16, 2002 -- They're bending, stretching, toning bodies, quieting minds
-- and reaping some unexpected benefits from the ancient practice of yoga.
One friend met her fiancé at yoga class. Another friend credits
yoga for the speedy birth of her first child -- just four hours. That's
amazingly fast for someone over 40, her obstetrician says.
If you don't know a Tree Pose from the Shiva posture, it's time to get
with the program -- the yoga program, that is. Yoga studios are everywhere,
even in small towns in Idaho.
But that hasn't always been the case. Just seven years ago, New York's
Himalayan Institute of Buffalo was struggling to build a base of students.
Now there's a waiting list, even with three more classes added. "All
the classes are full before they start," says Rolf Slovik, the Institute's
The legions of yoga fans are, well, stretching out across the country.
Today, the practice boasts 20 million followers -- more than triple the
6 million enthusiasts in 1994, says Trisha Lamb Feuerstein. She is the
head of research for the Yoga Research and Education Center, part of the
International Association of Yoga Therapists, based in Santa Rosa, Calif.
"In the 1960s, yoga was an attempt to get a drugless high,"
she tells us. "Now it's mostly about stress reduction. Also, a lot
of the boomer population is hitting an age where jogging is too hard on
the body. People are looking for a form of exercise that is gentler."
In Manhattan's trendy Jivamukti Yoga Center, infant-and-mom yoga classes
are big, says spokesman Valerie Sicignano. "I'm talking about little
babies ... they watch their mothers, try to mimic with legs and arms what
their mothers are doing."
There are yoga classes for toddlers and teens, even students in their
70s, "something we'd never seen before," Sicignano tells us.
"We've become a social center in many aspects," she says. "Mothers
want to meet their peers. People have met people; there have been romances,
friendships forged. Since Sept. 11, we're seeing people we haven't seen
before, people coming for the spiritual aspects of yoga, people feeling
they need a whole-body approach to health and exercise."
New Twists on an Ancient Practice
Women still dominate yoga classes (most classes are at least 80% female).
But men are slowly coming around. The more savvy men realize they can
meet "great women" at yoga class, says Slovik. Others are looking
for a new style of workout.
"Hot yoga" or "Bikram yoga" (started by Bikram Choudry,
the yogi to the stars) is trendy on both coasts, and it appeals to men
in a big way, says Feuerstein.
Hot it most definitely is -- sauna-style hot, in a room heated past 100
degrees Fahrenheit, she says. "It's supposed to make the muscles
more flexible, thereby reducing the possibility of damaging muscles. But
any type of exercise in 100-degree heat is difficult on the body. If you're
20 or 30 you can probably do it, but if you have undisclosed cardiovascular
disease like a lot of boomers do, it can be dangerous."
Extreme yoga appeals to some because "it makes you sweat, makes you
hurt. It's the American mentality -- no pain no gain," she says.
Ashtanga yoga -- a very vigorous style of yoga -- has been made popular
by stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Sting. "It's a very demanding
series of asanas (postures). It has many levels, gets you out of breath,"
says Feuerstein. "It takes a great deal of focus and it's a great
In fact, traditional yoga can give athletes an edge to their sport, as
golfers, distance runners, even football players are learning, says Rebecca
Laney, who runs the Center for Yoga and Health in the small college town
of Clinton, Mississippi.
"I think the real aggressive athletes are always looking for the
latest thing," she tells us. Laney adds that yoga develops what's
called proprioception, or an awareness of where your body is in space
and time. It's an awareness of movement, weight distribution, and posture.
Developing such a sense can help athletes more clearly feel what they're
doing, she says.
One competitive distance runner came to yoga because he wanted mental
control, Laney says. "He's very competitive, and if he saw someone
gaining on him, a bit of fear would set in, and he would lose his focus,
lose his energy, because of that fear." The meditative aspects of
yoga helped him transform those fears into energizing, positive thoughts,
Traditional Yoga Is Spiritual,
Yoga has been studied extensively. But most research
has been done in India, where the studies were not designed the same way
Western scientists would set them up: comparing people who do yoga vs.
a "control" or comparison group of non-practitioners, Feuerstein
"But you're beginning to see NIH funding of research on yoga and
back pain. A lot of people come to yoga for back pain."
"Yoga is something that offers benefits to people at many different
levels," Slovik tells us. "People come for stress management,
or because they're trying to mange some physical illness. Some come because
of a very strong spiritual curiosity, they want more quietness in their
lives. They don't know precisely what yoga offers, but they know that
relaxation and meditation are part of it."
In mild cases of asthma and
high blood pressure, yoga can reduce the need for medication, says Feurenstein.
Yoga also can be helpful in helping people cope with diabetes, Parkinson's
disease, cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder -- and,
especially, back pain. "Yoga relaxes you," she adds. "It
makes you more aware of your body, helps you stretch it, strengthen it."
For pregnant women, yoga helps with back pain as well as varicose veins.
"It provides release from the effects that gravity has on carrying
the heavy load," she says. "It's not a panacea; it's not a guarantee
to make labor shorter, but yoga has certainly helped many women have a
more successful and useful labor in the sense that they've learned a lot
about breathing, and they've prepared their bodies." If you do take
yoga for pregnancy, make sure you're working with a trained instructor,
she advises. It's a good idea to make sure your doctor knows about it,
A Key to Successful Exercise Routines: Sticking to them
People tend to stick with yoga, she says, because
it has a great deal of depth. "People discover there's more there
than they expected, and they continue to practice it."
The intrinsic rewards, she says, sound too trite or simple. "All
of us have a sense of who we are, but it isn't exactly who we really are.
We're distracted, busy, stressed. Life is complicated by problems inside
and outside of us. Yoga can bring us back to who we really are. I think
most people discover they relax in that first yoga class, and that's the
beginning of the process. It doesn't have to take years."
A survivor who's weathered three bouts of breast cancer, Laney teaches
"therapeutic yoga" to others who are trying to find their strength
after debilitating illness. "It heals their spirit, their emotions,"
she tells us. "I think the devastation of diseases like breast cancer
and fibromyalgia is the damage to the spirit. People have to heal emotionally
to set the foundation for healing physically."
In yoga, one focuses on breathing, and therein lays its healing effects,
says Laney. "Just about everyone breathes incorrectly, yet breathing
itself is extraordinarily healing on a physical and emotional level. Deep
breathing helps by oxygenating the blood, lowering blood pressure, diminishing
the stress response."
On an emotional and mental level, she adds, focusing on the breath "calms
the logical mind ... the thinking, analytical mind that's busy looking
at the options, looking at the demons, planning and engineering our lives,"
she explains. "The breathing shuts up that analytical mind. It allows
the intuitive mind, your essence, to speak to you."