Features & Columns

Silicon Valley Yoga Studios

The valley's many diverse yoga studios and teachers offer multiple ways
to limber up and relieve stress through controlled movement
Yoga Shala PYRAMID POWER: Downtown Yoga Shala in San Jose offers a respite from the hectic pace of life in the valley. Photograph by Aron Cooperman

For those who think think of yoga as a New Age cop-out to regular heart-pumping exercise, a gathering of henna'd hippies or a commercialized brand of pseudo-spirituality, it's time to take a fresh look at the ancient art.

South Bay practitioners, generally speaking, have it down to a science.

"This isn't some airy-fairy mysticism; there's a science behind why this heals people," says Steve Farmer, Stanford Ph.D., yogi and head of Avalon Art and Yoga Center in Palo Alto. "In the South Bay and southern Peninsula, we have a very much more scientific approach to yoga, very different than the schools in San Francisco, Berkeley or some parts of the East Bay where you'll find a bunch of nose piercings."

Maybe it's the mix of academics, corporate go-getters and entrepreneurial busybodies that sapped the 1970s-flavored mysticism out of the practice in Silicon Valley. Or maybe yoga in these parts is returning to its ancient roots, which were grounded in science and medicine anyway.

"The yoga world is very strange and multifaceted," says Farmer. "You have the commercial corporate studios, the new-wave studios, the gym yoga at every 24-Hour Fitness and such, and then there's the very serious therapeutic yoga community."

Not that yoga has been stripped down to a glorified 90-minute aerobics session or anything, but the discipline has started to come into its own as a respected neurobiological tool to cure modern ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

"There's no magic to it," Farmer insists. "It's something you have to see—and feel—for yourself, but it's also very easy to identify why you're seeing those results or how to fix something, even a mood disorder like anxiety."

Stretch Markers

Thanks to a rising demand for yoga in its many forms, South Bay residents have plenty of options these days, from classes at virtually every local gym to free sessions at community centers and those offered at classically calm boutique studios taught by acrobatic and erudite yogis.

Many consider the Bay Area a major center for yoga because of its great diversity, says San Jose's Downtown Yoga Shala owner Veronica Cruz.

Trauma-release classes at Yoga Shala and Breathe Los Gatos target the anxiety-ridden and PTSD-addled or those recovering from physical injury like a car crash. A "Flying Lotus" class, also at Breathe, lifts participants off the ground to explore the Cirque de Soleil–like heights of yoga.

Cancer survivors can tap into the restorative powers of yoga at sessions geared just to them at Avalon. The strapped-for-cash can find a place to practice at the Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center on The Alameda in San Jose—donations encouraged, but not mandatory.

"It's really encouraging to see all the options we have," Cruz says. "It's not as saturated as San Francisco, but there's something for everyone."

Since these crisp, cold winter weeks drive people indoors anyway, one may as well spend some of that time in a cozy yoga studio moving those limbs around, notes two-year yoga practitioner and San Jose native Margaret Galeon, 25, who frequents YogaSource Los Gatos.

"Yoga is a real stress reliever for me, physically and mentally," Galeon says. "It's a great escape from the business of life. Once the studio doors close, I can leave everything outside."

The stillness becomes addicting, she adds. "My favorite pose is shavasana [corpse pose: when you lay supine, spine to floor, palms turned up] at the end of every session. Yoga provides me with a release. I know that there are many options available, but I have pretty much fallen in love with Yoga Source Los Gatos and can't imagine myself leaving."

Mat Places

Downtown Yoga Shala

450 S. First St., San Jose; 408.885.1000

In Sanskrit, "shala" means "house" or "sacred place," which aptly describes the feel of this high-ceilinged converted warehouse space. Exposed brick to one side and earth-toned walls on the others, a running fountain, massive skylights and a steady stream of ambient music add to the retreatlike atmosphere.

"It's like a sanctuary," says Veronica Cruz, who, in what she calls "a leap of faith," left the corporate world to found the studio in 2009. "It's a quiet place in the middle of downtown, a quick getaway."

It's also one of the larger yoga centers in San Jose, and the only dedicated studio in downtown. More than 30 instructors teach 40-plus classes a week, every day of the week. For the 9-to-5 crowd who work in or around downtown San Jose, the early morning or noon–1pm weekday sessions offer a convenient way to incorporate yoga into a workday routine. Visiting yogis teach workshops for a few hundred dollars, but there's an option for budget folks in a weekly donation-based class, too.

Promotions: $40 for a month of unlimited classes.

Willow Glen Yoga

1188 Lincoln Ave., San Jose; 408.289.9642

Think of Kent Bond as one of the founding fathers of South Bay yoga. The Willow Glen native returned to his childhood neighborhood in the mid-1990s to open his yoga studio after several years living, working and practicing yoga in San Franciso.

