Getting Down With Yoga

My morning routine probably doesn't differ much from that of the average working mom. It doesn't begin with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, reading the headlines and a morning jaunt to the gym.Instead, the day starts with slapping the snooze button a good four times, racing in and out of the shower and throwing on something to look presentable, followed by the Coke-induced caffeine rush to get the blood flowing. The next step, equally important, is waking my 4-year-old daughter, bringing her to life, getting her off to pre-school by 8 a.m. and getting myself to work.As for a regimen, that's about it. But recently, I decided to alter my drill and participate in an 8:30 a.m. yoga class. I still managed to get the little one off and running, but the idea of rearranging my ritual was a bit frazzling.Class began on time, and the instructor was first to arrive -- unlike many structured and physically challenging aerobics classes I've attended. My previous experiences usually began with a class full of over-eager students waiting for a silicone-enhanced, be-bopping peroxide blonde to prance in at her convenience and lead us in some top 40 song and dance routine. And as soon as she started to break a sweat, she'd walk around shouting, "OK, let's do 10 more. OK, five more. You can do it -- just 20 more!"I don't know what I was expecting from this foray into yoga -- maybe a bunch of granola heads praying to Buddha, playing chimes and loving one other. Sure, that seems like an ignorant notion in retrospect, but I'm not exactly known for being hip to the whole touchy-feely thing. I like my personal space -- the don't-stand-too-close-or I'll-hurl-into-a-panic-attack type. But, as I quickly discovered, I had nothing to worry about -- no one tried to touch my spiritual center.No one wore robes or held little cymbals between their fingertips, either. There weren't even candles or incense burning. Some students wore body suits, some wore shorts and T-shirts and I think one or two were in a thonged leotard, but I wasn't one of them. I chose non-descript sweats as my fashion statement.Though this experience wasn't turning out to be as awkward as I had imagined, I couldn't help but notice I was the only one in the class without a fresh pedicure. You see, there is this requirement in yoga classes that participants take off their shoes and socks. It's kind of a gross thought -- looking at people's feet-- but how could I not notice that I had the only paint-free toenails? And, since when is a nail job a pre-requisite for yoga, I wondered.Class began. The first step was to lie on a mat, cover my eyes with a Beenie Baby and relax. It's actually referred to as an eye pillow, which makes sense, as it was filled with lavender and was kind of soothing. But I still found it difficult to unwind, as I kept peering out from under my bag to make sure everyone else was doing it, too. As the new kid, of course, I was gripped by the fear of doing something wrong. I must have slid my bag off five or six times just to be sure the whole class wasn't standing around laughing at me.After approximately five minutes of relaxing, the stretching began. This part was easy -- a piece of cake, I thought. But by halfway through the one-hour class, cake was the most distant thing from my mind. As the activity began to take its toll, I started to question myself. Why hadn't I kept in better shape through the years? Why are my limbs shaking?And for God's sake, since when had stretching and breathing become so damned difficult?But much to my surprise, as the time passed, I became less conscious of who was watching me. Instead, I was focused and concentrated on movement and poses with such names as the Downward Dog, the Lotus and the Warrior. By the time class was over, I realized there was something to all of this -- the concentration techniques, the breathing, the leave-everything-outside-the-door-and-focus routine. So much emphasis and awareness was placed on breathing.Sure, there are plenty of skeptics about yoga, just as there are doubters about the whole New Age movement, the technology boom and any lifestyle labeled as "alternative." Although the four don't necessarily go hand in hand, they all have one thing in common -- many people are afraid of them, Bible Belters included.Such fear, especially in relation to yoga, seems unfounded, if not downright silly. As with anything different, it can be a little intimidating at first, but aren't all new experiences? And we need to be open enough to try something new once in a while, be it eating sushi, slurping down oysters on the half-shell or even -- gulp -- getting married.Despite the ever-popular "Burn, baby, burn" approach to exercise, the more tranquil world of yoga, a practice that began more than 5,000 years ago in India, offers a less-demanding alternative. Taking into consideration that few Americans are committed to any type of regular exercise, one can only imagine how few practice yoga.Since making its way to the East and West coasts decades ago, yoga also has made its way -- albeit at a much slower pace -- to Oklahoma. Granted, it has yet to