Americans first turned to yoga in the 1960s, looking for a way to get high without drugs. Now people by the millions are learning it's a pretty good way to develop a whole-body approach to health and exercise.
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Michael Smith
They're bending, stretching, toning bodies, quieting minds -- and reaping some unexpected benefits from the ancient practice of yoga. One friend met her fiance 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 eight 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 director.
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 WebMD. "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 WebMD.
"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 -- another extreme style of yoga -- has been made popular by stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Sting. "It's a very demanding series of asansas (postures). It has many levels, gets you out of breath," says Feuerstein. "It's not an easy style to practice."
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 WebMD. 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, she adds.
Traditional Yoga Is Spiritual, Strengthening, Relaxing
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 says.
"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 WebMD. "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, too.
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 WebMD. "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, the soul, to speak to you."
Originally published Jan. 21, 2002.
Medically udpated March 21, 2003.
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