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BODY WATCH : Stretching Your Limits : It's healthy, relaxing and it's a great workout. We're talking yoga--and its followers find it more fulfilling than aerobics, running or weights.

June 27, 1995|CHRIS RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People who don't live in Los Angeles think that everyone here meditates, eats granola and studies yoga. They might not be too far off on that last point.

Yoga is undeniably "in"--with a profusion of schools and styles all across town.

No longer a fringe practice of hippies, Bohemians and counterculture McGovernics, the physical and spiritual discipline of yoga--practiced for thousands of years by Hindus and Buddhists in the East seeking enlightenment and higher states of consciousness--has gone mainstream as a means to fitness and well-being.

Even corporate institutions are offering classes to employees for stress education.

"Yoga is much more popular today than ever before," says Bikram Choudbury, founder of the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills. "Twenty years ago, there were three yoga schools [in Los Angeles]; today there are hundreds. Twenty years ago, there were hardly any yoga books on the shelves; now there are hundreds of books and videos."

What is it about the stretches, twists and turns of yoga that draw people to devote many hours a week to their study, and what benefits do they derive?

"Yoga is a way to ensure that the spine stays supple--it keeps the juices flowing. Yoga is part of good spinal hygiene," says Scott Conklin, a Glendale chiropractor, who began studying yoga while in chiropractic college.

"I absolutely recommend yoga to my patients. Anyone can benefit from it," he says.

For his patients who can't or won't take classes, Conklin teaches them stretches to do at home.

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Yoga takes many forms, and hatha--the physical practice involving poses and breathing--has many schools, including Iyengar, Kundalini, Sivenanda and Astanga. All of them share the guiding principles of yoga, which can be traced back thousands of years to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yet each has its own specific emphasis.

Some of these schools have been named after a teacher (Iyengar, Sivenanda); others named for one of the eight parts of the system of yoga (Astanga, Kundalini), and still others--such as "power yoga," put together by Westerners--mix and match different styles, eschewing the traditional background in favor of pure exercise.

The classic poses of hatha are familiar even to those who have never taken a class: headstand, shoulder stand, the cross-legged full lotus. A typical class, which ranges from one to two hours, involves a variety of those and other poses skillfully combined to stretch, tone and strengthen the whole body.

Perhaps because yoga combines a good workout with mental focus and relaxation, it has become for its practitioners more enjoyable and fulfilling than aerobics, running or weights.

Yoga can be the calming antidote to stressed-out lives, a blissful time of concentration, focus and balance to counter lives filled with high-tech distractions and the relentless demands of careers. And it can be done at any age.

But what truly separates yoga from other forms of exercise is that yoga uses the most powerful part of the body: the mind. Through the rigorous discipline involved in the practice of yoga, the mind is harnessed and brought into the exercise process.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John McEnroe are just two of the many athletes who have used the physical and mental benefits of yoga to prolong and enhance their playing careers. Abdul-Jabbar rid himself of migraines, while McEnroe and others found benefits in increased flexibility and fitness.

Los Angeles Dodgers trainer Bill Rubler, who has been with the team more than 40 years, teaches a stretch program to his players that consists of yoga poses.

"I've been doing [yoga] personally for nearly 25 years. I use basic poses for flexibility, general well-being and injury prevention," Rubler says.

Yoga, of course, is not a panacea. But done properly, yoga exercises work every muscle group in the body and the concentration required by the poses can calm and quiet the mind.

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Teachers on Tape

These days, it seems the fitness-video market is being flooded with yoga tapes. And it's no surprise. Gentle and introspective, yoga may just be the perfect antidote for the stressed-out, overworked adult of the 1990s. Shape magazine compiled some of the best new programs around and rated them on a scale from one to five stars. (Unless otherwise noted, these tapes can be purchased by calling Collage Video Specialties Inc. at [800] 433-6769.) Take a look:

"Ali MacGraw's Yoga Mind & Body" (Warner Home Video, 1994)

*****

Stunning scenery of sunsets and sand dunes combined with gentle drumbeats and New-Age instrumentals highlight this exquisite yoga video. MacGraw and other students are led through an energetic yoga session by yoga master Erich Schiffmann. Although this video is designed for the more experienced yoga students, Schiffmann's distinct and mesmerizing cues will help you through if you're a newcomer. A total body-mind experience.

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"Denise Austin's Yoga Essentials" (Peter Pan Industries Inc./Parage Video, 1994)

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