When my partner asked me to join her for a free outdoor yoga session one summer night in Washington Park, I was reluctant. Wasn’t yoga for the young, the fit, the ultra-flexible? I tagged along, and, sure enough, the poses helped my perennial back pain. But it was when we closed our eyes and collectively turned within—hundreds of us breathing as one in the lengthening shadow of Music Hall—that I felt a sense of well-being quite unlike any I’ve felt before.
Yoga was already having a moment before a year of pandemic and political turmoil underscored a need for its stress-relieving powers. Forced to temporarily close doors during lockdown, studios got creative and connected digitally. It was a learning experience that just might leave the local yoga community even stronger than before.
Asanas (poses) are just one of the “eight limbs of yoga,” says Yoga Bar owner, instructor, and Kentucky state legislator Rachel Roberts. Yoga also includes a philosophical and spiritual practice, meditation, and breathing in order to calm the mind, end suffering, and heal the whole being. Those healing roots are visible in her story and others’ stories.
Roberts turned to yoga as a teen because she was uncomfortable with the steroid inhaler she was prescribed for asthma. “Pranayama,” or breath control, has allowed her to live mostly inhaler-free. “Another of yoga’s limbs is to do no harm, including to one’s self,” she says. “So I think part of why yoga is having such a resurgence now is because we have a mental health crisis in this country and yoga is one of the ways we can be really kind to ourselves and really gentle with ourselves.”
NKO Yoga Studio owner Natasha Kohorst also turned to yoga for healing. When hip replacements at age 40 left her with mobility issues, her daughter talked her into trying a class at the Blue Ash YMCA. Kohorst soon kicked her cane and was hooked. Today she’s a certified yoga instructor and runs the only Black-owned studio in town she’s aware of, practicing an art that most of us have come to associate, despite its Asian origins, with affluent white people. A man once said to her, “You don’t look like the typical yoga teacher.” Of course she doesn’t fit that mold, Kohorst says, because yoga is what’s inside of you.
She fervently believes that yoga is for everyone, and is all too aware that those who need it the most might not think it’s for them or have access to it. She hopes that increased availability, often through community-based classes—including the $5 class she leads in Chamberlin Park, supported by the city of Deer Park—will help drive diversity. “Yoga is all for you,” says Kohorst. “It’s your practice. It’s not dependent on the person next to you.”
Donna Rubin, who runs the Threelegged Dog Yoga Collective, agrees that self-reliance is a key takeaway from the pandemic. Rubin first trained in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in San Francisco more than 15 years ago, and today she offers both group and one-and-one instruction, often donation-based, through Zoom. And, weather permitting, she leads classes outdoors. “Ultimately, what did being locked down tell us? That if you can’t leave your house, you should still be able to do your own practice and meditation,” she says.
That doesn’t diminish the importance of practicing in a group. “There’s great healing that occurs in community,” says Rubin. “We’re feeling someone else’s pain and helping them with it, and vice versa.”
Embra studio director Alyssa Hayes has also watched clients, initially devastated by the studio’s temporary closure, build at-home practices. And she’s felt their enthusiasm to return to the studio, reopened now at partial capacity, where she checks their temperatures at the door.
Embra is a hot studio. The room is kept around 102 degrees with 20–40 percent humidity, while “lightly heated” classes hover around 80 degrees. Hot yoga can be addictive, Hayes says. “You have a lot more mobility, and you’ll sweat more than you’ve ever sweated in your life.”
Hayes has also seen the pandemic’s mental health pressures. For many, she says, yoga is therapy and a release. “So we really try to touch on that mind/body/spirit whole-person aspect of yoga,” she says.
But where to begin, with so many yoga schools and styles—Ashtanga, Bikram, Vinyasa, Yin—to choose from? “Find the easiest class that your mind can focus in and start there,” says Roberts. “Then build up.”