In 1996, Cherie Newman hurt her knee doing high-impact cardio classes. That meant no more going to the gym. At the time, she had a hectic, high-stress job managing an upscale restaurant in Santa Barbara, and she had a regular customer who just seemed to walk on air. There was a lightness and grace about this woman. She told Newman her secret — yoga — and recommended that Newman try it for her bum knee.
Newman was hooked from her first class and started attending as many as five classes a week. She was so hooked that she missed yoga when she and her longtime boyfriend, Tim Schupp, moved to Sonora a few years later. Newman, 56, could take yoga classes at the gym, but there was no yoga studio and nowhere near the number of classes she was used to.
One day while driving in downtown Sonora, Newman saw a for-rent sign in one of the windows of a second-story building. She knew the space would be perfect for a yoga studio, with its high ceiling and many windows that let in lots of natural light. Newman recently celebrated her ninth year as owner of the Sonora Yoga Loft. She has operated in that same building the entire time. She and several other teachers offer more than a dozen classes each week to people of all ages and every size and shape.
Q. What is yoga?
A. Well, it is a 3,000-year-old science originating from India. In most hatha yoga classes, you experience four components: asana (postures), pranayama (breath work), dhyana (meditation) and savasana (relaxation – corpse pose). Our primary focus will be on the postures because they are the primary draw to yoga classes. There are thousands of poses, transitions and movements to choose from.
In a general yoga class, one would find poses that encourage the spine to bend, twist, rotate, straighten; poses that nudge the large muscle groups to lengthen, strengthen, elongate, contract; poses that ask the body to balance, to endure, to dissolve, to connect. Some postures are familiar from other disciplines, like lunges or squats. Some movements are similar to a cardio core class, like bicycle situps and leg lifts; some are uniquely yoga, like down dog and pigeon pose.
I’ve been an adjunct faculty member at Columbia College for 12 years. I teach – no surprise – yoga! I include in my course curriculum a paper on the subject “What exactly is yoga?” The papers are among my most cherished possessions, right up there with my black pearl earrings. I’m always moved by the soulful, revealing, open responses I am gifted with. On occasion, I receive a purely plagiarized response: “Yoga is a 3,000-year-old contemplative practice based on Hinduism (which is not true) that blah blah blah.” The papers I cherish are from the students who do not describe the actual practice but discuss the sensation of stillness, relaxation, acceptance and the transformation that happens within in the course of 70 minutes of yoga practice.
Q. How is yoga different from other exercise programs?
A. Yoga can increase endorphins like running. It can be meditative and repetitive like swimming, and the poses have alignment and motion like dancing. But the yoga practice veers from these other disciplines in several ways: We are encouraged not to be competitive, to listen to the needs and sometimes limitations of our bodies, to try to connect to the present moment. Dancing, running and swimming all have the ability to bring us into the “zone.” Often yoga is recommended to runners, dancers and swimmers to complement and heal from the practice of those disciplines.
Q. Yoga’s image is that its devotees have reached some higher spiritual plane and are beyond jealousy, pettiness, anger and other negative emotions. Is that really true?
A. Here’s a story told in a class by a very popular, superstar yoga instructor from San Francisco. He was on his way to teach his class and he was about to pull into a parking spot. But a woman cut him off and gave him the finger and took his spot. He came to class and saw the very same woman sitting on her mat waiting for class to start!
Yoga is called a practice, because we practice being in tune. I scream, I pout, I am petulant. But I don’t get caught up in the drama of it all. I let it go (because I practice corpse pose) and see it as workings of the mind (meditation helped me understand that) and I know I can change those reactions if I want to, if I stay dedicated (the warrior two pose helped me with that) and focused (breath work helps me with focus).
Q. What advice do you have for newcomers?
A. Be open-minded and try not to compare your poses, body, flexibilities and strengths with anyone else. Be inspired by others rather than defeated. Contact the studio owner or yoga teacher to determine if the class is right for you. Be informed of the different types and levels of classes offered. I can’t overemphasize the importance of finding the appropriate class for your needs and intention. If you have a limitation, challenge or special need, arrange a private session with a qualified instructor. And don’t let the price discourage you; ask about discounts or barter. I’ve traded yoga classes for haircuts and vegetables!