Stripping the stereotypes: Local yogi divulges truth about the practice

By Caroline Young |
Photos by Evelyn Seiler
Photos contributed by Christopher Baxter

St. Augustine local Christopher Baxter turned to yoga in 1971 to take the pressure off his overwhelming college course load.

“I was really struggling to keep my head above water,” Baxter said.

Already drowning in academic classes, Baxter never actually attended a yoga class. He began with a home practice and taught himself from a book.

Forty years later, he said he has no idea what he would be without yoga now.

“It’s really a way of life for me… it gives me a way to relate to myself and the world around me.”

Baxter currently teaches weekly classes and directs the teacher-training certification program at Discovery Yoga Center in St. Augustine. He wrote a book, Kripalu Hatha Yoga and was a founding member at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, a wellness facility in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts.

Over the past several decades, yoga’s popularity has spread like wildfire through modern Western civilization. It is part of in an estimated 15 million American’s lives, according to Baxter.

But yoga’s growth in the West has ignited common stereotypes about who practices yoga and why.

An article in the Jacksonville Business Reporter describes yoga practitioners with an elitist connotation as the “obnoxious yuppie breed sporting $98 Lululemon yogawear” and the “incense-burning, Maharishi-loving hippie in search of enlightenment.”

In Baxter’s article, The Inner Joy of Yoga, he said the modernized perception of yoga is not really what it is all about.

“For many of us these days, the word yoga conjures up a foxy image of a young, slim, flexible, beautiful body — in a stylish outfit,” he said. “Although this may be the iconic image of yoga in the 21st century, it does not radiate the vast range of practices, variety of experiences and rich depth of personal transformation that is actually possible.”

Baxter emphasized that yoga has a lot more to it than the “asanas,” or postures.

“Unfortunately the way that it is viewed today by most people…the image that pops up like toast is [the posture known as] downward dog.”

Once yoga is made into a competition and a person develops a “My-yoga- is-better-than-your-yoga” mentality, it basically destroys the practice, Baxter said.

“It’s ok if it helps to get someone started but if that ends up being the extent of what you get, then it’s too bad,” he said.

There are several factors that steer people away from yoga, including body image, fear of injury and cultural and religious diversion.

Baxter said some people are ashamed of their bodies because they feel they are supposed to look a certain way in yoga class.

“They need to not feel like an outsider…like they will stick out like a sore thumb.”

He said people who are in pain are afraid of hurting themselves even more. It is not an uncommon occurrence for an instructor to mis-adjust a student- that alone will scare people away from practicing.

Some people feel they do not culturally fit the yogi image. They will feel like they are “not hardcore enough” or yoga is “too touchy feely,” Baxter said.

Some religious folks think practicing yoga will compromise his or her values. Baxter said some just do not want to chant “Om” or close their eyes.

“It is an alien universe they are not interested in getting into,” Baxter said.

And, some people simply do not want to dole out the cash at the studio.

But Baxter said whatever it takes to get a person started is all that matters.

“If someone wants to do it for buns of steel… because they want to meet a lover…I don’t care,” he said. “The thing that matters is once you can connect to the genuine experience, and if you really do the practice, the effects are really going to occur and [they will] create positive changes.”

Baxter said once someone practices yoga long enough, his or her consciousness will inevitably be affected in a way that makes them relate differently to the world.

“There is a profound effect on attitude, food and perceptions of the world around us as we become friendlier with ourselves and have healthy balanced relationship with ourselves,” he said. “So we have a healthier relationship with people, activities, work and really all dimensions as a human being.”

Baxter likes to use music as a comparison to yoga.

“What do you need? What is your intention? Yoga has the same range of expression and innate flexibility as music,” he said.

Like music genres, types of yoga practices can range from gentle stretches and breathing to sweating and constant movement. There are types for those who are seeking to build strength and flexibility, those wanting to exert energy and those who want to simply relax. A severely injured person can find a healing yoga practice and an elderly person can find one to get his or her blood flowing.

“For some people, yoga is a secular practice and it is something that simply helps them so when they leave they are happier than when they came in the door,” Baxter said. “Whether you call it spiritual or anything, I think it’s important they are happier when they arrived… they feel fulfilled and balanced… I think that’s what draws people back.”

Baxter said once a person delves deeper into his or her practice, yoga helps to stabilize the mind and balance out emotions.

“Many of us find that we are letting go of yoga as mainly a body training technique and awakening to a deeper dimension of ourselves — one where we are more at home in our heart, body and mind, naturally at ease and more
spontaneously joyful,” Baxter said in The Inner Joy of Yoga.

Students practice yoga in the Virginia Room at Flagler.

In an in interview with Shambhala Sun, world-renowned yogi, Rodney Yee, said yoga is such a hit in the West because it helps people to focus on the here and now.

“So much in our lives is focused on the future,” he said. “Can I acquire this? Can I become that? Yoga allows us to come back to the present.”

But if a person simply skims the surface and focuses solely on the physical aspects, the mental and emotional benefits will not be reaped, said Baxter.

“The inner experience, the treasure-heart of yoga, often remains hidden below the surfaces, styles, postures and positions,” Baxter said in The Inner Joy of Yoga. “Most of what we see imaged for us is the surface of the practice; rarely do we plumb the depths.”

Baxter said he does not do yoga postures everyday, but he practices the yoga lifestyle, which he describes as being in balance while recognizing our “core purpose” on earth.

“If all the music you listen to is the ring tone on the cell phone, then you’ve never really connected with music,” he said.

Aside from the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits yoga provides for people, Baxter emphasized the social benefits which draw people in. He sees them all over when he travels to share his practice.

“No matter where I go, I feel a real sense of ease and commonality among practitioners with a common sense of connecting with the body and breath and being in the moment,” he said. “Shared values within a community are very beneficial and appealing for many people.”

However, Baxter said yoga’s perception in America is ubiquitous. He believes educated people and those living in major metro areas are the quickest to revel in the thriving yoga culture.

Steven Shomo teaches students to reduce stress through daily yoga classes.

“They don’t have cultural prejudices,” Baxter said. “In general, they tend to take care better of themselves overall.”

Yoga’s beginning dates back at least 5,000 years in what was ancient India.

In an NPR article, Indian journalist Sandip Roy said western yoga teachers have studied Hinduism more extensively than his ancestors.

“Even back in India, yoga has not been such a big deal,” he said.

So, why are there 15 million-something yogis in America?

Baxter believes the main reason yoga has maintained its strong presence in the West is because of its adaptability and endless benefits.

“When it’s all said and done, it’s because it works,” he said. “It delivers the goods.”

Caroline Young will be completing her Kripalu yoga teacher-training in June 2011

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