reach the popularity of weight training or in-line skating, but the trend is catching on faster than expected.The biggest misconception about yoga seems to be the half-brained idea that it's some sort of religious cult, which isn't a surprising attitude, coming from a community where a 157-foot cross soon will mark the landscape. The fact is, people from all walks of life practice yoga, even right here in central Oklahoma. There's the Baptist minister, the restaurant owner, the school teacher, the physical therapist; the list goes on and on.It is not, as some would have you believe, a bunch of wing-nuts sitting with their ankles behind their necks, chanting in the dark.Yes, people want to feel better -- even in Oklahoma. As its adherents quickly discover, yoga offers the opportunity to improve your sense of well-being, not just physically, but mentally, too.Valerie Kit Love, who teaches two styles of yoga, both Kripalu and Iyengar, began her practice in Oklahoma City two and one-half years ago with three students meeting in her living room. Today, Love has 80 to 100 students participating in group and private daily sessions. Once a body builder and weight trainer, Love stresses the importance of flexibility and mental well-being for all ages."The Baby Boomers are aging, and they still want to be fit, but they are no longer willing to pound the pavement day in and day out," she said. "Yoga offers a way to address strength and flexibility -- the two most important components of any age."Love is not alone in that assessment. Pick up any women's magazine, and -- if you can overlook the air-brushed models on the cover -- read the exercise and health articles. Priorities are changing. The waif look is out; healthy is in.Since leaving the gyms behind after the birth of my daughter four years ago, getting back into an exercise routine has seemed nearly impossible. But yoga, and this whole mind-body connection concept, isn't so bad. It certainly is not as flaky as it is widely perceived to be. Yoga is considered an art form, an exercise, a coming together of the body and mind. It also is recommended by many doctors and psychologists.After my initial group class with Love, I chose to sit in on a private session with Hatha yoga instructor Wilma Miles, owner of Miles of Relaxation. Hatha yoga is similar to Iyengar in that it is considered a physical yoga, sans chanting.Miles met with two clients, one with multiple sclerosis and the other a cancer survivor. Both women had been training with Miles for more than three years. The women described similar feelings of anger upon learning of their illness and agreed that yoga was the only form of exercise that soothed both body and mind.Miles, who began practicing Hatha approximately 20 years ago, vowed not to allow yoga to die in Oklahoma. Initially unsure of her ability to teach, she gave it a whirl and now instructs full time. Miles describes her classes as filling the various needs of her students."I work with people who are depressed, and there's a lady I'm working with now who's got Crohn's [disease] and lupus. Another is dying [of] cancer," she said.Through working with these patients, Miles found their anger and fear to be the greatest impediments to the healing process. As with most unexpected and unpleasant life changes, those who suffer from terminal illnesses are faced with the task of overcoming their anger, fear and denial and are trying to come to terms with reality. The mind set of these students, Miles said, was keeping them from focusing on the present. Yoga has been an avenue chosen by many who struggle with these emotions as a calming mechanism, allowing them to focus on getting well, not getting worse.But yoga isn't just for those suffering from physical illness. For instance, the stress of juggling a career, raising children, managing a home, paying the bills and still finding time for yourself can be exhausting enough, even on days when things go according to plan. And when unexpected setbacks or disappointments occur, the pressure mounts.Of course, there are a variety of pharmaceutical alternatives available to help get us through the madness, but that presents its own set of troublesome issues. Unlike medication, yoga won't leave you with side effects -- no nausea, no hang-overs, no tingly head or coma-like symptoms.Those who choose to lead a Prozac-free existence may want to check out this alternative coping mechanism. If you're like me and turned off by the whole peace-love thing, yoga may not be for you. But even I managed to get past such reservations after the first session."When you do yoga on a continuous daily effort, even if it's five, 10 or 15 minutes a day, you will find that you absolutely will stop doing things that make you feel bad -- you start doing things that make you feel good," Miles said."I think it's discipline. If you can apply discipline to your life, it works." Most of the students I spoke with told similar stories. Yoga made them feel better, they said, even after their first session.Rick, a 40-year-old local business owner, said his body has never been more flexible, and he credits yoga with improving his Tae Kwon Do