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A full class of yoga participants fill the fitness room in McMurdo
Photo Credit: Shandra Cordovano
A full class of yoga participants fill the fitness room in McMurdo

Yoga in McMurdo

On any given day, residents around McMurdo Station might be found doing the cobra pose, sun salutation or downward dog. These are all poses used in yoga, which has become one of the station’s most popular after-hours recreational activities.

Joolee Aurand takes a breath as she leads the Monday night yoga classes in McMurdo
Photo Credit: Michael Deany
Joolee Aurand takes a breath as she leads the Monday night yoga classes in McMurdo

In recent years yoga has had a surge in popularity in the United States. Yoga classes can now be found in large gyms and small yoga studios across the country. Mirroring this trend, classes are held on station almost every day of the week.

On a station where a six-day workweek in support of the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program is the norm, yoga appeals to a broad cross-section of workers, for many different reasons.

In any given class, one can usually find someone from the medical staff, the firehouse, the facilities maintenance and construction center, the Berg Field Center, supply and the military. Some go for the fitness aspect while others attend for the mental benefits and stress relief. Still others use it to counteract the harsh environment or to counterbalance their regular workout.

Many yoga participants are drawn to it for its calming, meditative aspects
Photo Credit: Shandra Cordovano
Many yoga participants are drawn to it for its calming, meditative aspects

There is such a wide variety of yoga styles offered that a station resident can pick which appeals to them the most. Restorative yoga is comprised of floor exercises and the focus is on relaxation, with longer hold times for each pose. Ayangar is prop-oriented, alignment-focused and with precise movements. Core power is intense and more of a straight workout. There are also classes in Ashtanga, Vinyasa flow and Tantra.

As they’ve grown in popularity on station, yoga classes have had to shift to larger venues. In past years, classes were held in the chapel. Though the space is small, the classes kept growing until people were tucked in every available nook and corner. In 2012 the library in Building 155 was converted to a fitness center, and yoga classes moved into the bigger space. The room is now packed with mats, bolsters, blocks and other tools of the trade. Classes have continued to grow and at times it takes some effort not to hit a neighbor while doing a swan dive.

McMurdo can be a great place for yoga teachers, referred to as yogis, to get a start. Joolee Aurand runs the McMurdo television station and teaches on Monday nights. She had never done yoga before coming to the station in 2006 but started teaching in 2011, and now attends five classes a week herself.

JYoga classes are a popular workout routine for many on station
Photo Credit: Shandra Cordovano
Yoga classes are a popular workout routine for many on station

She added also that she can tell when she hasn’t been practicing because she feels tight and creaky. When asked why she thought yoga was so popular on the ice, she said its philosophy is applicable here. Station residents live in small confines with a lot of stressors. She finds that Yoga can help to calm the effects of this kind of communal living.

Michael Deany works in the supply department and teaches a modified Ashtanga class on Tuesday mornings. When asked why he thinks yoga is so popular in McMurdo he had a few theories. “The price is right,” he joked (Yoga, like any recreational activity in town, is free of charge). More seriously, he thinks it relates to the close quarters residents experience on station.

“With a six day a week, 54 hour work schedule and not much personal space, [yoga] is a place to meditate through movement and is very important for one’s sanity,” he said.

He likes to end his yoga sessions with a shavasana, or “corpse pose.” It’s a relaxation pose where the person lies on the floor and quiets their mind for about ten minutes. It can be a de-stressor as well as a chance for an individual’s muscles to relax and their breath, temperature and heart rate to return to normal. Though a person lies on their back for shavasana, having to completely clear one’s mind and truly relax is why it is considered by many to be the hardest pose in yoga.

For those seeking more of a physical challenge, many of yoga’s devotees participate for the cardio. Numerous poses build strength by incorporating a person’s whole body weight. While not an aerobic activity, participants can get a workout with certain styles of yoga. Core power yoga in particular will get the heart rate up, but anyone doing multiple sun salutations will also feel their blood pumping.

Because of these kinds of benefits, yoga’s many permutations have taken root in McMurdo. And with the continued interest and awareness of it in the states, it seems likely the yoga community will stay vibrant on station.

“When people say they are not flexible enough for yoga it’s like saying you’re too dirty for a shower,” Deany said.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Office of Polar Programs