PORTLAND – Yoga is a complete mind, body and spirit experience for Kathleen Savoy and Melissa Fox. The two women are in the process of opening Niraj Yoga, a new studio in Portland that will offer vinyasa yoga classes.
Vinyasa is one of a number of forms of yoga, many of which are rooted in Hatha yoga, the foundation of the physical movements that go along with the broad concept of yoga. Savoy said vinyasa means “to place in a special way with the breath.”
In Maine and across the country, yoga continues to grow in popularity. More than 20 million Americans practice yoga, according to a 2012 study by Yoga Journal, a nearly 30 percent increase from 2008, when the magazine conducted its previous study. Among the millions of yoga practitioners surveyed, roughly 82 percent were women. While those statistics figure to change as more and more men turn to yoga, it’s clear that women, at least in the western hemisphere, are blazing the yoga trail.
Many women turn to yoga because they recognize the value of strength training but are uncomfortable or nervous about lifting weights. The various poses performed in yoga can increase muscle strength and tone, providing similar benefits to weightlifting without forcing women to spend time among men in the weight room. But in addition to the physical benefits, women also find the spiritual aspect of yoga most appealing.
Savoy and Fox offer what they call “full-spectrum” vinyasa classes that they said “encompass not only the physical work, but encourage practitioners to resonate with the sound vibration. Each class is a moving metaphor, threading mudra (hand gestures), and pranayama (breath work) throughout the specific theme designated to every class.”
Savoy said the aim is to “create a safe space for people to move in and out of alignment, and to honor themselves in the midst of what can be challenging movement, while continuing to bow down to this sacred, spiritually driven practice.”
Savoy said that sometimes the spiritual aspect of yoga is overlooked.
“There’s a lot of yoga being offered that leaves off that ‘spirit’ part. The importance of spirit is the heart of Niraj Yoga,” said Savoy. “We believe that if the spirit isn’t incorporated into the practice, then it’s not yoga. Does that mean that people need to convert to Hinduism? Absolutely not. It simply means that there needs to be a way to tie in faith and bring every aspect and element of life into the practice of yoga.”
Amanda Curtis Kezal is the co-owner of Holistic Pathways Yoga and Healing Center in Gorham, which was founded by her mother, Bernadette Curtis, Reiki master and board certified polarity and touch therapy practitioner. Kezal has been practicing yoga since the early 1990s. She, too, finds that yoga is all encompassing.
“Yoga is important to me because it touches on a physical and emotional and spiritual aspect every time you practice,” said Kezal. “It helps me to have more focus and be more grounded. Life is crazy. I need it.”
Kezal offers her students both in studio and online yoga classes. Each of the eight half-hour online video sessions are designed so that each builds on the previous one. Kezal said the online sessions take participants through an “overall new body and mind spirit opening.”
She decided to offer the online classes as a way to help students who can’t get into the studio or assist people in practicing on a daily basis. Students who sign up for the videos receive unlimited access to them for eight weeks. Kezal suggests that individuals work through them in order the first time around.
“They can do them again in whatever order they want. I have people that come in once a week for class but do work online at home. It helps them to keep at the practice,” said Kezal. “It’s been great. People all over the United States are practicing with me. I talk throughout the video session to give as much detail as possible so that if you are in a posture where you’re unable to see the screen you’ll still be able to follow the steps and postures.”
Danielle Toolan began teaching yoga in 2007, after completing her first teacher training with Open Doors in Massachusetts. She moved to Maine in 2009 and in 2010 she and business partner Heidi MacVane opened Greener Postures Yoga, which offers classes at its West Falmouth and South Portland studios.
For Toolan, yoga offers an opportunity to reconnect with her body, both physically and emotionally.
“We are inundated with information all day long by TV, computers, email, Facebook – a lot of information is coming at us which can cause a lot of stress,” said Toolan. “Yoga is a chance to give yourself permission to step away from the outside and listen to yourself, your own body. It gives you a break.”
