Larry Payne, PhD: Yoga -- Anyone Can Do It

Yoga really is for everyone!

By Larry Payne, PhD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Live Events Transcript
Event Date: Aug. 28, 2003

Yoga can help our minds and bodies feel stronger and less stressed out, even those of us who are flexibility challenged! Larry Payne, co-author of Yoga for Dummies, answered questions about this time-tested workout that combines exercise, breathing techniques, and meditation.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live, Larry. Is it just me, or is yoga really taking off in this country?

Payne: It's not just you. We are at a stage now where we are approaching 20 million people doing yoga in America. If you were to put all products purchased regarding yoga, including yoga classes, yoga mats, workshops, books, tapes, videos, etc., and put them under one corporation called "Yoga Mart." It would be placed somewhere between Dow Chemical and Microsoft, in the range of $22 billion a year going to yoga.

Moderator: You co-founded the yoga program at the UCLA medical school. That would have been impossible a few years back, wouldn't it? Will we eventually see med students taking yoga 101 between anatomy classes?

Payne: It has already started. UCLA was the first and now I receive requests from other places for the format. Interestingly enough, the textbook that we used at UCLA was Yoga for Dummies. The class was co-founded by me with Richard Usatine, MD. Basically Richard was referred to me by a physician for a back problem. Fortunately I helped him and he invited me to introduce this program of yoga, which is a combination of yoga philosophy and yoga postures and introduction to yoga therapy, to the first-year medical students at the UCLA School of Medicine. That was six years ago, and now we have our first graduates; there are two that became certified yoga teachers as well as MDs.

Moderator: So with the explosion of yoga classes (they are popping up all over my town) how do we choose which classes to take and which instructors to follow?

Payne: A great question. Now there are established yoga traditions, so you may look at yoga in a broader sense. One way to do that is by age. One of the greatest yoga masters of all times, Krishna Macharya, said that yoga should be taught for three stages of your life.

The first stage is the building stage. For example, a professional athlete usually peaks in their late 20s, early 30s. At that time they change how they work out and how they play the game. Then there is a middle ground -- a middle stage -- where what you want is optimum health and not to be injured, to enjoy life. Interestingly, the largest population segment -- the baby boomers --is in the middle stage, yet a lot of the popular yoga today is for the first stage.

The style of yoga that is more open to the middle age is called viniyoga. The styles of yoga that are more for the more vigorous, or for the building stage, are known as ashtanga yoga and iyengar yoga. Basically in the first stage the form is emphasized more; in the second stage function is emphasized more.

I have tried to reach the middle ground in my books with Yoga for Dummies and also Yoga RX. For example, in almost every yoga book it shows a posture called a standing forward bend or uttanasana. Ninety-eight percent of yoga books show the posture with someone standing bending forward, head on the legs. Yet less than 10% of the population can do that. I think, especially for the middle group, the function should be more important than the form. Therefore I recommend softening the knees so that you will stretch your spine.

The third stage is usually saved for people who become more interested in the philosophy of yoga and where they're going after this lifetime: More reading of scriptures, more medication, sitting, etc.

The beautiful thing is that they're all good. It just depends on what you need. Yoga has something for everybody.

Moderator: Where does hatha yoga fit into this? That's the term I hear a lot.

Payne: The word hatha is for the limb of yoga that focuses on postures called asana, yoga breathing, and a term called bandas, which has to do with sealing off energy to create heat in the body. All of the classed that you see that we think of as yoga are different forms of hatha yoga, pronounced "hot-ha."

Classical yoga has eight limbs. People are normally first attracted to this one limb, hatha yoga, but for those really interested in yoga, the first two limbs are both moral discipline and personal growth. We call them the do's and the dont's. The third limb is called asana, and that's what most people think of as hatha. Then come advanced breathing techniques. The last four limbs are higher and higher states of meditation.

There are two excellent web sites for those who want to study deeper. One is called and that's to reach Dr. George Feuerstein, PhD. He is America's authority on the philosophy of yoga. He was the coauthor of Yoga for Dummies and has more than 35 books on the subject. The other web site would be, which is my web site.

Member question: What yoga positions are helpful for alleviating lower back pain?

Payne: My specialty for over 20 years has been yoga for the back. My new book, Yoga RX, is a user-friendly introduction to yoga therapy. It has a yoga view and a traditional medical view from Richard Usatine, MD. I tried to explain in the book that healing your back is not about one yoga posture. Usually there are a series of postures depending on the condition.

