No doubt, many Columbians first experienced yoga through Priscilla Patrick’s PBS program, “To Life! Yoga with Priscilla Patrick,” which aired on SCETV in the 1980s. But yoga practice predates written history, and the classical techniques go back more than 5,000 years. Hindu monks brought yoga to the west in the late 19th century, and in the 1980s it became popular as a form of exercise in the United States. However, with Columbia being located in the middle of the Bible belt, the misconception that yoga is a type of religion left local practice on the fringe for another two decades.
Nicki Musick opened one of Columbia’s first studios dedicated to yoga, Yoga and Wellness Center of Columbia, in 1994. But it wasn’t until the early part of this century, when Stacey Miller-Collins opened City Yoga in 2003 and Pamela Cauthen Meriwether and Tamela Hastie opened Amsa Studios in 2005, that yoga became more widely practiced in the Midlands. And surely Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, which in part chronicles the months the writer spent in India practicing yoga, helped launch it into the mainstream.
While several religions practice yoga as a means to enlightenment – it’s one of the six schools of philosophy of Hinduism and is incorporated, along with meditation, into Buddhism – yoga is, itself, not a religion. Instead, it is simply a way to get in touch with the spiritual core, and it’s also a great way to heal, strengthen, relax and stretch the body. There are a variety of studios in Columbia that offer a number of types of practice, so whether it’s to calm the mind, strengthen the muscles or heal the body, there’s an appropriate class or style of yoga out there for everyone.
Go with the Flow
Most western yoga practice is rooted in the Hatha yoga style, which emphasizes postures (asanas) and breath control (pranayama). Ashtanga Vinyasa, a style of Hatha often referred to as “Flow,” links the moves together so that they flow from one to the next. It is the style that Kimberley Puryear teaches at Amsa Yoga and Mindfulness Practice Center, which she owns with John, her husband.
Kimberley was introduced to yoga in 2002 when her mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. “A friend bought me a book on yoga and breathing, and it helped me get through my mother’s illness,” she says. When she returned to Columbia in 2004, Kimberley was moved to become a certified yoga instructor so she could help other people find the peace that yoga brought to her. In 2008, after Pamela Cauthen Meriwether closed Amsa Studios on Forest Drive, Kimberley and John opened Amsa Yoga and Mindfulness Practice Center near the Shoppes at Woodhill on Garners Ferry.
In addition to multi-level Vinyasa-style yoga classes, Amsa offers Yin Yoga, which works to release the connective tissues between the bones and muscles, Deep Stretch Yoga, which is good for runners and others with tight muscles and limited mobility, and Yoga Nidra, a guided relaxation practice. Recently, Amsa began a series of free community Meditation and Mindfulness practices to cultivate the art of being present and at one with the self and others.
“Whether our classes are physically challenging or more restorative/meditative, there’s always a thread of mindfulness interwoven throughout them,” Kimberley says. “We attract students who are interested in quality of life using the body and breath to open and still the mind.”
Sweat it Out
Yoga Masala, which opened near Williams-Brice Stadium in 2011, features a type of Vinyasa called Hot Vinyasa. This flow-based practice is held in a studio that is heated to 95 degrees. Owner Kyra Strasberg believes that the heat warms the muscles, protecting them as they move through the postures and enabling them to stretch farther than they would if they were cold, and the sweat that comes with it exfoliates, rejuvenates and detoxifies the skin.
A Columbia native, Kyra moved to Boston at the age of 17 to dance with the Boston Ballet. She swam and did Pilates as cross training for her career, which required eight hours of daily practice in addition to performances. Because dancing was so hard, both mentally and physically, Kyra began meditating, and eventually she started practicing yoga on the advice of a dancer she admired. She was drawn to the dance-like movement of Vinyasa, comparing it to a feeling of moving meditation.
When she hung up her pointe shoes, Kyra began studying yoga with Rolf Gates, operating manager of Baptiste Power Yoga in Boston; the studio’s owner had studied with the founder of Bikram Yoga, a different style of hot yoga. Kyra began teaching yoga in 2002, and after she moved back to Columbia in 2007 to teach dance at U.S.C., she decided to open a studio here that combined her love of Vinyasa with a heated environment.
“Hot yoga is very popular in Boston and New York, but at the time no one was really offering it here,” Kyra says. She held a soft opening in May 2011 with just two classes a week to work out heating and some other kinks, then she launched an expanded schedule with additional teachers that fall.
“The classes that we offer at Yoga Masala work the whole body systematically, like a meal, instead of just a few bites here and there,” Kyra says. “Yoga is a discipline. You have to stick with it to see results. It works best when you can do it all the time. Daily practice, even just a few moves, is ideal.”
Turn Up the Heat
Bikram Yoga is also a heated yoga practice, but it’s nothing like hot Vinyasa. Founded by Bikram Choudhury, it consists of 26 postures and two breathing exercises, all held in a room that’s heated to 105 degrees with 40 percent humidity. Bikram chose the specific postures and breathing exercises that are taught at all of his affiliates because, after extensive study of the expansive yogic repertoire, he came to believe that they were the most beneficial to the general public; the climate of the room is intended to mimic the climate of India. One pose builds on the next, but instead of flowing between postures, a brief period of rest is offered between each in order to allow the body to recover and absorb the benefits of the pose. It’s a full body workout that can improve both physical and mental fitness.