skills, as well as his golf swing. Recalling his first yoga experience, Rick said it was a bit unnerving, which is why he opted for a private session. But, in hindsight, he wouldn't recommend first-timers do it that way."The first time you go [to a group class], you realize that people are there who are just as inflexible and just as apprehensive as you are," he said."I wanted to do an exercise where I could get lots of stretching, work on my flexibility and work on my strength. But I really had not talked to anyone who I thought knew what they were doing in the Oklahoma City area until I met Laura Meyers. She has a power yoga class that's probably one of the most intense workouts I've ever done in my life."Not to insult anyone's intelligence, Rick said, but he also was aware of the stigma attached by locals to trying new things."Everyone in Oklahoma has this idea that it's just about chanting or sitting with incense burning, and it's nothing like that," he said."I've been doing it for three months, and I can't believe the difference in my flexibility. I've lost about 10 pounds."Meyers recently moved to Oklahoma City from Colorado, where yoga is as familiar to Rocky Mountain locals as pawn shops and churches are to Oklahomans. Meyers teaches both Iyengar style, an offshoot of Iyengar, and Ashtanga yoga, a dynamic precise series of yoga postures synchronized with the breath."People have this idea that in yoga, you get into this lotus position or this pretzel-like pose and you chant a couple 'Ahms,' and that's exactly not what yoga is all about," she said."I'm new to Oklahoma, but maybe people are less likely to let go of stereotypes in the Midwest than people on the coastal areas, like in California, where stereotypes aren't so important."I think it's fear and letting go of stereotypes -- understanding that you're ignorant about something. Not stupid, but ignorant -- that you just don't know."As the number of exercise alternatives increases, the task of getting into shape no longer is limited to joining a health club. Once an avid gym-goer myself, I found it a great way to feel good, look good and send the endorphins rushing to my brain.But the last trip I made to the local workout facility was a complete joke. The women: Most of them had boob jobs and were wearing make-up, thongs and designer leotards. The men: They were there primarily to check out the same boob jobs, thongs and designer leotards and were just as pathetic. How any man can squat 200 pounds and manage to wink at a passing babe is beyond me.It was an experience that left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable in the very place that was supposed to make me feel the opposite way.By contrast, it's extremely unlikely the atmosphere in a yoga class would ever be confused with that of a singles bar. Best of all, it is a discipline that not only enhances flexibility and balance, but weight management, too."People in Oklahoma think that to push yourself in aerobics and step aerobics, that that's the only way to work out," Meyers said."So I feel like people aren't as aware here. You do not have to stress your body out with aerobic dance to give yourself a beautiful, lean, supple, strong body."Because Oklahomans have had so little exposure to yoga, Meyers said building her classes has taken a huge amount of advertising and a lot of time spent passing out flyers -- unlike in California and Colorado, where her classes were overflowing.Yes, there is a very Nineties side to this ancient practice -- marketing, advertising and earning a living. Yoga instructors don't have time to sit around in twisted positions all day and play chimes, even if they were so inclined. These are people like you and me who want to achieve balance in their lives and like helping other people reach the same goals. Most of all, they aren't afraid to face the smirking expressions of people who don't understand their profession.Yoga is not a religion. It is a therapeutic pursuit designed not only to enhance flexibility and muscle tone, but also to clear the mind of potentially damaging and intrusive thoughts. Utilized by people of practically all religious and ethnic backgrounds, yoga strengthens one's ability to grow spiritually, cope with everyday stress and find a sense of peace.These moments of relaxation allow thoughts to enter the mind, but also allow them to leave. Yoga is about learning to free the mind of everyday stresses and anxieties, but not by blocking thoughts out -- rather, by accepting and releasing them.Yoga still may not be widely accepted here, but its popularity and acceptance is on the rise. The metro area is full of instructors who practice a variety of yoga styles and who are eager to talk about and demonstrate the effects and benefits of their practice."The truth is the truth. If it's from India, Africa or China, you can't change the truth," Miles said."A lot of people have misconceptions and have blinders on, and they can only do this one thing."I am a Christian, and I do yoga, and I pray and meditate. I do it all, and I think you can do it all. We all have the freedom of choice."

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