The particular condition I talked about is the most common back problem, called lumbosacral strain/sprain. I don't think it's professional to answer, "This posture is good for all low back problems." It depends. In the book I've tried to outline the most popular postures that are helpful for this condition.

Also the greatest advice I can give to anyone with a back problem is the first place you need to go is not to a yoga teacher, but to get a diagnosis from a competent physician on what your problem is. That could be from a medical specialist, chiropractor, or osteopath. Yoga therapy is not for acute problems. It works well for chronic conditions, rehabilitation, and prevention. Everyone has a back story. Everyone says, "This posture healed me." But what healed one person may harm someone else.

Also in the book I suggest that fixing your back or almost any common condition is more about your lifestyle than the posture itself. I can give you a great back routine, but if you sit at the computer improperly all day long, use a diet that makes you obese, and you watch the local news or CNN before you go to sleep at night, it's not going to help your healing process.

Member question: In March of 2003 I had three lumbar disks removed and fused. I have had an active practice before and after the surgery and am about to take yoga teacher certification training. My back has healed beautifully according to my surgeon and he considers my recuperation "remarkable". My question is this: How safe are inversions for someone like me?

Payne: First it depends on what inversion. I would say that inversions are going to be safer than some other postures. For instance, seated straight legged forward bends are not great for people with back problems such as disk issues, but a simple half shoulder stand, which also does not put compression on the neck, would be fine. Even a headstand, if you use the wall as a support especially the corner of a wall, is fine. The danger is getting up and down or if you fall suddenly. Once you're up in a headstand, everything is in alignment.

Also, in your teacher-training program, there are currently no city, state, or federal guidelines as to what a yoga teacher is. There is a nice grassroots movement, called The Yoga Alliance, with minimum standards. It's the closest we have. My best advice is during the teacher-training program the best person to determine the safety of a posture will be you. Do not go into any posture that intuitively doesn't feel good to you. Don't feel intimidated or competitive with anyone in the class, even yourself.

Member question: There is no doubt that a regular yoga practice will help those of us with screaming, tight hamstrings, but, is there a limit on how flexible we can hope to become? Is our flexibility (and lack thereof) already preprogrammed into our genetic code and muscle tissue?

Payne: My answer to that is that any degree of inflexibility can be improved greatly with a good practice of yoga. For instance, I have a student who is 77 years old who came to yoga at age 67 with the tightest hamstrings I have ever seen. At the age of 77, he has a personal practice of one hour a day. He has improved his hamstrings by 100%.

"For weight loss I would take a gentle approach to yoga. There is actually a kind of yoga called 'gentle yoga.'"

So think of yoga as something for the long run. It's not a quick fix. Think of it more in terms of, how will I feel one year from now, two years from now, especially if you start later in life. The results are not overnight, but they are profound.

Member question: Is yoga a form of exercise for someone who has fibromyalgia?

Payne: My answer is yes, if you take the right program. Fibromyalgia is a type of condition that if you over stimulate or overdo it you'll get worse. But if you do nothing, you'll get worse. So you find a middle ground. In my opinion Yoga RX would be a great guide and the "viniyoga" style would be great. Sometimes "gentle yoga" is also good for this.

I also want to make something clear. I fully support the more vigorous styles of yoga, such as ashtanga and iyengar and ashtanga. I support those styles for the people for whom it's appropriate.

Member question: I've had four back surgeries. The two last ones were fusions of the lower 4,5. I've been doing some yoga but am afraid it might hurt something. I go very slowly as not too hurt myself, so am I still getting a workout? I'm also about 30 lbs overweight because of the surgeries and not being able to walk for any long period of time. I hope you can help me.

Payne: Please think of your yoga practice as a "workin" more than a workout. Also your yoga practice will give you discipline to open the refrigerator door less. Also when walking is out, consider a stationary bicycle with low-resistance and water exercise. It does not have to be swimming. Water exercise is far easier on the body than land exercise. A book called The Waterpower Workout, with Bob Forster and Lynda Huey, is a great investment.

Moderator: You mentioned that there in no state or federal guidelines for yoga training. As a consumer, what then can we use to gauge the experience and professionalism of a potential instructor?

Payne: First there is the reputation of school in which he or she is certified by. The school should have a web site you can review. And also the teacher should be someone who had at least between 100 and 200 hours of training. Some people are certifying teachers in a weekend; not recommended. Go to the school and observe the class. Try several instructors. Look around and see if you can relate to the people coming to the class.