Lacy Carbone was living in Florida when she discovered Bikram Yoga. She fell in love with it during her very first class, and after practicing for six months, she was recommended for teacher training in Los Angeles. With her husband’s businesses located here, the Columbia native decided to return to her roots, and she opened Bikram Yoga Columbia studio on Forest Drive in October 2012. It was just the third Bikram studio in South Carolina and the first in Columbia, and Lacy admits she was nervous at first because the concept was so new. “It’s hard to get people to embrace something they know nothing about, especially when it involves an intense workout at 105 degrees,” she says. “But thankfully Columbia has embraced us with open arms.”
Somewhat surprisingly, a lot of Bikram Yoga Columbia’s clients are men. “Typically, they make up about a third of each class,” Lacy says. “They like the very physical aspect of it. In fact, a lot of NFL teams are mandating Bikram Yoga for their players, because when a muscle is tight, it’s more prone to injury. Yoga helps athletes, as well as people of all walks of life, become more resilient, and anyone can lose pounds and inches.”
“All we ask is for people to have an open mind and give it a try,” Lacy continues. “We are confident once they take their first class they will see the benefits and continue to come back again and again.”
Yoga Does a Body Good
Physically, the movements and breathing exercises associated with yoga can improve lung function, flexibility, circulation, cardiovascular conditioning, coordination, strength and body alignment, and it can help with weight management and pain relief. Mentally, yoga can reduce stress and bring about a deeper mind/body awareness. Sweating in a heated yoga class can detoxify and cleanse the body, helping to “get the junk out,” according to Lacy. Yoga even has benefits for new and expecting moms.
Dr. Rachel Hall, a board certified integrative family physician with a background in obstetrics and labor and delivery, is also a certified yoga instructor. She owns Expecting Well Maternity Spa and Wellness Center, where she offers prenatal yoga classes specifically designed for pregnant women, helping to foster a sense of community among them.
“Pregnancy is a time of change in mind, body and spirit for women,” Dr. Hall says. “Yoga helps prepare the body for labor by increasing strength and stamina, as well as opening the hips for delivery. With my medical background, I know what the body has to do and what it can do during labor, and my classes help prepare you.”
Expecting Well also offers a class for new moms and their babies. “It’s a great chance for moms to work out and help their bodies recover, and at the same time they are able to interact with their babies,” Dr. Hall says. “And it’s good for the babies too because it helps them sleep better and eases colic.”
In addition to the physical benefits, yoga helps stop the madness in daily life, which is important not just for new and expecting moms, but for everyone. “It’s important to give yourself time to just move and breathe,” Kyra says. “The truth is, all the rest of that stuff will wait.”
Where to Practice in Columbia
Attending a yoga class under the guidance of a certified instructor means better alignment in poses and a deeper understanding of the practice. Following is a list of some of the independent yoga studios in the Midlands; many gyms, churches and recreation centers also offer yoga to their members and the community.
Amsa Yoga & Mindfulness Practice Center
Beginner and intermediate vinyasa classes, yin yoga, hot yoga, meditation and mindfulness practice, private classes, workshops, Yoga Alliance certified teacher training
Balance – Your Yoga
Multilevel and beginner-friendly classes, warm and hot yoga, power yoga, meditation and dynamic vinyasa workshops
Bikram Yoga Columbia
Beginning Bikram yoga
Beginner, intermediate and advanced yoga classes, hot yoga, private classes, meditation practice, prenatal yoga, kids’ “playshops”
Expecting Well Maternity Spa and Wellness Center
Pre- and post-natal yoga
Grass Roots Yoga
Stretch and strengthen, Ashtanga and hot yoga
Yoga, Yoga for Anxiety series, private sessions
Mindful Living Studio
Small sized yoga classes, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, meditation, private sessions
Sun Spirit Yoga Wellness
Gentle, basic, intermediate and multi-level yoga
Yoga and Wellness
Classes held at Frontier Movement and Sun Spirit Yoga Wellness
Yoga, meditation, individual yoga, prenatal yoga, workshops and events
Beginner and intermediate hot yoga classes, seasonal and kids’ workshops, private sessions, Yoga for Everyone (an adaptive class for people living with disabilities)
Basic Poses to Try at Home
Not sure about attending a yoga class yet? Try these poses at home. Visit yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_index to learn to do them correctly.
Downward Facing Dog – stretches shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands; strengthens arms and legs
Happy Baby Pose – gently stretches the hips, inner groins and the back of the spine
Child’s Pose – releases tension in the back and gently stretches the hips, thighs and ankles
Cat and Cow Poses – usually performed together, these two poses stretch the front and back torso and neck
Lotus Pose – stretches ankles and knees and stimulates the pelvis, spine and abdomen
Warrior I Pose – stretches chest and lungs, strengthens shoulders, arms, upper back, thighs, calves, ankles
Warrier II Pose – stretches and strengthens legs and ankles; stretches groins, chest, lungs, shoulders
Warrior III Pose – strengthens ankles, legs, shoulders, back muscles; improves balance and posture
What did she say? Here are some Sanskrit terms a yoga teacher may use in class and what they mean.
Asana – literally, “seat.” A physical posture.
Chakra – literally, “wheel.” One of the psycho-energetic centers of the body. There are as many as seven, including the spine, the heart, the throat and the head.
Mantra – A sacred sound or phrase, such as “om,” that can have a transformative effect on the mind of the individual reciting it.
Namaste – literally, “I bow to you.” Traditionally said at the close of class in conjunction with a bow, it is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another.
Prana – literally “life/breath.” Life in general; the life force sustaining the body.
Pranayama – breath control, consisting of conscious inhalation, retention and exhalation.
Savasana – corpse pose. A restorative pose that involves lying still and quieting the mind. (It’s harder than it looks!)