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Ommm? What to expect from a yoga experience

Gargoyle illustration by Hadley Hauser (click to enlarge)A new 12-week semester of Yoga for Teens will begin later this week at the Yoga Institute of Champaign-Urbana. The class will meet from 4:15 to 5:15 p.m. each Friday.

What: Yoga for Teens, an introductory class for ages 12-17; it meets weekly for 12 weeks, but drop-ins for single class sessions are welcome — you'll learn to direct and channel your energy
When: Fridays from 4:15 to 5:15 p.m.; a new 12-week semester begins this week, Feb. 6
Where: 407 West Springfield Ave., Urbana
Why: Stress relief, increased flexibility, injury therapy, peace of mind
Cost: $6 to drop in, or $60 for 12-week semester
Summary: Try a class where almost falling asleep during instruction is not taken as an insult

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Directions from Uni (Point A) to the Yoga Institute of Champaign-Urbana (Point B). Use controls to zoom in and out. Click "Sat" for satellite view, "Ter" for terrain view.
(Google map prepared by Diana Liu)

AS HIGH SCHOOL students in general, and as Uni students in particular, we are stressed out.

It's not just the exams and the papers and the deadlines — it’s also our daily battles with siblings, sports, and self-induced extracurriculars.

But we take great pride in our capacity to manage maximum stress. Oftentimes, many of us wear our stress as a sort of emblem.

Your friendly reporters, however, are constantly searching the Twin Cities for any means of stress relief.

Our latest attempt involved an hour-long introductory lesson to yoga. Yes, to relieve our burden, we seemingly added to it by taking on another commitment.

We began by searching in the yellow pages under "yoga," and when we called up and found that the Yoga Institute of Champaign-Urbana was just one dreamy block away from Strawberry Fields, our decision was made. We realized that even if the yoga disagreed with us, we could at least find comfort in an Izze juice and an Endangered Species Chocolate Bar.

The timing of the institute's weekly Yoga for Teens class (4:15 to 5:15 p.m. Fridays) had us wondering if it would have a deprogramming effect, or if it would feel like just one more thing standing between us and the weekend.

Although at first slightly apprehensive (what if we weren't flexible enough?), we became increasingly excited as the date approached, and were ultimately glad we went.

Diana Liu (left) and Hadley Hauser put their newfound yoga skills to use. Gargoyle photo by Katherine Allen (click to enlarge)

After school, we hitched a ride to the institute, a low, inconspicuous building at 407 West Springfield, Urbana, and entered into a decidedly soothing atmosphere.

There was a tall vase in the entrance and warm wood paneling inside. We each paid our $6 drop-in fee; a 12-week semester, we learned, costs just $60. (A new semester of Yoga for Teens will begin this Friday.)

The presence of only one person — our instructor, Cherie Earl — behind the nonintrusive counter instantly made the environment personal and relaxed.

Cherie, a lithe, small figure, showed us into the changing stall located behind a drape of cloth. We quickly donned our T-shirts and shorts (we didn't know about the tights) and stuffed our backpacks under the bench.

Barefoot, we padded back out and met the two other teens attending the class — both seemed to be vaguely seasoned. At least, they were not totally clueless newcomers like us.

Cherie (pronounced SHARE-y) led us into the vast practice area, a room separate from the little cozy lobby. She didn't look much older than us, and we were surprised to learn she had already graduated from college and was in her late 20s.

She'd been first attracted to the dancelike aspects of yoga, but later, as it became an increasingly serious part of her life, she used yoga as a way to withdraw from the chaos of the modern world. She also enjoys the challenge of the art (some poses are really quite scary), respects its philosophy of nonviolence, and practices anywhere from one and a half to three hours per day. We were instantly drawn to her calmly intense aura.

The class consisted of alternating periods of strenuous exercise and contemplative rest. We believe Cherie might have dumbed down some of the concepts.

Even at our level, though, we could grasp the idea of "yoga puppets," a series of exercises where flexibility is increased by stretching against and hanging from a rope wall. While this may sound simple here on a computer screen, the exercises were extremely difficult in real life, demanding balance, strength, and willpower to not fall to the ground in a heap.

Next were floor poses on yoga mats, known in the class as "sticky mats." These pretzelesque stretches looked easy when Cherie demonstrated them, but they were the most challenging part to accomplish.

Wooden blocks and other devices were incorporated so that we could gradually improve our flexibility. Other poses worked on balance and endurance. Cherie continually reminded us, in a very calm, gentle voice, to "stare softly forward."

The highlight of the lesson was definitely the breathing exercises toward the end of class. We retrieved heavy blankets from the equipment section, placed them on our sticky mats, lay down, and closed our eyes.

On Cherie's command, the two of us consciously relaxed every muscle. The utter silence brought about a deep feeling of tranquility that had been eluding us since the school year began. We don't know if it was the lighting or the temperature of the room, but we truly thought we were at the threshold of real sleep.

Although we felt like we could have stayed there until the school year is over, Cherie's soft voice alerted us to the lesson's end. We changed clothes in a sort of trancelike state, slow and meditative.

Our parents' arrival at the front door, however, broke the spell. Cherie's reappearance in jeans, accompanied by her parent, made her seem less of a fairytale creature and more of a normal person.

As we settled into our respective vehicles, the chaos of the modern world seemed farther away. Homework, music lessons, familial obligations — stress — would not return until the day after.

We left the institute with darkened feet and a lingering sense of serenity, but we also learned that yoga is not simply a meditation practice, and the Yoga Institute of Champaign-Urbana's methods are not tied to a specific religion like Hinduism's meditative "om."

Overall, it is a simultaneously energizing and calming pursuit that has been proven to help people relax, stay flexible, and treat injuries.

Though not sure when we will go back, the yoga class offered a much-needed break to our ramped-up week and our whirlwind lives. It really made us slow down and notice the things around us instead of having all of them appear as a blur.

It would be great to learn enough about yoga so that we could gain its sedative effect, on command, whenever we need it most.

Yoga basics at a glance

Source: Yoga Institute of Champaign-Urbana

What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient and timeless art, science, and philosophy that emphasizes performing one’s daily responsibilities with awareness, integrity, and compassion. Yoga involves daily practice of yoga postures and breathing exercises that work every muscle, bone, joint, and organ.

What is Iyengar yoga?
Iyengar yoga [the type of yoga taught at the institute] is based on the teachings of living yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar. … His more than 65 years of teaching have produced significant innovations. Among these are (1) emphasis on standing poses to develop strength, stability, stamina, concentration, and body alignment, (2) use of props to facilitate learning and adjust poses for stiff people, and (3) how to use yoga to ease various ailments and stress.

What are some common misconceptions about yoga?
You do not have to be in shape, young, or flexible to join a yoga class. … Also, yoga is the study and observation of one's spirituality; it is not a religion.

Diana Liu and Hadley Hauser psyche themselves up before entering their favorite yoga establishment. Gargoyle photo by Amy Ding (click to enlarge)