Yoga's Knotty pleasures

"Look at it this way," my pal Red said recently. "Aerobics was the fitness trend for the '80s, but yoga is totally '90s. It's the ultimate de-stressifier. I mean, do you know anyone who wouldn't benefit from being more relaxed?" Good point, I thought, and I signed up for a beginning yoga class.Now, I've never been one for group activities. I feel remarkably self-conscious in an aerobics class because I'm always two steps behind everyone else -- they're going to the left, I'm going to the right. Forget it. Needless to say, I was doubtful about this whole yoga thing. Would they be blasting Windham Hill records? Would I be miserably self- conscious as everyone else twisted themselves into pretzels and I could barely cross one leg over the other? Yikes! Obviously I could use some practice in the art of relaxation, so I quit worrying and went.It's a good thing I did, too, because my pals were right. Yoga rules. And my fears were completely unsubstantiated: there was no annoying New Age music, everyone was encouraged to do what was comfortable for them, and best of all, there was nary a shiny spandex workout suit in sight. The teacher was mellow and my classmates were equally good-natured.The practice of yoga goes back 5,000 years to Hindu origins in India. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yoke, meaning "union with the divine" or "union of body and spirit." In Hinduism there are various types of yoga paths: Bhakti yoga, the path of devotion; Karma yoga, the path of selfless action; Jhana yoga, the path of transcendental knowledge; and Raja yoga, the eight-step path.The eight steps of Raja yoga are said to lead the seeker from ignorance to truth: yama (self-control); niyama (strict observance of character); asanas (body postures); pranayama (breathing exercises); pratyahara (withdrawal from sense- desires); dharana (concentration on an object); dhyana (meditation on the divine); and samadhi (union with the divine).Yoga taught in the United States is usually derived from various aspects of Raja yoga's eight-step path, particularly asanas, breathing exercises, and meditation and relaxation practices. Most classes are taught in the Hatha yoga style, a limb of Raja yoga that focuses on self-realization by means of perfecting the body and uses the above techniques to achieve physical alignment, calmness, and awareness in a union of body, mind, and spirit.In a Hatha yoga class, you learn a balance of focus and surrender. That is, you focus on your alignment of muscles and body parts as you move into a pose and hold it, and then surrender to the stretch by breathing into it.Even after just a few classes, I learned how to tune in to tightness in my muscles and restrictions in my breath. By being more aware of physical tension, one learns to consciously release that tension and relax, which is really helpful if you work at a desk job, are on your feet all day, or suffer from anxiety or insomnia. Unlike doing aerobics or working out at a gym, where you may be listening to tunes or watching a big-screen TV while you exercise, practicing yoga is a quiet activity.Focusing on something simple like releasing muscular tension or breathing can help quiet the mind as well, because there are no distractions; you're not thinking about all the stuff that needs doing or didn't get done. Instead, you're focused on stretching and relaxing. And to reap the benefits, you don't have to do yoga for an hour every day: 10 or 15 minutes in the morning or evening, or even during a break at work, can make you feel much better.In addition to Hatha yoga, other types of yoga are taught in the U.S. Ashtanga yoga employs the same postures as Hatha yoga but arranges them in a continuously flowing dynamic sequence, placing an emphasis on heat, motion, and building endurance. Kundalini yoga focuses on releasing untapped potential energy from the chakra, or energy center, at the base of the spine. Through postures, intense breathing exercises, and meditation, energy is released from the base of the spine and moves up toward the skull. The awakening of this potential energy invigorates the mind, body, spirit, and sexual organs.Sivananda yoga combines the four branches of yoga -- Karma, Raja, Bhakti, and Jhana -- into a spiritual and physical practice that focuses on proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, and diet, as well as a positive attitude through meditation.FINDING A CLASS If you know you want to take Hatha yoga, the Iyengar Yoga National Association can give you information about certified Iyengar instructors in the United States; call 1-800-889-YOGA for more information.Mary Iannotti, a yoga teacher at the Iyengar Yoga Institute, suggests that beginners take an introductory class in which every student is new. In an all-beginners class teachers take more time to explain the asanas and their benefits, and some students may find stretching with their peers less intimidating.For more experienced practitioners who are looking for a new teacher, she recommends that they take one class with a few different teachers and then pick the person they relate to the best. "All teachers [within the same style] have the same training," she explains. "But the way we use the practice for our spiritual path is going to be different."It's a good idea to ask instructors about the style of yoga they teach before deciding to take a trial class. Besides finding out whether they focus on Hatha, Ashtanga, Kundalini, Sivananda, or a hybrid style, you'll discover the teacher's personal interpretation of yoga, be it spiritual, physical, or both.Once you learn the basic asanas and breathing techniques, it's easy to practice away from class. The first time my housemate saw me doing yoga at home, I was down on all fours, and he said: "Are you OK? Are you about to get sick?""No," I replied. "This is Cat Pose. It's good for the lower- back muscles."Many yoga schools and teachers have special introductory rates for beginning students -- classes can cost as little as $3! -- and many offer yoga retreats in places like Hawaii for a rejuvenating vacation. Yoga classes geared toward expectant mothers are also popular, as are classes for seniors.Think of how great the world would be if everyone relaxed more. It's never been easier.

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