Yoga instructor on ways to strengthen, heal and calm

Amanda Riker talks to the morning group through the poses under the dim lights of SukhaLife Yoga Studio in St. Petersburg. Central Avenue bustles outside. In the studio, dreamy, themeless music drifts from the speakers.

“What was your intention this morning? Are you here for the body? Are you here for the mind? Are you here for the spirit?” she asks. “Check in. Are you being yourself? Are you performing?”

Riker, 37, earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Florida, where she first started practicing yoga. She taught school for a while, but realized that she really wanted to teach yoga. She talked with them Tampa Bay Times about the ancient practice.

What is yoga?

Yoga is a word that means to yoke together… to draw together. (It) is unique in practice because it’s focused on bringing the mind, the thoughts and the physical body together in one. In a typical athletic sport, in order to promote a winner. You’re usually body over mind, go-go-go.

Many people will mistakenly (view) yoga as a physical form of exercise, yet it doesn’t want you to be an athlete. It wants you to actually move with yourself and actually within yourself, so not separate from the mind. It’s a moment to moment exercise but for the brain, to listen to your needs. How am I feeling this moment, this second? Okay, new second, how am I feeling in this second? Because this minute was different from two minutes ago. And (you’re) adjusting your physical needs and desires from that moment to moment. Where athletics is very much end-of-goal oriented, yoga is present-moment oriented.

When you ask the group if they’re performing or being themselves, what do you mean?

In yoga, the idea is, we’re just showing up that day. Who knows how we slept the night before? Who knows if we are battling an injury or we don’t feel well, we’re carrying a heaviness in our heart? The idea is: How are you right now? Be yourself in how you are right now, because you don’t have to win. There’s not a camera on you. There’s not an end goal. You’re not in competition with the person next to you. You’re not in competition with yourself. When you take that competitive mind out of the equation, it becomes much more of this yoking, of a healing process. And then what does healing mean? Are you coming to heal a bum knee or tight hamstring? Are you coming to heal the death of your spouse, your heart? Inner trauma from the past? Are you coming to heal our sense of loss? Are you asking what’s the purpose of life? Yoga is going to help you answer any of that. And that’s why the key words (are) mind, body, spirit. Are you here for the mind? Are you here for the body? Are you here for something bigger, deeper? We not only open the body, literally — that flexibility — but we really declutter the mind in that very focused practice.

The different postures, or poses, all seem related to stretching and balance. Is that correct?

And then the one component that is most often overlooked, especially for someone who watches — you’re not going to know until you do it — is strength. You actually have to be quite strong, very strong, if you’re going to hold your leg in a manner to then lengthen it and stretch into it.

Longtime teacher Amanda Riker says practicing yoga keeps the spine healthy. [ Courtesy of SukhaLife Yoga Studio ]
Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

If you’re new to yoga you’re going to have that burning sensation you would feel if you were doing bicep curls at the gym with weights. I mean, you’re building muscle. And it’s in that muscle contraction that you’ll get that reach and that stretch and you’ll start to pull and open up the areas of the body that feel the tightest.

How did yoga originate?

There are different schools of thought, just like there are regarding the Bible, so you’re going to have different professionals out there and yoga historians who are going to have a little different take on it, or believe a different thing.

But here’s the 101 and the fastest way I can say it. It was never the poses, it was the seat. Yoga was never possessed; yoga was meant to be meditation. Yoga was meant to sit like this (on a mat, soles of the feet pressed together in front) for eight hours. This is not comfortable, impossible for the average body. So we do the poses so we can sit.

So the seat came first. That was thousands of years ago (in northern India). By year 700, 800, 900, that’s when the poses started to come out. Hey, listen, we can’t all sit like this. This is very uncomfortable. Our backs are sore, our knees can’t stay like this, our hips are getting tight. It’s achy. Okay, why don’t we try something like this to open a little bit? Why don’t we try to stand on one leg to focus on our balance and not focus on the pain in our back. So then slowly but surely these postures started to come about.

And the irony is that what spreads in our modern Western culture is the poses. Everyone does the poses. Nobody sits.

You say yoga is not yoga without breathing properly. What is proper breathing?

Yoga breath is not your normal breath. That’s often the hardest component to consistently keep strong and big and important during someone’s practice. It’s the first one to go, in other words. You never stop breathing and it takes a long time to actually build the muscles in your ribs that house the lungs to actually make them stronger to take in bigger breaths consistently. That’s uncomfortable for many people. When you’re newer to yoga and you’re being asked to breathe so big, you’re actually going to have a sore tummy for a while because your abdominals are working in a way they’ve never been asked before. It takes a lot of work. You never stop breathing. Your breath gives you energy. Your breath can also calm you.

What can it do for people?

Yoga revolves around the spine. Not only is it the backbone of your body but your spine is the backbone of the practice. It’s what you’re doing. You are trying to keep your spine healthy. The science behind yoga is to make you live longer. Longevity, long life, that’s the first thing I want to say to you: You’re going to live longer. My favorite saying (is). You are only as old as your spine. Yoga’s keeping your spine healthy.

Secondly, surely there are postures where this knee is bent very tightly. That was another saying: your knees are the most expensive part of your body. Between your back and your knees are the two most common ailments as we age.

When you hold your knee in a deep bend, you cut off blood flow, like a tourniquet effect. When you release fresh blood, cell turnover; cell turnover, tissue turnover; tissue turnover, healing. It’s restricting and releasing blood flow for healing. When we breathe in yoga we take in far more oxygen than our normal baseline breath. More oxygen, more blood cells; more blood cells, more healing.

What do you think of goat yoga?

(She laughs.) I think it’s a fad.

Is there anything to it?

There’s not. Here’s the thing: Whatever is going to make someone try it, let’s do it. I obviously think that this thing is transformative. I’ve had enough students of every age and gender completely life-changed from bringing yoga into their lives.

If it’s the quirkiness of: “What? I’ve got to go see what this is all about.” And that gets you to try yoga, awesome. If it’s at a brewery because you get a free beer and it gets you to go there, do it. Great. Whatever gets you on that yoga mat, I’m down with.

For more information, go to sukhalifeyoga.com