Everybody’s saying it. Yoga has swept the nation and shows no signs of slowing down. Doctors prescribe it to heart patients, NFL linebackers practice it, Hollywood celebrities from Jodie Foster to Halle BaIt happened overnight. On the morning of June 17, 1998, 25 million Americans who had gone to sleep as normal-size citizens woke to find that they were overweight. They hadn’t gained a single pound. But the government had suddenly decided that they were too heavy, a few pounds away from outright obesity and possibly in need of medication.erry, from Rhea Perlman to Raquel Welch boast about doing it even little kids are learning yoga moves in gym class. It’s as if the country went on an enlightenment field trip to India and I was absent that day.
Granted, calling yoga trendy seems somewhat oxymoronic. Can something that’s over 2,000 years old really fall into the same of-the-moment category as Spinning and snowboarding? (Talk about retro chic!) But there’s a difference between the yoga of the past 2,000 years and the yoga of, say, the past five, a difference that’s not so much physical as it is mystical. To Westerners, yoga has come to mean a series of pretzel-like poses that may or may not include a sprinkling of spirituality. Of course, that’s not really what the ancient yogis had in mind. “The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit meaning `union’; literally it is `union with God,’ “explains Sharon Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York. “In this country, many people have removed the spiritual component for fear of offending anyone, but then it’s not yoga.”
Well, in this country, apparently lots of people think yoga can be just a physical workout. (Leave it to Americans to separate church from state.) When I tried yoga, I went looking for moves that would strengthen my upper body as well as stretch the lower half. And even when the class did contain a smattering of meditation or chanting, I enjoyed it for its destressing and relaxation potential, but at no time was I inspired to renounce my Christianity and take up an Eastern religion. I doubt I was alone. Yoga purists may not like to hear it, but yoga is booming because it offers something for everyone.
There are at least five clear benefits: Yoga can make you as strong as a weight lifter; it can give you Gumby-like flexibility; it can realign your skeletal system to solve problems with balance, posture and sports performance; it can chill your stressed-out mind; and, yes, if you like, it can lift you to a higher state of consciousness.
All of what we’ve come to think of as yoga falls under the general umbrella of hatha yoga, meaning physical yoga (as opposed to purely mental yoga, which is also practiced in Hindu cultures). While hatha yoga comprises many different disciplines Astanga, Kundalini, Iyengar, Bikram, Sivananda and Kripalu, to name the most popular they all rely on the same basic assortment of postures or asanas as they are called in Sanskrit. There are literally thousands of possible asanas (although only about 150 are commonly practiced), and while certain ones are used more in one type of yoga than in another, the more important difference is how they are performed: whether they are held for several breaths, for example, or whether you flow continuously from one to the next and how your breathing is involved. Perhaps you are one of the many who have tried yoga and found it wanting, either because you didn’t understand the language, or more likely because you happened upon the wrong class. We suggest you try again but only after you’ve let us decode the disciplines for you.
First a caveat: As with any activity, doing yoga postures incorrectly or jumping into an advanced yoga practice too quickly can lead to injury. “You should start with a beginner class even if you are very fit,” advises Mara Carrico, a San Diego-based yoga teacher and author of Yoga Journal’s Yoga Basics. (I can vouch for this: I just ran my third marathon, and I lift weights somewhat regularly, but I still lacked the endurance and the strength, not to mention the technical know-how, to survive an advanced class I wandered into.)
Then there’s the question of whether or not you really need to do anything else if you practice yoga. Madonna says it’s all the workout she requires. Can that be true for the rest of us? “You certainly can do yoga just yoga and get a great body, but you have to do quite a bit of it,” says Molly Fox of Equinox in Manhattan that is, three times a week or more.
Increasingly, finding classes in the specific disciplines is possible (especially in drier where yoga has been popular for years), but bear in mind that most classes will probably be hybrids. They’ll use, for instance, the breathing exercises from one discipline, the precision movements of another and the meditation aspects of a third. If your health-club schedule lists just plain “yoga” or even “hatha yoga,” it’s probably a smattering of a few disciplines, and you’ll have to ask the teacher which ones she emphasizes. If the class is called “power yoga,” you can assume it’s largely Astanga, the most vigorous kind. Of course, all yoga disciplines provide a certain amount of strength, flexibility, healing, meditation and enlightenment. But each discipline has its own focus. We’ve broken down six styles of yoga (on page 122) to help you find the one that best suits your personality. Now you can go “om” again.
For stress relief
How to do the hand-foot pose (Hasta Padangusthasana in Sanskrit): Stand tall, draw right foot upward and grasp big toe. Extend leg straight in front and raise left arm to side; then slowly swing leg to the right side. Note: This pose and all poses were shown are practiced in other yoga disciplines as well.
For sweat and flexibility
How to do the tree pose (Vrikshasana): Place one foot, toes down, against the opposite thigh. Place palms together and, when you have your balance, slowly lift hands straight overhead. In Bikram, the room is heated to make stretching easier.
For health and healing
How to do the triangle pose (Trikonasana): With feet wide apart, point right foot forward and keep left foot sideways. Lift arms to shoulder height, lean forward and reach right hand down to grab the ankle. Raise left arm high and look at it. In Iyengar, you might place your hand on a wood block by your right foot if you can’t reach your ankle.
For spiritual enlightenment
How to do the eagle pose (Garudasana): Balance on right leg and wrap the left leg around front until left foot hooks behind right calf. Bring left elbow under the right and twist arms around until palms meet. For balance, focus on a point in front of you.
For serenity and relaxation
How to do the half lotus (Ardha Padmasana): Sit up straight and cross legs, with top foot on opposite thigh. (In a full lotus, you would place both feet on thighs.) Rest backs of hands on knees and touch thumbs to fingers. This peaceful pose is perfect for relaxation and meditation, both hallmarks of Sivananda.
For a workout
How to do a shoulder stand (Sarvangasana): Lie faceup and raise your legs straight above you, steadying your back with your hands. In Astanga, this pose is typically done toward the end of class.