Howard County's niche yoga classes bring all walks of life to the mat

Yoga enthusiast Riley Porter has sharpened his tree pose taking classes at Ellicott City’s Gogo Guru Yoga Studio & Store. Riley is 8 years old.

His mom, Jeni Porter, says her son’s interest in yoga began when he was 5. 

“He heard that all football players and baseball players also study yoga. He thought it was cool,” says Porter, who took yoga while she was pregnant with Riley. “There’s a lot of movements [in yoga] that are similar to shooting a basketball.”

Kids’ yoga classes are just one example of the niche offerings Howard County studios are developing in an effort to expand their appeal to a wider audience. Yoga’s image might be that of youthful, athletic women in skintight pants, but its popularity has mushroomed to include kids, the elderly, pregnant women and people with disabilities, all of whom are turning to the practice for its health benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, experienced yogis are looking for new ways to stretch their yoga pants with more challenging classes that have them hanging upside down or holding poses in the water.

“It’s part of the expansion of yoga over the last 25 years,” says Kathy Donnelly, owner of The Yoga Center of Columbia.

Some 20 million Americans practiced yoga in 2012, compared with 16 million in 2008. Yogis spent $10.3 billion on classes, equipment, clothes, retreats and media in 2012, nearly double what they spent in 2008, according to a study by the Yoga Journal. 

And the Baltimore/Washington Corridor seems to have its share of yoga aficionados. Forbes ranked Baltimore No. 6 on its list of top cities to practice yoga. Washington got the No. 4 spot. Marketing firm GfK MRI conducted a survey, on behalf of Forbes, in 205 markets in which it asked residents if they practice yoga and for how long.

In Howard County, both experienced and aspiring yogis have a lot to choose from. Lasting Light Yoga and Reiki in Columbia helps office workers get rid of the kinks that come from sitting at a desk all day. Gogo Guru and The Yoga Center of Columbia have classes especially for expectant moms; after they give birth, The Yoga Center invites new moms to stretch alongside their infants. The center also offers yoga classes for hearing-impaired people and yoga for people recovering from addiction. And the anticipated Haven on the Lake wellness center in Columbia, due to open this fall, will offer a yoga wall — students use straps affixed to the wall to hang upside down and complete postures while working against gravity.

“Like anything else, people are looking for things that specifically fit their needs,” says Lasting Light owner Kelly Neylan. She is also the mind-body team leader at Haven on the Lake, which plans to offer aqua yoga and, possibly, paddleboard yoga if members request it. 

Though aquatic yoga has taken off in other parts of Maryland and throughout the country, it isn’t offered yet in Howard County. 

“There’s a huge demand for it, and no one does it,” says Emily Talbot, general manager of Haven on the Lake.

There’s also a demand from health care practitioners who recommend yoga for patients to help them manage illnesses. Yoga’s health benefits include relieving stress, improving balance and flexibility, increasing concentration and lowering blood pressure.

One of Neylan’s clients is an elderly woman with cognitive impairment due to cancer. Over the past two years that Neylan has been giving her private yoga lessons, she has shown subtle improvements, according to Columbia resident Monica Terry, a close relative. The client has had an easier time swallowing since Neylan instructed her to gaze at a focal point on the wall, says. The woman can also cross and uncross her legs now.

“She would be in a lot worse shape without Neylan working on her,” Terry says.

Companies and health insurers also hire instructors like Neylan to teach yoga to office workers to relieve lower-back pain and other symptoms of sitting in a chair all day.

For healthy kids like Riley Porter, the benefits are less dramatic but still noticeable.

Jeni Porter says yoga has had a calming effect on her son since the practice teaches relaxation and mindfulness.“If things are hectic, he’ll say,‘Mommy, Namaste.’ ”  

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