by Sandra Yeyati
For Mardy Chen, “Practicing yoga is like brushing your teeth.” It’s something you should do every day. She, with her husband, Jeff, own PURE Yoga Austin, recognized by Details magazine as one of the best studios in the country, with four locations throughout Austin.
Their specialty is Bikram yoga, a 90-minute sequence of 26 poses and two breathing exercises done in a very hot room. There’s nothing soft or fluffy about Bikram yoga. The poses are extremely challenging. After a session, practitioners are sweaty, sore and spent.
They also feel terrific. Their minds are cleared. Their knee and back pain has gone away. In time, they lose weight, they forget to be depressed or stressed, and their doctors take them off their medications because they no longer need them.
Yoga is a healing force. Chen and her colleagues know it. But for every jubilant testimonial, there is someone who doesn’t practice or know much about yoga that will not believe the claims. Chen says, “In our Western culture, we have to see data. Numbers. And science is the way to do that. There’s not a lot of research about yoga, and we thought we could change that.”
Two years ago, Chen and her husband started PURE Action, a nonprofit organization, to bring the benefits of yoga to mainstream medicine through research and education. The idea is to scientifically document the physical benefits of yoga and publish the results in respected publications. “Our vision is to heal the world with yoga, but underneath that is to fix our healthcare crisis,” Chen says.
PURE Action contributes funds and recruits subjects. They have a scientist on staff that collaborates with the researchers and helps to publish and publicize the results. They receive grant proposals from researchers throughout the country, most of which are affiliated with universities. Some studies are already completed and published, and more are in the pipeline. Topics of inquiry include the caloric expenditure, improvements in glucose tolerance and cardiovascular benefits of Bikram yoga, as well as the effects of hatha yoga on vascular function.
Because PURE Action is relatively new, most of the funding currently comes from Chen and her husband. Twice a week, they hold donation-based classes at two of their studios. All of the money raised there goes to fund research. Additional fundraising events are being planned, and the organization takes donations.
In addition to research and education, PURE Action has a community service component, offering free yoga classes at recovery centers, nursing homes and community health clinics. Chen teaches at a skilled nursing facility where everyone in her class is in a wheelchair. “I teach 30 minutes of yoga postures and stretching, and once you see the instant impact that it has, you can’t turn your back on that,” she says.
Chen has been teaching Bikram yoga for 11 years and leads six to seven classes a week. Like all the talented teachers at PURE Yoga Austin, she is Bikram certified, having attended the rigorous, nine-week training in Los Angeles with founders Bikram and Rajashree Choudhury.
If she’s not careful, Chen’s intensity might be misinterpreted. “I have to remind myself to smile at competitions and demonstrations,” she says. “It’s so much more relaxing, physically, when you can allow yourself to smile. In that kind of environment, the whole idea is to inspire people to start a practice, and if you don’t look like you’re having a good time, that’s not inspiring to someone.” In the classroom, Chen can tell when students are too serious and powering through the postures. That’s when she tries to bring some levity to the class.
In the spirit of fun, Chen’s newest endeavor is a yoga clothing line made right here in Austin called Mohawk Couture, a collection of leotards, shorts and tank tops that she designed for people of all shapes and sizes, with touches of humor and whimsy. Five percent of the fashion line’s proceeds goes to PURE Action.
When Chen was in elementary school, she used to beg her teachers to let her skip recess so that she could stay in the classroom and organize it. “I was kind of a strange kid,” she says with a chuckle. “I wanted to create an environment that was comfortable and harmonious, that I felt was conducive to the class working together in a good, efficient way.” Today, Chen and her team have expanded her efforts from that grade school classroom to Austin, the United States and beyond, bringing the joys and benefits of yoga to all that will listen.