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New Orleans Yoga 

Jeanie Riess navigates the city's yoga options

click to enlarge At Swan River Yoga, students relax in a "sound bath" of gongs.

At Swan River Yoga, students relax in a "sound bath" of gongs.

For Geoffrey Roniger, quitting yoga after one bad experience is akin to dismissing all New Orleans restaurants based on one bad meal.

  "That would be such a disservice to other restaurants that maybe use different ingredients or different styles from the region," says Roniger, owner of Freret Street Yoga.

  Yoga offerings are vast now. While vinyasa, or flow yoga, might suit one person, the more strenuous ashtanga discipline may be better for someone else. Like the food, service and ambience of restaurants, yoga varies studio to studio and form to form. After Hurricane Katrina, a flurry of yoga studios came into the local market, further varying the yoga scene here and encouraging the country's most widely circulated yoga magazine, Yoga Journal, to proclaim New Orleans among the top 10 cities for yoga in America.

  There are now more than 20 yoga studios in the New Orleans area, each offering differing styles of the ancient Indian discipline — so how does a hopeful yogi make the right choice?

  First, potential yogis should consider what they want to gain from the practice, whether it's weight loss, self-discovery or a greater spiritual connection to the world and its people.

  At Bikram Yoga Uptown New Orleans on Oak Street and Bikram Yoga New Orleans on Julia Street, people looking to detoxify and lose weight sweat it out in a room heated to 105 degrees. The discipline employs the same 26 postures each class, though the intensity varies, says Emily Johnston, co-owner of the Oak Street studio.

  "It's an all-beginners class," Johnston says. "We have people who've been practicing for years now who might look a little different in the posture than someone (new) who comes in. Even though it's the same 26 postures, there's a lot of room for (individual) development and growth. It's really up to you how far you're going in each posture."

  Iyengar yoga, in which students hold postures longer and move less, is offered by Audubon Yoga Studio, Yoga Bywater and Swan River Yoga.

  At Swan River, which offers the only aerial yoga class in New Orleans, students can hang upside down in slings attached to the ceiling a la Cirque du Soleil. Though the class requires some experience — and serious core strength — it's another option for people looking for what owner Michelle Baker calls "the union of exercise and meditation."

  Swan River offers more than 10 styles of yoga, from traditional vinyasa and the more challenging jivamukti flows to gong bath — 15 minutes of lying on the floor, cleansing the self with the sounds of gongs.

  "The ideal yoga practice happens when the individual intentions of a student and a teacher meet," Baker says. "We're all different. It all comes down to intention."

  Ashtanga, a challenging series of 72 yoga postures that students memorize and practice, typically without class instruction, has been taught in New Orleans since Melanie Fawer began offering classes in 1996. Fawer still teaches a variety of instructor-led and unguided ashtanga classes at The Yoga Room Uptown, just down the street from Roniger, who took his first class with Fawer when he was 19 years old.

  At the New Orleans Athletic Club, Elaine Agamy, a New Orleans yoga veteran who has been teaching in the city since 1971, adapts the style of each class based on the needs of her students and her intellectual meanderings.

  "The class I teach today could look really different from the class I taught six months ago," she says. "It might be based on a story I'm telling, or it might be based on a new thing I found while lesson planning." Agamy currently is telling her classes the story of Sisyphus, a Greek king condemned to roll a boulder uphill each day only to see it roll back down. She says the way Sisyphus is continually defeated by the rock is a lot like exercising. You have to do it consistently, or you'll start back at square one.

  Though some consider yoga's adaptation into contemporary American life a divergence from its ancient foundations, Roniger points out that most of the poses taught today are about 100 years old.

  When Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often called the father of modern yoga, saw his class attendance drop in the early part of the 20th century, he incorporated poses he saw British troops perform during calisthenics. Chaturanga Dandasana, or pushup pose, came from soldiers' pushups because Krishnamacharya considered it a great way to build upper body strength — and keep India's youth interested in yoga.

  Yoga has adapted to modern times the same way it was altered to fit the changing vernacular of the early 20th century. For example, ancient postures might not benefit people who slouch over a computer keyboard all day or spend hours commuting in a car.

  Sean Johnson, founder of Wild Lotus Yoga, says that kind of adaptation is important to yoga's sustainability and the people it serves.

  "There's a balance between respecting the tradition and being creative with it," he says. Wild Lotus offers a variety of yoga classes, mostly in the vinyasa, or flow discipline, which encourages continuous movements with an increased awareness of breath. "Yoga isn't something we're putting in a museum," Johnson says. "It's important to continue to explore and experiment with it."

  Johnson likens yoga's constant evolution to the rock-mantra-inspired fusion music he plays with his Wild Lotus Band. The group blends kirtan — mantra-based chanting accompanied by music — with rock and funk as a way to attract more people to the practice, which he says can provide solace.

He advises new yogis to persevere, even if the first class isn't what they expected. One thing that makes many yoga studios different from most businesses: Practitioners often encourage students to try out their competition.

  "Students should understand that there are different styles of yoga," Johnson says. "Don't give up on yoga just because you didn't get along well with the teacher or the style."

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