"Art which uses the everyday as a source of resistance and inspiration ... may be forced to operate at the boundaries of artistic discourse, but remains central to the discourses of lived reality."
"Who has mastered yoga? That person who lets the least amount of moments slip by unnoticed."
--Jonny Kest, to a class of yoga students
Yoga -- from the Sanskrit root "yuj," meaning to yoke or harness -- is a diverse spiritual tradition with considerable transformative powers that has been around for thousands of years. There are multiple forms of the practice, and multiple definitions, ranging from "the union of mind, spirit and body" to what one teacher defines as "anything you practice for a long time and with respect."
It's hard not to be aware of recent news singing yoga's praises when it comes to reversal of injury and illness, its enhancement of athletic performance, and the ways it assists a diverse population -- including corporate executives, inner city school children and rock stars -- to gain control over their lives. While it is well-documented that yoga focuses concentration, detoxifies and strengthens the body, and ultimately equalizes mental and physical imbalances we've spent our lives accumulating, a less publicized feature of the age-old ritual is its function as a fresh, formal art.
Yoga practice, like most meaningful artistic experiences, requires high -- and intensely personal -- levels of participation. It continually calls one's being -- or body-mind -- into question. Perhaps most important of all, it must be approached as a process, not an event.
The very concept of art has become so hopelessly entwined with concepts of buying, selling, collecting, performing and consuming that it's easy to forget art's potential to heal, exult or discover -- to be embedded in, and enhance, the everyday.
The Center for Yoga Relaxation and Health, owned by Jonny and Milla Kest, is dedicated to promoting yoga, the art-of-the-every-day, by offering classes which bring awareness to the moment: the body, the mind and the breath that connects them. The Center offers 41 yoga classes a week, taught by a diverse group of instructors -- a businessperson, a massage therapist, an English lit student and a pharmacist are among them -- who have gone through the Center's own training program.
These classes fall into two categories: restorative classes "for everybody," such as the self-explanatory "Healthy Backs" or the meditation-oriented "Medayoga." And "high energy" classes such as "Ashtanga" -- among its historical uses was the training of young warriors -- and its ultrachallenging spin-off "Sun Salutations-Vinyasa style" (aka power yoga). These are quite strenuous and you're likely to meet up with athletic types, or at least long-term practitioners, if you take them. In either class, restorative or high energy, you give yourself a sort of physical, probing and fine-tuning your nervous and circulatory systems, your kidneys, knees, ankles and spine, along with your mood and attention.
Yoga can be an initially disorienting experience. This is because many of the postures, called asanas, can feel awkward to newcomers -- though in time they feel positively blissful -- and because they call on capacities many of us underuse. For example, we learn physical activities by modeling -- watching fine or poor examples of movement and form. But at the center, lights are dim; the teachers -- with frequent reminders to focus on technique and, most of all, to breathe -- roam the room while they cue or direct the poses, and while the student inhabits them, interprets them or, as one teacher says, "colors them in."
Here is yoga's claim on individual creativity: The discipline supplies the form; the practitioner feels his or her way to expressing it. There's no perfect expression of an asana.
While new participants may look around to see how experienced ones move, the eventual goal is not to follow a model, but to listen -- ideally with a dristie or blurred gaze, or even closed eyes -- while tuning in to your body's response to an instruction like "Inhale ... look and reach up ... exhale and bend down."
Focused breathing and awareness of the bodily sensations arising as you move help teach you how to express the asana. In the process, you are trained to develop and rely upon your judgment, to find your edge -- a point of exertion that is neither lazy (coasting) nor excessive (pushing). The edge is the cornerstone of any practice. Each person's edge is different, and the same person's edge varies from day to day.
For example, in a move such as "forward bend," if you touch your toes and your neighbor his knees, you will both get the same benefits if you each respect your edge. And tomorrow you may not reach your toes; respect that too. Hang in a position that challenges but does not strain. Learning to operate at this fine and dynamic point is a creative, indeed artistic, enterprise that lands you "in the kiss of the pose," as Jonny Kest often will say during class, a site at which form and content merge.
And another thing happens in the course of a class. Boundaries between participants blur; there are extended moments when you don't feel confined by your individual body, but part of some tremendous energy flow.
Yoga is very much about the art of giving and loving. It sounds so corny, but it's true. Yoga cultivates a capacity for self-love not to wallow in, but to radiate out from. It is a sensuous, rigorous process that includes upheaval (destruction of clogged energy channels), reshaping (of moving and thinking patterns) and ecstasy (correctly done postures bring a blend of contentment and exhilaration).
Occupying the realms of transformation and awareness, it is an art form that calls for a set of direct experiences that no audience views, reviews or records, yet which leave long-lasting marks, touching upon parts of us -- as painter Georgia O'Keefe used to sign her letters -- "from the far away, nearby."
Some Metro area yoga centers:
Center for Yoga
Relaxation and Health
12 Mile and NW Hwy.,
(opening January 1)
309 Troy St., Royal Oak
Royal Oak Yoga Project
110 S. Main
(above Ace Hardware),
4209 Sashabaw Rd.,