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East Hits West

Boiseans find OM right here at hOMe

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So you've heard of yoga. Maybe you've scoped out the bill of fare at the local gym or peeked in at a class and ogled the pretzel-people on their rubber carpets, burning incense and doing inversions.

Maybe you're intrigued. Maybe you're inspired. Maybe you're wondering what in the name of Shiva it's all about.

"People think yoga is stretching, and that just blows my mind," said Brandie Retinger, Anusara yoga teacher and director of the Muse Studio in downtown Boise. Debra Mulnick, an Iyengar teacher at Muse, agreed. "Yoga is not even about the body primarily," she said.

What's the point then? If practitioners are not trying to tone and lengthen (or find the deep peace of enlightened beings like Sting and Madonna), what possesses them to contort themselves into shapes with names that twist the tongue as much as the poses twist the body?

"The whole point is spiritual alignment, the peace in your heart and that sense of greater connection. The physical connections are just like fringe on the side," said instructor Jodeen Revere.

Mulnick said that yoga is about developing inner stability and equanimity in the mind and emotions and that practicing asana poses is a way to harmonize the body and nervous system.

"Yoga is about evolving consciousness," Retinger added.

But, maybe you're not looking to free your mind; you just want the ability to bend down and tie your shoes without a cacophony of moans and groans. While those who teach yoga are firm believers in its ability to change lives, they would never shoo away the curious individual, who might have an allergy to the spiritual side of the practice.

"It's not about joining a cult," said Sarah Durney, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher and the owner of Ashtanga Boise.

Revere said there's plenty of laughing in her classes because being spiritual should be a joyful experience.

"If you get physically healthy and balanced in flexibility and strength, becoming self-aware and self-realized will happen automatically," said Jamie Mitchell, teacher and owner of Bikram Boise.

In fact, most yoga teachers weren't originally drawn to yoga as a path to enlightenment; like most beginning students, they had more tangible goals in mind. Revere took her first class on a whim while pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles.

"It was one of the two good things that happened to me while I was living in L.A.," she said.

Mulnick, a gymnast in her youth, was attracted to the physically demanding aspects of yoga, while Jeanne Dillion, who directs the yoga program at the Wellness Studio, turned to it to control chronic pain. Retinger found a book on her mother's bookshelf and taught herself.

However, after years of study, each grasped the deeper power of the medium in which they were dabbling and appreciated its effects on their lives outside the studio.

"Yoga doesn't happen to you. You have to do it," Retinger said, explaining the idea that when students are open to the mental aspects of the practice, they begin to see changes in other areas of their lives.

Even with the reassurance that you won't be branded or have to take vows of renunciation, perhaps you're still pretty sure you're not cut out to be a yogi. Just don't tell Revere that.

"It makes me crazy when folks say they can't do yoga because they're not flexible enough as if it were something you had to attain before you could even attempt a class," she said. "No. You come in as you are and you work from there."

There's no shame in showing up for your own reasons.

"Teaching for me is about the individual student. I try to help the student find what they are looking for and more," Durney said.

The crux of Dillion's teaching is "to meet each student exactly where they are right now."

While anatomical origami may seem like an activity for the young, most teachers will say it's never too late to start. Some of the instructors themselves didn't start until they were in their 30s.

Besides, there are nearly as many yoga practices as there are teachers, giving students the chance to try on different varieties to see what fits.

If you spot a class simply called yoga, you can assume it is a Hatha class, meaning it will be composed of a series of postures. Hatha is the trunk from which grow many different limbs (Iyengar, Anusara, Ashtanga), each with its own emphases.

For the most part, Boise teachers will say, "yoga is yoga." Differences between styles are merely details. After all, the practice has been around for some 7,000 years and has only picked up steam in the United States in the last 30, which is when much of the stylistic labeling occurred.

The Muse Studio and Ashtanga Boise offer a cornucopia of classes in a plethora of styles. For Retinger and Durney, the priority is getting yoga to the masses and opening it up to a larger demographic.

"Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all practice," Mulnick said.

While Boise may seem like an unlikely center for yoga, a community has blossomed in the City of Trees all the same. This is largely because, unlike in most cities, it's still possible to own a studio and be focused on spiritually—not financially—driven business. Additionally, since the market is small, it is possible for yoga teachers to work synergistically rather than competitively.

While Boise's intimate yoga community does allow teachers the luxury of camaraderie and lessens the need for competition (very un-Zen), local yoga instructors bear the burden of having to educate the market in order to support themselves or, more often than not, break even.

No instructor in this market has the luxury of making a living sharing their passion for the practice. So why do they stay in Boise rather than venturing to a community where their offering might fit into a neater financial equation and allow them a more comfortable life?

For most, it comes down to the people and the place.

"I like being a part of a place where I know there are beautiful places that are becoming preserved and will remain with the collectedness of others. I also like how many people know this and work toward keeping it like that," said Durney.

"There is something about the student in Idaho that is genuine. There is very little pretense. Beauty comes out of that," Retinger said.

"There's so much dynamic, creative energy here," Revere said in agreement.

Boise's location does mean that most local yoga instructors must leave the valley each year to continue their personal educations in the practice. When they're not traveling, they turn to both ancient and modern books to find ways to take yoga to brave new frontiers.

Nikki WeiHe, owner of Blue Flower Yoga, volunteers to teach "women incarcerated," while Revere teaches children at The Children's School and Durney offers free classes to firefighters and smokejumpers.

Observing how yoga is received by a broader, and sometimes unlikely, demographic sustains the teachers' fascination with the practice and its effects. While perhaps it is not yet possible to be a full-time yoga teacher in Boise, it is certainly possible to be a full-time yogi.

"Once I realized that the same yoga philosophy goes into everything you do (listening to yourself, not reacting or attaching, breathing and being calm), climbing, tango dancing, working as a fireman, all these things go together," Durney said. "Everything you do in your life can be yogic."