Angela Swartz/Daily Journal
Yiwen Chang in a pose with her dog Blackberry at Prajna Yoga & Healing Arts studio in Belmont.
Going into the New Year, yoga owner and instructor Yiwen Chang says to improve one’s health quick fixes won’t do and recommends longer-term solutions.
A little hard work will help improve health and wellness and yoga is one such way to be well, said Chang, who runs Prajna Yoga & Healing Arts in Belmont where she is often found with her dog Blackberry. There is the misconception that one has to be flexible to do yoga and she says people who are less flexible, or lead sedentary lives, actually need it more.
“I would love to inspire them to do yoga,” said Chang, who practices yoga six times a week herself. “Anything that takes commitment, people have a hard time with. In our society, there’s a lot of instant gratification. Yoga takes consistency to get into a state of well-being; that’s why it’s called a practice.”
Chang first discovered yoga 27 years ago when she attended Louisiana State, taking classes for the physical education requirement while she studied finance.
“At the time it wasn’t very popular,” said Chang, who lives in Redwood City. “I remember after my first class, a teacher said to me ‘how long have you been practicing for?’”
It felt like she had done it before, however, she didn’t know it was called yoga. As a child, she would go into different postures, but learned the breathing components when she started doing yoga.
After college she moved to California for a job in the business world and stopped doing yoga for two or three years. She remained in the corporate world for more than 20 years, but with a divorce and bad knee injury she decided to focus more on yoga. She taught six to seven classes part-time on top of her 40-hour work week, while raising two children. Chang then opened Prajna two and a half years ago.
“I decided the corporate world wasn’t for me,” she said. “I wanted to do what felt right for me.”
Chang, who has studied biomechanics, believes understanding the science of the body is important for knowing what positions are good for the body.
She recommends a well-rounded exercise plan, including hiking, the more cardiovascularly involved vinyasa and ashtanga yogas and gentler yogas like hatha. Some people who run miles and miles are not healthy; it’s important to get in a healthy state while fit, she said.
“Just getting your heart to beat fast is not a complete cardiovascular workout, to have more of a holistic approach, you have to work the entire body,” she said. “We sit all the time; sitting is the new cancer. Things are not moving and I recommend to not go gnarly with exercise; for example, an hour three times a week. You need more movement throughout the day.”
Training to become a yoga instructor has changed a lot throughout the years and she said she worries about younger teachers who get certificates after six months of practice. Teaching comes from within when you practice enough, she said, and these realizations are only gained after years of experience.
“They’re not ready to teach and I prefer more background,” she said. “I audition teachers. A lot of owners are not yogis themselves. At Prajna, I want to make sure we’re not a trendy studio.”
She notes other trendy studios mindlessly get people to sweat and it doesn’t end up being a holistic practice. She also is not too keen on hot yoga.
“I’ve self-studied traditional Chinese medicine, none of which encourages superficial heat,” Chang said. “From a safety standpoint, when the body is exposed to external heat the muscle loses function and there’s a higher risk of getting hurt. When you’re relying on momentum to go from pose to pose, you’re teaching students to undo their natural alignment.”
In order to make sure students understand proper alignment better, Prajna also hosts workshops on the lower back, neck, shoulders, inversions and day-to-day postures to break down the details of alignment. She will also host her own yoga teacher training from May to July 2014, with a complementary apprenticeship program.
“I wouldn’t feel right to have them get certificates without offering an apprenticeship,” she said.
With the New Year rolling around, Chang recommends various wellness tips, including carving out a chunk of time to oneself every week. This could be sitting with quiet music in the background.
“When you’re not bombarded with electronics and can just sit quietly,” she said. “Scan your body for sensations and try to find your breath. When the body is in a quiet state, you can shift your nervous system from fight-or-flight to a healing state capable of cell regeneration.”
She also recommends doing full chest breaths in the office, especially when getting stressed out. One holds his or her breath more when stressed out and this increases toxicity in his or her body, she said. Taking a break from yoga during the menstrual cycle is also important, she said. Drinking lots of water also helps maintain the body, which is an energy system, she added.
Chang notes strength and flexibility are both important.
“A strong muscle without yield is a weak muscle, while a flexible muscle without strength is also a weak muscle,” she said.
The idea of using the studio as a place to build community and support causes is important to Chang. She hosts dances and parties throughout the year to bring people together, while fundraising for Blue Planet Network, an organization that brings safe drinking water to places in the developing world. She said she’d also love to work with an organization that would allow her to offer yoga to battered women to help them feel empowered and part of a community of strong women.
If you’re interested in beginning yoga, Chang recommends starting out with a hatha practice, twice a week.
“Things have changed now,” she said. “You used to just practice with one teacher, but people don’t follow one teacher or style anymore. I’m strict with students because I don’t want to teach them how to superficially move. I’m old school and am less shy to tell students to back off.”
She says it’s best to stay away from classes that have a lot of cardio involved at first since you won’t have as much time to work on alignment.
“In our society, we sit more and people just don’t get out,” she said. “We drive everywhere. California is so beautiful and I would love to see people take advantage of that.”
In February 2014, Prajna will offer a new therapeutic yoga class.
For more information, visit prajnacenter.com. The studio is located at 1601 El Camino Real No. 204.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 105