B reathe . . . Feel grounded.
As instructor Fred Miller concludes his class at Angel City Yoga in Studio City, he can't resist adding words of encouragement for his beginning students who have fallen short of perfect headstands. "This will be more and more fun," he promises with a smile.
Legions of yoga teachers and new practitioners share his enthusiasm these days, as the ancient mind-body workout enjoys a rebirth.
Classes abound--not just at specialized centers, but at health clubs, where yoga sessions are turning up on the schedule next to step aerobics classes. Stay-at-homes can follow their favorite instructor on TV or pick from a growing array of yoga videotapes.
Coupled with other preventive health habits, yoga can help prevent or reverse heart disease, some claim. Recently, the National Institutes of Health's Office of Alternative Medicine funded research studies to evaluate yoga as a treatment for heroin addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even pro basketball players have been known to do yoga to "center themselves" before a big game.
Forget That Pretzel Image: The stereotype of yoga--assume a pretzel position and chant--is off the mark. What most of us consider yoga is actually several systems. Most commonly taught in the United States are Hatha and Kundalini yoga.
At the core of most yoga is meditation, stretching, breathing and body awareness. Students assume certain postures (asanas) and hold them to strengthen. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yug , which means "to join together" or "yoke," says Linda Gajevski, a spokeswoman for the American Yoga Assn., a school and nonprofit educational organization based in Cleveland, Ohio. Through yoga, practitioners can end the "separateness" internally and between yourself and the world.
Benefits: Yoga can strengthen the immune system, improve flexibility and strength, give relief from back pain and other discomfort, and improve general well-being. Very advanced students can exert themselves enough to raise the heart rate to a training level, says Gajevski, "but it's not the primary goal of what we teach."
Yoga is a powerful stress reducer, says Dr. Dean Ornish, director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito. He discusses the value of yoga in his 1990 bestseller, "Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease." He recommends yoga along with a program of group support, a low-fat vegetarian diet and moderate exercise for heart disease prevention and reversal.
Yoga will also produce "a pliable body and good posture," says Christine Kaur, a Los Angeles instructor who hosts a cable television yoga show. "It gives you a mental focus. It totally works the body, elevates the mind and focuses the spirit."
The Big Picture: Some practitioners do nothing but yoga for exercise; others supplement yoga with other activities, such as weight lifting, martial arts and stair climbing. Yoga is one of the easiest workouts to adhere to, Kaur says: "You can do it anywhere, anytime. There's no machinery needed."
Other Applications: For 25 years, yoga has been an integral part of a program at Super Health Ranch, a Tucson holistic health center providing programs for those trying to kick drug addictions or reduce stress.
In two government-funded studies, researchers will evaluate whether yoga helps in the treatment of heroin addicts and those with obsessive compulsive disorder.
Getting Started: If you're new to yoga, observe a class or take several types of classes to see what suits you, experts suggest. Try to find a class for beginners so you're not intimidated by advanced students.
Forget that high-impact aerobics mentality, complete with mirrors and its "see-and-be-seen" flamboyance. Instructor Miller, in fact, specifically asks students to face the non-mirrored wall during his class so they don't get hung up looking at themselves or classmates.
"Most important is to find a good teacher," Kaur says. That can take patience, adds Gajevski of the American Yoga Assn., because there is no nationally recognized standard for certification of yoga teachers. But ask questions to determine training, she recommends. Find out if your yoga teacher has studied with a teacher, and still does, or whether he or she attended an institute or school. Competent teachers, Gajevski says, should also have a working knowledge of major muscle groups and body systems, and be able to vary the techniques based on each student's capability.
Chill Out: Remember to relax. Making the mental switch from competitive, high-impact exercise to the more mellow attitude yoga demands is vital.
"A healthy body is one that can be strong when it has to and let go when it doesn't have to work so hard," Cam Nguyen, a yoga instructor at the Sports Club/LA, tells her students. "This is quality time with yourself."