"When I got here, there wasn't much around in the way of yoga," he explains, seated in a relaxed lotus position in his sunny one-room studio. "There were a couple, but the market was wide open."

Today, he says, he's pleased to see a variety of option sprout up.

"We're all friends," he says. "The yoga community is all interconnected. We support each other."

Part of that solidarity and willingness to exchange referrals or train each other's instructors comes from the security that each place offers something unique, Bond says. Willow Glen gives patrons a relaxing setting to work on their form while also providing them with a range of classes targeted toward different audiences, including one for cyclists that works on stretching the leg muscles that tend to get strained from long bike rides.

There's even a Friday-night addiction recovery class, a two-hour workshop based on the 12-step AA program for anyone who wants to incorporate the psychosomatic benefits of yoga into their sobriety.

Promotions: $20 unlimited classes for 10 consecutive days, first-time students only.

Avalon Art & Yoga Center

370 S. California Ave., Palo Alto; 650.324.2517

For anyone looking to learn about the neurobiology of yoga between the classes that teach the physical practice of it, there are teachers at Avalon who have authored nationally known books and teach at some of the most prestigious schools in the country.

Avalon owner Steve Farmer graduated from Stanford University with a Ph.D. He's hardly the only one armed with a post-grad education—several other Avalon instructors hold a Ph.D., masters or medical degree, something Farmer believes puts his yoga center a notch above the others.

"We have a very well-educated team," he says while stacking a handful of books penned by some of those instructors, "and one of the best teaching training programs in the country."

Many South Bay instructors at other schools received their certification from an Avalon training program, he points out. Farmer's pride and joy these days is the newest addition to his teaching staff, the young, supremely flexible and incredibly balanced Brian Aganad, described as "one of the strongest practitioners on the West Coast." Aganad teaches the advanced classes at Avalon, for those able to contort or balance their way into some of the toughest poses.

Another draw to Farmer's place is the availability of free community classes scattered throughout the week, some for cancer patients, others for teens, kids, beginners or anyone available during the designated time slot.

Cost: $180 for a month.

Billy DeFrank LGBT Community Center

938 The Alameda, San Jose; 408.293.3040

For more than three decades, this small center has served as an outpost to promote education, health and opportunities for the LGBT community and its allies. Their three-times-a-week free yoga classes are part of that effort. Monday evening's class focuses on trans and allies, Wednesday's on beginners and Thursdays is for everyone and anyone. Though classes are free, they do encourage donations.

Price: free or suggested donation.

Breathe Los Gatos

14107-H Winchester Blvd., Los Gatos; 408.370.9642

Two sturdy, window-paneled doors make a welcoming entrance to this studio-cum-wellness center, which features a juice and tea bar, store and, suspended above the studio space, royal purple hammocks for aerial yoga classes. Breathe boasts more than 90 classes per week, and not just for yoga, but chi gong, tai chi, breath and meditation.

Prices: $89 a month no commitment, $75 with four-month commitment.

YogaSource Los Gatos

16185 Los Gatos Blvd., Los Gatos; 408.402.9642

The aesthetically stunning 4,000-square-foot YogaSource location includes three studio spaces and adjacent rooms inspired by Balinese architecture. It's the largest yoga spot in south county. This is one of the few places in the region to offer Bikram yoga, or hot yoga, a 26-pose, 90-minute sequence practiced in a sweltering 110-degree room. Other styles include chair yoga for those with arthritis or some other form of impaired mobility, prenatal yoga, gentle, power, Pilates and more.

Price: Free new student orientation plus $40 for three weeks to start.

Sherry Han Yoga

1627 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell; 408.978.3832

Sherry Han has a bit of a cult following at her eponymous studio, which she founded two decades ago, at the time one of a handful in the region. Han turned to yoga 30 years ago in a last-bid attempt to cure a litany of ailments, including headaches and back pain. The treatment healed her, she says, so she committed to it and never looked back. The signature style here is one created by Han herself: Therapeutic Yoga, which blends eight different forms of yoga to increase flexibility, steady one's breathing and promote general well-being.

Price: $140 for eight basic classes.

California Yoga Center

1776 Miramonte Ave., Mountain View; also at 541 Cowper St., Palo Alto

These centers, serving Silicon Valley since 1980, teach a form of yoga that stresses a balance of flexibility, strength and endurance. Called Iyengar, this type of exercise emphasizes alignment and precision in poses as opposed to the flow from one pose to another found in Ashtanga Vinyasa classes at most schools.

Price: $140 for 10-class package in Mountain View, $60 for four-class series in Palo Alto.