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COVER STORY : YOGAMANIA : Weary of Body-Pounding Workouts, Fitness Buffs Turn With Relief to the Ancient Healing Exercise


After years as a ballet dancer and aerobics instructor, Kim Silver's body was disintegrating.

Painful ailments dogged her daily routine and kept her awake at night. She suffered from tendinitis of the hip, fallen arches, arthritis in her toes and knees and shin splints. Whiplash from a car accident in 1986 left her with severe migraines. Months of physical rehabilitation failed to achieve any relief.

Near despair, she took a yoga class with a friend that incorporated flowing movements with a series of postures.

"It completely transformed my life," said Silver, 33, who was so taken by the experience that she became a yoga instructor. "Within three months I was pain-free, headache-free--it was heaven. I finally had some hope."

For decades, yoga's abiding image in this country centered around incense, flaky gurus, Eastern religions and chanting hippies in pretzel poses. But in the last few years, the practice of yoga has exploded into the mainstream, and perhaps nowhere more so than on the Westside.

Thousands of new devotees are flocking to yoga classes in studios, sports medicine clinics and health clubs. Some see the trend as a response to the power workouts and physical excesses of the 1980s. Experts say that yoga has become a refuge for baby boomers seeking something kinder and gentler to treat their aging bodies and frazzled psyches.

"Our society has become so fast, and stress is epidemic," said Anne Cushman, associate editor of Yoga Journal, a leading trade publication based in Berkeley. "Yoga encourages an attitude towards the body which is not as brutal. It focuses on the right balance of consciousness--staying alert but relaxed, peaceful yet aware, and joyful."

For more than 2,000 years, yoga--whose name is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word yuj, meaning to yoke or join together--has remained an integral part of the Hindu religion. The most popular form, brought to public attention in the Western world in the 1960s, is hatha yoga, which emphasizes a series of physical postures ( asanas ), breathing ( pranayamas ) and some meditation.

Many practitioners say yoga is an art form that stresses the spiritual rather than the religious, and provides untold medical benefits.

For those reeling from physical injury caused by more aggressive aerobic activities, yoga is a welcome relief. Most enthusiasts report a greater sense of well-being and peace of mind. Others say their posture, digestion, coordination, circulation and respiration have improved greatly.

Many in the medical profession have taken notice.

Linda Gajevski, a spokeswoman for the American Yoga Assn., a national education network based in Cleveland, says her organization has received requests for information from hundreds of patients referred by their doctors and chiropractors. The association recommends yoga for such illnesses as diabetes, arthritis, asthma, back and neck problems and depression.

Other doctors believe yoga is a powerful antidote to heart disease, the nation's No. 1 killer.

The link between emotional stress and heart disease is much more documented," said Dr. Dean Ornish, director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito and author of a book that advocates yoga as a means of reversing heart disease. "The stretching, breathing and meditation exercises in yoga provide a synergy and a powerful system of quieting the mind and body and reducing stress," Ornish said.

Some fitness instructors say yoga has gained more followers as people become more aware that a toned and well-muscled body is not enough.

"Athletics is now more mind/body, combining every aspect of fitness, which also means having a fit mind," said Toni Brown, aerobics manager at Sports Club Los Angeles, who manages the facility's yoga classes.

Evidence of yoga's burgeoning popularity abounds. A recent Roper poll commissioned by the Yoga Journal showed that more than 6 million Americans now practice yoga, and about 17 million others expressed an interest in learning the ancient art.

Yoga videos by Jane Fonda, Kathy Smith and Ali MacGraw have heightened interest.

In recent years, a wide range of yoga classes has sprung up across the Westside. The flourishing yoga industry, which has also become a significant portion of the fitness business, now offers such mutations as yogarobics, yoga dance, yoga therapy, astro-yoga (tailoring exercises to one's astrological sign), double yoga (exercises with a partner), nude yoga and yoga with weights. Sessions usually range from 60 to 90 minutes and cost from $8 to $15.

Many yogis have for years conducted classes in the back yards of their homes. Now instructors teach crowded classes at athletic chains such as the Sports Connection and the Spectrum Club and have a dedicated at other sites.

One of the most successful studios, Yoga Works in Santa Monica, employs about 30 instructors who teach 98 classes a week that range from introductory to expert.

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