Making Yoga Approachable

Yoga Instructor discusses Beginner’s Vinyasa at UH Hilo’s Student Life Center

Staff Writer Elijah Kahula
Photos courtesy of Amanda Alvarado

Despite its long-standing Eastern roots, yoga is a practice that has enjoyed rapid growth in America during recent years. According to one study done by the Yoga Alliance and “Yoga Journal,” the number of Americans doing yoga grew by 50 percent from 2012 to 2016. Furthermore, one in three Americans have reported trying yoga at least once before.

Though the national excitement for yoga is undeniable, what about here on campus? In the same study by Yoga Alliance, surveyors also asked those who haven’t joined yoga what their reasons were. The answer was that many view yoga as exclusive, an activity meant to be done by young women who are already fit, flexible, and spiritual. Ke Kalahea reached out to UH Hilo student and yoga instructor Amanda Alvarado to discuss her approach to making her beginner classes feel accessible, as well as the importance of yoga in student life.

Alvarado says she has been practicing yoga for ten years; for the last two, she’s been teaching it as a beginner’s class at UH Hilo’s Student Life Center while pursuing her master’s degree in counseling and psychology. She was first introduced to yoga during high school at her neighborhood community center.

“I thought it was the weirdest thing in the world,” Alvarado laughs. “It wasn’t like the fitness classes you see now.” Then, the focus was on the spiritual aspects of yoga. In college, where the classes were fitness-oriented, she became a consistent yoga practitioner. Though she personally believes that the spiritual and traditional philosophy of yoga is important and should be maintained, she tends to avoid those aspects in her beginner class to make sure her students don’t feel daunted. “The one thing I carry through all my classes is doing breath work in the beginning. But in a traditional yoga sense, you’d call that ‘pranayama.’ So instead of saying we’re going to practice ‘pranayama,’ I say we’re going to focus on our breath. I use different explanations so that everyone feels comfortable.”

To further remove any pressure from inexperienced practitioners, Alvarado also uses a teaching strategy called “bus stops” in her classes. A bus stop is a moment during a routine of poses where the student can choose to either continue to the next, more challenging variation, or stay in the one they are currently comfortable with.

In her beginner class, Alvarado teaches “vinyasa” yoga, a flexible modern form of Indian yoga. “In vinyasa, we link breath and movement. This is actually intuitive in most fitness classes. Even in weightlifting you try to think about your breathing. Vinyasa also uses various sun salutations in between poses.

“For example,” Alvarado continues, “we’ll lift our arms up, go into a forward fold, and then go onto our bellies for ‘cobra’ pose. Then we’ll come back up to ‘downward dog.’ That’s a variation of a sun salutation.” Unlike other yoga practices, Alvarado’s sequences and poses are not a fixed routine. Depending on what students recommend and where in her own body she feels tense during a given week, she focuses each class on different joints, muscles, and techniques. Last year, UHH’s men’s basketball coach met with Alvarado to discuss having the players come to her class. Despite the influx of students, she gladly obliged. This year, many of the basketball players have decided to come back, and often make up a large portion of the males in her class.

“It’s important for athletes to do a yoga or stretching-type class because in many sports you’re doing the same basic movements over and over again, which creates muscle memory,” Alvarado explains. “Especially in the basketball players, you can see a rigidness from that repetition. By the end of the class, however, you can see their shoulders have relaxed.”

Repetitive movements don’t only affect the health of athletes though, says Alvarado. It’s possible for anyone in our modern age to become tense just by carrying out daily tasks. “We’re always like this,” Alvarado claims, scrunching up her shoulders. “Whether it’s because we’re stressed out, driving, texting, or sitting and typing. So if anyone can leave from my class feeling relaxed with their shoulders down, perfect! That’s beautiful.”