Prior to getting involved with yoga, Toolan worked with developmentally disabled adults. MacVane was a social worker. The two met in a yoga class in Massachusetts, where each was seeking a way to relieve the stress of their work.
“We are both athletes, drawn to physical practice,” said Toolan. “We appreciated the quieting of the mind and the de-stress of life we found with yoga.”
Toolan and MacVane teach primarily heated vinyasa at their studios, which Toolan said is a fairly physical practice. Greener Postures also offers fundamental classes, which are an entry point to all levels.
“We have deep stretch, Yin and meditation classes, as well as restorative classes. It depends on what you are looking for,” said Toolan. “For newcomers, the deep, restorative class is good.”
Fox, who moved to Maine from New York City, recalls how her initial introduction to yoga marked a major change in her life.
“In my first class, one that I had resisted until a friend requested that I go, I found myself quiet for the first time in life. I felt open, expansive, still and present. I had never known that feeling and knew it was one I wanted for the rest of my life,” said Fox. “I have practiced yoga every single day from there forward. I took a class with Kathleen (Savoy) at Yogave Donation Yoga in Falmouth and found myself drawn to the transparent, raw, loving, holding space that Kathleen had created for each person in the room to step into. I felt challenged and free and kept moving from there.”
Upstate New York native Savoy took her first yoga class 14 years ago.
“After a long, hard run on a treadmill, I thought it would be a good way to stretch. In that class I ‘Om’d’ for the first time and never looked back,” she said.
Savoy has taken a 200- and 500-hour teacher training program with Manhattan’s Sonic Yoga and has trained with vinyasa teacher Shiva Rea and Hatha yoga instructor William Duprey. Business partner Fox has also had 200- and 500-hour trainings along with additional classes in a number of styles of yoga.
The yoga industry is not regulated, and although certification is not required to teach the practice, Toolan said it is important.
“We recommend that yoga is taken with an instructor that has at least a 200-hour certification with an organization like the Yoga Alliance,” she said. “There are a lot of options out there. It’s subjective, what people want for a teacher. Taking a class and experiencing them first hand is a good way to decide.”
Kezal, who has been teaching yoga for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in holistic studies from Norwich University. She is a nutrition coach and is a certified and registered kripalu yoga teacher and is certified in pregnancy and expressive dance yoga. She also teaches a for-credit course at the University of Southern Maine.
Her suggestion to anyone interested in yoga echoes Toolan’s.
“Make sure your teacher is certified and has had training,” said Kezal. “Find out what works for you; there are many different types (of yoga). Chat with different teachers and find a match.”
For Kezal, Toolan and Savoy the practice of yoga is for everyone and improves all aspects of life.
“There are so many benefits to yoga,” said Kezal. “It increases flexibility, strength, provides help for your immune and nervous systems, brings mental clarity, and peace. It’s a timeout from life.”
Toolan said there are a number of physiological benefits when a student is able to quiet her mind and come back to what’s important.
“It calms you down, slows down the nervous system, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and increases serotonin so you feel good in mind and body,” said Toolan.
Aside from the physical benefits, Savoy said, yoga provides people with a sense of openness.
“It’s a new form of freedom, one that allows them to get to know themselves. To recognize habits, old or new, that serve them or don’t,” said Savoy. “It’s a way to get quiet, a way to be loud and to discover a new version of playfulness – one that shakes up the otherwise every day. What’s integral to us, to the way we teach, is our hope to yoke the light and dark – the masculine and feminine sides of ourselves – the spirited and the soft. The promise is that we will hold the space for everyone who walks in the door to be acknowledged, and invite them to courageously explore the present moment.”
Danielle Toolan and Heidi MacVane teach primarily heated vinyasa at their studios in West Falmouth and South Portland, which Toolan said is a fairly physical practice. Melissa Fox and Kathleen Savoy are in the process of opening a new studio on Congress Street in Portland. Niraj Yoga will offer full spectrum vinyasa classes. Photo by Gabriella Sturchio Amada Curtis Kezal has been teaching yoga for more than 15 years. She offers in a studio and online classes at Holistic Pathways Yoga and Healing Center in Gorham.