Health & Medicine

Free Yoga Day gives Sacramento residents a test of popular practices

The warmly lit classroom of It’s All Yoga was silent Monday morning but for the sounds of deep, contemplative breathing and the light thud of bare feet on foam mats. On the other side of the studio window, curious onlookers crowded a registration table and a free massage stand, seeking to join a healthful Labor Day alternative.

This midtown sanctuary was one of more than 20 area studios to roll out the mats for Free Yoga Day, an annual event that encourages Sacramentans to sample the area’s diverse yoga scene. A list of more than 40 free classes offered training in such practices as power vinyasa and Bikram, or hot, yoga. They were open to students of all ages, sizes and experience levels.

Michelle Marlahan, founder of Sacramento Free Yoga Day and owner of It’s All Yoga, said she first came across the event in Austin, Texas, where it started in 1999. She’s seen it gain traction here since she started the free event in 2012, with 1,700 participants last year.

“The yoga community has really exploded in the last five years in Sac, so I thought it’d be a great way to show people different styles and let them taste-test different studios, even if they’ve never tried it before,” Marlahan said. This year, three new studios joined the countywide event

Yoga, an ancient meditative practice drawing on a connection between the mind and the body, is a routine part of life for 20 million Americans, according to a recent Yoga Journal study. Research shows that it has physical benefits, such as increasing flexibility, muscle strength and mobility, as well as mental benefits such as alleviating anxiety and depression.

“In all the sitting and driving and couching we do, we lose the back muscle and core muscle support that it takes to hold us upright in a healthy, aligned posture,” Marlahan said. “That affects your breath, your digestion. It affects everything.”

At a morning class titled “I’m New to Yoga, Please Don’t Hurt Me,” instructor Madeleine Lohman walked a group of mostly beginners through a variety of poses including downward-facing dog and warrior II, while emphasizing meditation and safe stretching techniques. She also offered suggestions on how to accommodate various health issues, such as a bad back or sore wrists.

For Philomene Larson, a West Sacramento resident suffering from bone marrow cancer, the morning class was a first step on a path toward recovery.

“When you think that I couldn’t walk a few years ago, this is marvelous,” she said. “I don’t feel chemotherapy is the thing, so I’m trying alternatives.”

Denise Dempsey, a certified massage therapist with Sutter Health who teaches an eight-week stress-reduction yoga program, said the practice of yoga expands neural pathways between the brain and the rest of the body and can actually alter the way individuals feel pleasure and pain.

“When they do something like yoga with other parts of their body, it’s not like the pain goes away, but it can get smaller in their perception,” she said. “They can experience feeling good with their body and not just the overwhelming agony of their condition.”

One of the most popular forms of yoga is yin yoga, a “long-held, passive stretch” that Marlahan said elongates the connective tissues rather than just working the muscle, as one might in a series of shorter poses. This method has proved effective for long-term flexibility.

Other popular forms include Bikram yoga, which is performed in a heated studio and improves cardiovascular stamina, and power vinyasa yoga, which is energetic and good for beginners. Marlahan recommends attending classes two to three times per week, consistently, to see lasting effects. She was offering new participants a five-class card for $55.

At Solfire Yoga, a midtown Sacramento studio that opened the Friday before Free Yoga Day, owner Ellen Moe aimed to get people of all backgrounds and experience levels wandering through the door. Moe already teaches a free community class at Marshall Park each week, and plans to carry that sentiment over to her newly launched studio.

“We want yoga to be available to everyone, and we understand that not everyone can afford a full yoga studio membership,” she said. “In the whole community, there is an interest in coming together in unison, and this is something we want to put out there for people who have never experienced it.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee