In the heart of The South, yoga studios are few and far between, with plenty of misunderstanding on the parts of yogis and proud generations of Southerners alike. Despite all this, a genuine practice has its place below the Mason-Dixon, where yoga culture has taken on a life of its own.
Justin Linderman of Shoals Yoga Studio, located in Florence, AL, knows a thing or two about teaching yoga to Southern belles. A native of the small, university-centered town, his first experience with yoga was with a DVD. After that first, rather intense session, Justin thought that the “something more” he was searching for might be found on the mat. But for people to be able to enjoy the mat, they have to be comfortable with it. Yoga practice in the Southern states needs a way to blend cultures effectively while remaining genuine. If a healthy practice could complement beliefs already in place, there stand only positive outcomes to gain.
“Sometimes people can’t separate spirituality from religion,” Justin says.“In addition, strong religious views can sometimes make people uncomfortable with the status quo and stop them from branching out and trying new experiences. Christianity puts faith in God. Yoga teaches you to have faith in yourself and to be kind of your own savior.” But as he explains, there are plenty of similarities between Christianity and yoga, despite what people may think.
“You bow your head and fold your hands in prayer; you do the same in meditation. You are reaching out to a higher power and getting in touch with your best self. It’s just changing the words, changing the language.” Justin uses this blended approach in his own class by asking students to get in touch with God or themselves. “Whatever belief system you follow, tap into that”, he says. “All paths lead to the same truth, but sometimes the journeys are different. I’ve had Atheists roll their eyes in class when I mention God, but Christians will sometimes say, “this is better than church!”
These areas of overlap work together to create an even stronger practice, especially in places where nature abounds, bringing you in touch with the Earth and its beauty. The Southern U.S. is one of those places, and Justin finds it surprising that more people don’t practise yoga here since there is such beautiful scenery to enhance it. After all, the South is home to wonders like the Gulf Coast and the Appalachian Mountains.
“People should try to be more open-minded,” he says. “They could go to church and get fit, too. They could break the cycle with yoga. I’ve had students roll their eyes when I mention Christianity or god. Some students can’t relax. They twitch and move during meditation. They can’t be in the present moment.
“If people would not try to be right, they wouldn’t be afraid. You shouldn’t worry about right or wrong. Eastern philosophy is about moving forward. Sometimes religion in the South is just black and white….. But we memorize prayers in church, just like some people chant during meditation. Yoga is good for those who question that, who have questions about their religion.”
However, they don’t call it “Southern hospitality” for nothing. People down here are famously friendly, and Linderman knows you can’t fool anyone into falling for money-making gimmicks or unauthentic classes. “The South”, he says, “knows genuineness.” So what advice does he have for those who are skeptic of yoga and Eastern philosophy?
“Understand what yoga means. If you have problems with the language of it, forget the word entirely and call it breathing, stretching and moving. Yoga is for everybody… don’t judge yoga by your first class. You pick your church based on the preacher, and you should pick your yoga class because of the teacher.”
Despite being less popular than in other parts of the country, yoga really is catching on. A few steps in the right direction couldn’t hurt the cause, but if you think the mat hasn’t found a home down here, you’re wrong. As Linderman said, “You know you’re in a yoga class in the South when you hear, ‘Namaste, y’all’”.
Abigail Lee Hood is a journalism major at the Columbia College Chicago. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.