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A Yoga Novice Searches for the Best Fit

Seeking physical and mental renewal, the writer gets off the sidelines and explores four styles of the popular discipline.

December 24, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I am a stressed-out corporate employee who spends far too much time growing pallid under fluorescent lights, mushing my intestines together eight hours a day in my chair, burning my eyeballs out in front of a computer screen, and steadily tightening my forearms as I pound away on my keyboard like a frustrated classical pianist.

During this holiday season my shoulders have only grown more humped, my overtaxed adrenal glands more productive. I needed help. Not just for my body, but for my head.

In this city of glamour and youth, where bodies reign supreme and fitness options are infinite, I wanted something different from the hamstring-tightening athletic activities I typically turn to for release.

I decided to try yoga.

I had dabbled in the 5,000-year-old Indian practice before, tagging along with friends who can bend at the waist and, straight-legged, touch their noses to their knees and breathe from their necks like furnaces. But I never knew what I was doing, or understood the distinctions between the various types of yoga, with their dizzying, multisyllabic Sanskrit names.

I set out on a quest to find the yoga for me.

The array of choices was bewildering. From bungalows in Echo Park to storefront studios, corporate basements, institutes, centers and colleges, it seems yoga classes are taught everywhere these days.

No one's quite sure how many millions of Americans are practicing yoga. A 1998 survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC pegged the number at more than 18 million (up from 6 million in 1994). But Kathryn Arnold, editor of Yoga Journal, believes the number is significantly higher now, although there are no current figures.

Yoga is among the fastest-growing types of exercise classes offered in gyms, among both men and women. A survey of U.S. fitness centers by IDEA Health and Fitness Assn., a trade group, found that 69% now offer yoga classes, compared with 31% in 1996 and 57% last year.

Of course, there are many Angelenos who are as well-versed with the various types of yoga as they are with, say, the menu at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. But there remain lots of semi-novices like me.

But which type of yoga to try?

Kundalini. Bikram. Vini. Vinyasa. Mysore. Hatha. Iyengar. Ashtanga. Power. What did they mean? Were they all different? Would they give me buns of steel, or a peaceful mind? Biceps like Madonna's (cool!) or a fleeting glimpse of nirvana?

After talking to various gurus, I narrowed my search to four forms of yoga that are most visible in Los Angeles: Kundalini, Ashtanga, Iyengar and Bikram.

With the exception of Kundalini, all of these are forms of Hatha yoga, the physical form of yoga. Although they all share certain poses and underlying philosophies, each practice, in its pure form, is distinct. In all cases I attended at least one level 1 or general class. Teachers pointed out that the benefits of yoga cannot come without regular practice. My findings stem from the admittedly superficial observations of a yoga neophyte, based solely on my class and a conversation with each teacher afterward.

(Of note: Teachers are extremely important. The same kind of yoga can vary widely depending on the teacher. Some teachers have trained for as little as six months, while others have studied for decades, traveling to India to work with a master. Do not be shy about asking your teacher how long he or she has trained, and with whom.) For the sake of comparison, I wore a Polar A-5 monitor, which kept track of my heart rate (in beats per minute) and the calories burned; the results are noted below. Of the four types, Bikram burned the most calories for me. I also carefully noted the less concrete, but no less beneficial, changes in my mind. (The very talk of calories and heart rates no doubt curdles the blood of true yogis, most of whom see yoga as primarily a spiritual practice with important physical side effects.)

At the end of my week, I cannot discern which benefits came from which yoga. But I can say that my head is calmer and my often achy back feels better than it has in years. I lost five pounds. And though I have only just begun, I have tasted the pleasures of the spiritual side.

Kundalini

I walked in off the roaring traffic and into a world where everything seemed bathed in soft, golden light. I had arrived at Golden Bridge. More Kundalini classes are offered here than anywhere else in Los Angeles.

The word Kundalini literally means "coiled hair of the beloved." Kundalini works to move energy up through the spine. This release of energy is often symbolized by a serpent, which is uncoiled in the course of the yoga practice.

Golden Bridge had the feel of an ashram. The studio had wooden floors and brick walls. Our teacher, Sada Sat Kaur Khalsa, sat on a stage. She wore a turban (because she is a Sikh), a special turban-sized headset, flowing white robes and a beatific expression. The room was shadowed; it felt like nap time.

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