Yoga East, ‘you don’t have to be flexy and bendy’

Yoga East was founded in 1974 by Maja Trigg and incorporated as a non-profit educational organization in 1978. It has expanded over the years to include multiple locations, more teachers and more classes, but its philosophy and mission have remained the same: to make the benefits of traditional yoga available to all people in the area, regardless of age, fitness level or ability to pay. Laura Spaulding, president of Yoga East, has been practicing and studying yoga for over 50 years. She began taking classes with Maja Trigg when she moved to Louisville in 1990, and she took over as president when Trigg retired in 1994. Spaulding studies with senior teachers primarily in the Ashtanga yoga system. She studied with Pattabhi Jois, master of Ashtanga yoga, from 1999 until his death in 2009. We chatted with Spaulding recently about how yoga and Yoga East support wellness in our community.

Who can practice yoga? Most folks think you have to be fit and flexible to begin. 

Anyone can practice! Regardless of your age, physical condition or gender, and you don’t have to be flexy and bendy. Yoga is great for those that have not had much physical movement, or have been sedentary. We have children, elderly, chair yoga, beginning, intermediate, advanced yoga classes [and] something for everybody. There is no one that can’t practice some form of yoga. I often quote one of our founding teachers (Donna O’Bryan) as saying: ‘Are you breathing? Then you can do yoga!’ I think this quote really nails it!

What are the benefits of practicing yoga?

Yoga is one oldest forms of wellness. No one really know how long yoga has been around, but at least a few thousand years. With that in mind, it has been thoroughly tested with great results, and continues to grow in popularity across the globe. Most people recognize yoga as only the physical exercises, but yoga is so much more. It can be adapted to any one: regardless of any level, size, age or health. Yoga is non-competitive, so it’s great for those that have been sedentary, and not had much physical exercise. In fact, people that are stiff and inflexible are great candidates for yoga. We have many students show up to our classes who have been athletes, or have beaten themselves up in some way, and they find relief and healing from injuries with a regular daily yoga practice. We also see many students show up after having joint replacement surgery, or those that are getting ready to have surgery. Yoga is a good way to heal and/or prepare the body for this type of physical impact on the body. In addition to building strength and flexibility, it is very good for improving your coordination, balance and focus.

Many people talk about how yoga helps them to chill out. How does that happen?

Most people come to yoga for stress reduction, and it delivers! Studies have shown that the most effective form of stress reduction is stretching, combined with deep breathing, and that’s exactly what yoga is! The exercises themselves automatically reduce stress. Most people don’t really know how to breath. Obviously, we are all breathing, but slow deep breathing requires awareness and practice. When done in yoga, and connected to the stretching, the benefits become accessible. Breathing is tough here in the Ohio Valley. We have many folks that have allergies and asthma and respiratory conditions, so breathing is tough for many. The other benefit to understanding your breathing is that it enables you to develop conscious control of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight system. Due to the stress of modern life, most people are in this state constantly, and don’t know how to shut if off. Yoga teaches you how to access and gain conscious control over them the parasympathetic system. What I tell my students is that: Yoga, and being able to use the parasympathetic system, is like becoming a cat — alert, yet relaxed. I see my students come to class stressed out about their lives and all the events happening around the globe, even if they don’t know people involved. When you are subject to stress, in your life, and even on a larger scale, yoga can help. First, it lets you be in touch with those feelings, whether it’s sadness, pain or anger. You can experience it on your mat in a safe and supportive environment. Through the breathing and stretching we begin to process those feelings accessing calmness and we are better prepared to handle further stress.

What is the ripple effect of practicing yoga?

I tell my students that you do yoga for yourself, but you also do it for everyone else in your life, and, even on a larger scale, for the planet. For strangers [and] for people you are standing in line [with] at the grocery store, because if you are calmer and more patient and more compassionate, then you extend the benefits of yoga to yourself and those around you. Here at YE we emphasize that you do the practice not just for yourself, but for other people so that you can be of better service to others.

How does YE make yoga accessible to those facing financial barriers, or to those that have no access to yoga?

At our studios we offer some $5 classes, also we don’t turn anyone away for inability to pay for classes. You can still come to classes. We have a scholarship program designed to support those that cannot afford even our $5 classes. Another way that we bring yoga to groups that otherwise would not have access is through our teachers. We host Teacher Training  programs that many teachers go through on a partial or full scholarship. Those teachers then teach not only at other studios or gyms, but at organizations, like children programs or elderly centers on a volunteer basis. So they are taking what YE has given, and then serving our community on a volunteer basis. As we are a nonprofit, it’s important that we keep our costs down, and maintain a very high level of yoga at YE. I think this program has found that balance for us.

What does someone need to get started on their yoga journey?

Walk in the door. Just show up! Everybody here at YE — everyone is just like you! All different ages, sizes and genders. Here at YE what you are going to see is just ordinary people, and everyone is welcome. People often ask, ‘What do I wear?’ Just wear workout clothes, or shorts and a T-shirt. You don’t have do anything, or know anything. We will tell you everything you need to know. Easy simple to follow instructions.

How can the community support yoga east?

Yoga East wants everyone to have access to yoga, and there are many yoga deserts in our region. These communities need spaces and teachers that live in these areas. YE would love help build those yoga communities by offering teacher trainings and working with organizations that are interested in using their space for classes. •