are about to engage in was a surprising but welcome addition to the class.
As everyone entered sukhasana (Muktibodhananda, p. 630) Soni led the class in a chant. We then begin a practice of Vatakrama Kapalbhati (Muktibodhananda, p. 221), which is rapid and forceful breathing, with emphasis on the exhalation. She lightly explained the idea that this exercise would balance the prana, or positive energy force, within our bodies by cleansing us of negative toxins. After the breathing exercises we began moving from one asana to the next. There was no rush between poses, in fact quite the opposite. I have had the experience before where moving between asanas felt like a race, I fell behind, and therefore felt like I was someone less competent than the rest of the class. This was certainly not that experience. As I had observed in my pervious class Soni Yoga welcomes all people of all abilities and experience. Soni later told me that even teachers who take her beginner class each week could learn something. Everyone must find ease within each pose, whether it is the simplest or most advanced version, everyone must find ease.
Soni walked around the room and helped everyone get into the correct form. She also told the class what part of their body was being focused on, and the benefits of the exercise—all the while concentrating on the breath. Breath is the life force, without it we would not exist. In each pose, when she began noticing a struggle she would remind the class to “come back to your breath.” She reminded everyone that you always have your breath to come back to, no matter how stressful your life becomes, you have your breath, and you know it can bring you back to peace and balance.
Peace and balance seem to be the foundation on which Soni Yoga stands. Soni, and her husband (and co-owner) David, have made a studio that not only offers yoga, but ayurveda counseling and life coaching. Soni and David wish to give their students all of the tools to build a healthy and balanced life, and have worked hard to create a peaceful environment for their students to do so. Soni told me, “A peaceful place makes for a peaceful mind.” Everything about the studio is relaxing. From the light green walls, and warm inviting temperature, scents, and people, I immediately felt like this is a place I could fit into, a place where I could really experience peace and balance, and a place where I could learn.
As the class entered the final mediation, Soni tells us to use the energy in the room to find peace, to feel the spirit of the person next to you. This sense of community, and people working together towards betterment of themselves is another aspect Soni knew she wanted to incorporate when she built the studio three years ago. She told me that it was one of her most prominent goals. She wanted to make a peaceful environment for music, kids, family, and friends. She wanted to make a yoga studio that was a social place, not just “push the people in, and push them out.” This sense of community was something I gathered from the first class I attended. The instructor knew everyone by name. Even Soni greeted everyone who came into her class, though there was a lot more, by name, knew about what was going on in their lives, and was genuinely interested in conversing with them. In my past experience, Boston yoga studios are stuffed to the brim with people, and I have never learned an instructor’s name, nor they learned mine. The community aspect is enforced through activities Soni Yoga hosts, such as kirtan every Saturday evening and an annual trip to India with Soni and David. Soni yoga is a community everyone feels they can be a part of—it is a diverse group of people all with life improvement on their minds. Soni also makes herself very available to students who have inquiries. I asked after class about a problem I was having with the practice, and she gladly answered my question.
As I looked around the studio, and examined the tongue scrapers, neti-pots, and mala prayer beads sold by the front desk, it posed an interesting contrast to the Lulumon products generally advertised by popular Boston yoga studios. I could tell that yoga was a much more integral part of Soni’s life than simply something she picked up at one point or another, so I inquired as to her history with the practice. She told me she was “born into it.” Her grandfather learned from his father and grandfather, who studied in Bihar, India under Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati himself. To understand how significant this information is, one would have to know a bit about the Bihar School of Yoga. Essentially, Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati interpreted ancient yogic teachings into what is modern yoga practice. The school teaches an, “integrated yoga system which incorporates practical philosophy and a holistic lifestyle” (www.yogavision.net). He believes that yoga should focus on three entities, mind, breath, and body, and this is the mantra that Soni has adapted.
When I asked Soni why she opened a studio she told me “it was time for me to do something for myself.” It was odd to hear that response because the things she does for others is so obvious to anyone who has met her. She is truly dedicated to sharing a genuine yoga experience with as many people as she can. She told me her ultimate goal is to “bring yoga, bring that sense of union, and knowledge of self healing.” It is her belief that through yoga, and attention to the mind, body, and breath, one can heal themselves of most anything. It is in her deepest beliefs that “If you are going to live a nice long healthy life, you need to focus on your breath, your mind, and your body—eat right, sleep, and be sure to nurture this body.”
When I began this project, I did not expect to have the experience I have had. I set out to feel what I thought to be a genuine, personal, yoga practice, and I feel as though I have succeeded. Soni wants her students to make yoga a part of their life, not just a class they attend every week. She and her husband genuinely want to be a part of their students lives and help them. The studio doesn’t run like a business, and I could see when I mentioned the word in our interview, Soni was displeased. She told me she was never interested in earning money when she opened the studio. Although I’m sure it offers her and David a comfortable life, I honestly believe they have set out to help and enlighten people. I can honestly say this is a place I will return to. I know they will remember my name, and I know I will learn so much more than simply how to move from asana to asana. As I left the studio, Soni said to me “peace” and the word has been ringing in my ears since.
Anderson, Soni. Personal interview. 10 Oct. 2010.
Muktibodhananda, Saraswati, and Saraswati Satyananda. Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Light on Hatha Yoga. Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust, 1998.
"Yoga Vision." Bihar Yoga. 18 Oct. 2010