Pam Walatka, a longtime resident of Los Altos Hills before she moved to the mountains above Los Gatos in 2011, has been leading “Pam’s Yoga Fitness” at Los Altos Hills Town Hall weekly more or less without pause for the past 12 years.
The class, which meets 10:15-11:30 a.m. Wednesdays, convenes in the airy, light-filled council chambers, a perk Walatka credits with keeping her students coming year after year. The town’s Parks and Recreation Department recently added a new feature, the Flex Pass, which allows people to pay for individual classes and drop in rather than committing to an eight-week session.
“Some of the original students are still attending, and most of the students have been coming for five or more years,” Walatka said.
The class attracts athletic “midlife” types, she said – fitness enthusiasts looking for something to counterbalance tennis, cycling or running. A few of them come with a nudge from a doctor.
The class, which emphasizes health and fitness, incorporates traditional yoga moves, core-targeting Pilates and mindfulness meditation.
From mind to body
Meditation has come a long way since Walatka first encountered it as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the 1960s. The United States has embraced what was once considered a fringe, experimental practice to the point that the medical establishment has studied and authenticated its apparent contribution to good physical and mental health.
As a philosophy major at Berkeley, Walatka learned about yoga as a Hindu way of thinking, not as an athletic practice.
“My philosophy department did not know what to do with me – it was a few years too soon,” she said.
Walatka had been reading works by the American transcendentalists – Emerson, Thoreau and Channing – since her father started letting her tag along to Berkeley’s library during her high school years. But after writing a college paper comparing the Hindu concept of expanded consciousness with American transcendentalism and contemporary LSD theories of cosmic consciousness, she got a note from her professor whose gist was, “I don’t know what this is, but I’m sure it’s not philosophy.”
“At that point, I changed to the psych department, which also was not interested in the psyche,” she recalled ruefully.
Walatka graduated, moved to Nepal with the Peace Corps and for the first time experienced philosophies beyond the pages of a book, living among Buddhists and Hindus who introduced her to the real-life practice of meditation. She returned to the U.S. and became a resident fellow at the Esalen Institute in 1967. The other early participants at the Big Sur nonprofit, famous for its role in the counterculture movement, shared her interest in exploration of awareness, mind-body connection and “human potential.” At Esalen, a bio-energetic workshop encouraged participants to try a back-bending cobra pose – and even though the institute was very body-oriented, Walatka said, “it hadn’t occurred to people to do the poses.”
Within a year of her arrival, she was tasked with becoming Esalen’s first yoga teacher, based strictly on innate flexibility, not experience. So she drove into town, bought a book describing yoga moves and started teaching.
Fifty years later, Walatka teaches a class that looks similar to those early days. She had continued to study and teach yoga, with breaks when life got in the way, including a 16-year stint as a technical writer at NASA’s Ames Research Center that was relatively light on yoga and counter-culture.
If you take a yoga class with Walatka, though, you might not guess at this vivid and philosophical background. She teaches an athletic practice, one aimed at moving the body and focusing the mind without hewing to any philosophy or faith. Some yoga classes include meditative comments from the teacher, or Sanskrit phrases for the moves – not this one. “Pam’s Yoga Fitness” does focus on listening to one’s own body as it creaks, stretches and bends, but “I’m not trying to change their religion, and I haven’t experienced a lot of curiosity about that,” she said bluntly. “I’m with the Dalai Lama – whatever religion you have is the best religion for you.”
Walatka said she thinks there’s an alarming emphasis in yoga classes these days on rigidity, and teachers have been taught that a pose is supposed to be done a specific way – move your elbow from here to here, and you’re doing it right.
“It’s a little bit like posing mannequins,” she added. “I want people to learn to listen to the wisdom of their bodies, to learn the difference between a deep stretch and an injurious stretch. Someone asked me the other day how far are you supposed to bend in the triangle, and I said, ‘Past comfortable but before injury – learn from your own body telling you, not me telling you.’”
Walatka’s mother, who lived to be 101, used to say that you can make your health better by working on it.
“I think a lot of my students are there to work on their health,” Walatka said. “There are many things you need to do to work on your health, but yoga is one of them.”
For more information, visit pamsyogafitness.com.