Member question: Would Yoga help you get better muscle definition?

Payne: Absolutely. Hatha yoga is not just stretching; it improves both your strength and your flexibility. In fact, it may be good to state the main benefits of hatha yoga, or yoga practice:

  • Stress reduction
  • Improved circulation
  • Improved strength and flexibility
  • Greater discipline and focus
  • An overall state of well-being

When I first started the corporate program at the J. Paul Getty Museum many years ago, after three months the head of security, who had a office near where I taught the yoga class, came up to me and said, "Since you've been teaching yoga here, everyone who passes by my office is nicer to me." When you're feeling better about yourself, you're going to treat other people nicer. And it has a ripple effect that goes out into the public.

Also, after a yoga class, biomechanically you are slightly taller, and it lasts for several hours.

Member question: What type of yoga would you suggest for weight loss?

Payne: For weight loss I would take a gentle approach to yoga. There is actually a kind of yoga called "gentle yoga"; another is called viniyoga. If you're under 30 and not more than 30 lbs overweight, you could consider any of the styles, in my opinion.

Member question: What are the asans that can help me reduce my high blood pressure?

Payne: This comes under the category of yoga as a therapy. Again I'll refer you to the book Yoga RX, which has a chapter on that. Generally you want to do the postures that are calming and quieting. So some of the best advice, in my opinion, is to do the breathing exercises, advanced breathing exercises with long exhalation.

The postures that are more relaxing are usually folding or possibly some twisting. A great exercise is to lie on your back, put your feet up on a chair, and cover your eyes with a towel and systematically make your exhalation longer until you reach a comfortable maximum for three to five minutes.

Member question: I have rheumatoid arthritis from head to toe. Will yoga benefit me? I also have high cholesterol and cannot sleep through the night.

Payne: My opinion is that you should make an effort to work with a yoga therapist one on one. My answer is yes, yoga can help you, but you need the guidance of a one on one teacher with a lot of experience.

Also, your diet is going to be important, and there is a supplement that has been very helpful for rheumatoid arthritis that was a great help to James Coburn, the great actor, called MSM. I would ask your doctor first, but you can look into that supplement.

There is a book on the subject by Ron Lawrence, MD, in Malibu, California, who in my opinion is one of the foremost neurologists in the United States. He also has a book on arthritis. Try to find him on the Internet under his name.

Member question: Is yoga good for pregnancy?

Payne: Yoga can be great for pregnancy, but normally the advice is to not start something new in the middle of pregnancy. If you've already been doing yoga then it's fine. But normally you don't take up a new activity in the middle of pregnancy.

With yoga it is also best to be doing it before you get pregnant so you will be at your best for the pregnancy. I have several students who have gone the entire term of the pregnancy, down to the last week, in my class. The style I recommend is viniyoga, but my particular brand is "user- friendly yoga." Two videos are User Friendly Yoga and User Friendly Back Yoga, as

Other great teacher of pregnancy in yoga with publications is guru Muk, Hollywood, California. Rainbow Bridge is the studio. Another resource is the Pierce Program in Atlanta. The director is Margaret Pierce. And in San Francisco, Judith Lasater. Look at

Member question: I'm 27 yrs old. I've got bad knee problem; my knee hurts on and off. I also get depressed and feel withdrawn and I feel energy drained out at times. What yoga and meditation exercises can I do to help?

Payne: I would start with any good yoga program for beginners. From the yoga philosophy, depression needs to be dealt with by creating expanding energy, which comes from back bends and warrior postures, (standing postures, being careful of your knees). These are very helpful for depression.

Another good book for yoga therapeutic is Yoga for Wellness, by Gary Kraftsow. It has a chapter with a routine for depression.

Moderator: Before we wrap up for today, Larry, do you have any final comments for us?

Payne: According to my co-author, Richard Usatine, MD, yoga is safe for almost any condition, when done appropriately. Yoga is so comprehensive there is usually something that we can do. For example, breathing exercises, meditation, and service to others are sources of yoga. So when one studies the comprehensive system of yoga, you will find something to move forward with.

In my opinion, yoga is all about trading in your old, bad habits for good habits, and then reinforcing that with some form of yoga.

Moderator: Thanks to Larry Payne for sharing his expertise with us. For more information, please read his newest book, Yoga RX, co-authored with Richard Usatine, MD, and also Yoga for Dummies, co-authored with George Feuerstein PhD. And of course we have plenty of great information for you right here on the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic.

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