More MS news articles for Jan 2002

Don't look now, but yoga is 'in' again -- big time

January 16, 2002
By Rebecca Martin

Yoga practitioners are not all students of Far East, shaved-head men pursuing a distinct religion as they sit in a circle with their legs crossed chanting "om, om, om."

In fact, yoga instructors constantly must debunk such myths. They point out that yoga isn't a formal religion -- although for some people, it is almost a way of life -- but rather a combination of exercise and meditation that allows practitioners to get in touch with themselves, heal injuries, improve overall physical fitness, feel better and perhaps strengthen any religious beliefs they may have.

"It's more like coming home to your true self than anything else," said Micki Wilcox, yoga teacher at Orbis Personal Growth Center in Crescent Hill.

The goal of yoga is to help you relax "so instead of being kind of swept away by all that is coming up ... you can choose to attend" to what circumstances you see fit, Wilcox said. "It can be a very profound and transformative experience."

The word yoga literally means "union" in Sanskrit -- "in the sense of meditative union," said Laura Spaulding, president of Yoga East Inc., a nonprofit yoga center with two Louisville locations.

"It gives you a lot of discipline," Spaulding said, "and actually calms the mind down. It's a great form of fitness, stress reduction ... you name it."

Yoga comes in many different styles, ranging from exercises that can be practiced by people with such illnesses as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis to techniques that require high levels of physical fitness.

It can be as simple or as "kick-butt athletic" as you want it to be, said Jan Foster, a professional counselor and founder of LifeWise Inc.

Foster works with her clients using behavioral therapy, yoga and meditation. "For people who have never liked exercise, this appeals," she said. "It's so engaging at all these different levels."

Whatever it is, interest in yoga as an exercise and stress-leveler has increased dramatically in the United States in recent years. An estimated 15 million people now include some form of yoga in their exercise routine; five years ago, between 7 million and 8 million people practiced yoga techniques.

The new emphasis on practices that date back 5,000 years to India has been attributed to whole-hearted endorsement by celebrities of yoga as the reason they have improved their mental outlook, cured whatever has ailed them physically or buffed up their bodies -- or all of the above at once.

"It's in every magazine. It's in every newspaper," said Lauren Eirk-Greenwood, a yoga instructor at Yoga East and Baptist East Milestone Wellness Center.

And the phenomenon has taken hold in Louisville.

Yoga East, for example, now has about 750 people attending the 50 classes offered there every week. Milestone has increased its yoga classes from one a week to several every day, including weekends. Thirty-six people showed up on Christmas Eve morning for a yoga class at Bikram Yoga College of India-Crescent Hill, where total enrollment for the 18 classes offered daily throughout the week now stands at 1,200.

One of the relative newcomers to yoga is Eirk-Greenwood's stepmother, Ellen Eirk, who signed up for her first class six months ago and now takes part in four, 75-minute sessions each week at Yoga East.

"I absolutely adore yoga," said Eirk, a water-aerobics instructor. "I can't imagine life without it."

Despite her background with aerobics, Eirk admits she was initially leery of yoga and what it would require of her to master. "I was really nervous," she said, "because I thought you had to be really flexible, stand on your head, those kind of things."

Like others before her, though, Eirk found that classes are geared for expertise, and she started with techniques designed for beginners. Still, she said, the exercises were not always easy, and she used muscles that had not been worked in traditional exercise regimens.

Exercising mind

and body

The art of yoga consists of moving from one posture to another in a fluid motion, focusing on breathing, alignment and body mechanics. There is almost no hard-and-fast scientific evidence yet to support claims that mastering these positions can help reduce the risk of coronary diseases or other life-threatening ailments.

Like previous studies, clinical trials now underway are looking at yoga in combination with diet and other forms of exercise and stress reduction. But there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence offered by practitioners who report they have maintained weight loss, lowered blood pressure and helped their bodies heal through yoga.

Eirk has been able to stop taking medication prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis since she began yoga instructions six months ago. She was diagnosed with the painful joint condition 12 years ago.

The medical community overall has not endorsed yoga, but the techniques have been embraced by a number of physicians, including Louisville orthopedic surgeon R. Todd Hockenbury.

He is a marathon runner and former gymnast who was struggling with hamstring injuries and tendinitis in his Achilles tendon when a colleague and his own patients recommended he try yoga.

Hockenbury, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Louisville medical school, said he was expecting yoga to be "a big touchy-feely experience" and he was surprised at how demanding the exercises were and how important meditation is to completing them. "During this very physical workout, you do meditate. You have to meditate to get through those poses."

A student at the Bikram Yoga College of India on Herr Lane since 2000, he now suggests yoga -- any style -- to patients with tight muscles and to people who do aerobics. "I preach a lot of cross-training," said Hockenbury, who has improved his marathon time and also felt fewer aches and pains since embracing yoga practices.

Bikram and ashtanga are the two most popular styles of hatha yoga -- "sun-moon" in Sanskrit -- the most common type of yoga practiced by westerners.

Bikram, which was developed by the legendary Bikram Choudhury, is especially good for people coming out of the aerobics world, because it is considered to be the beginner's level, Yoga East's Spaulding said.

Shawna Hogan, a yoga instructor who studied under the legendary Bikram Choudhury in Beverly Hills, Calif., owns and directs Bikram Yoga College of India-Crescent Hill. Her studio offers 18 classes a week, all of them in the style developed by Choudhury, a native of India who has been involved in yoga since he was a small child.

Hogan's students go through their routines for 90 minutes in room temperatures that exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a requirement that has earned Bikram the nickname "hot yoga."

"The average person will come in and sweat buckets," Hogan said.

The purpose of the heat is to induce sweating to help participants clean the toxins out of their systems, Hogan said. It also helps with flexibility so people can better achieve the required postures.

Bikram classes consist of 26 postures and two breathing exercises that are considered beginning-level yoga. The class structure was designed to meet as many varieties of needs as possible, Hogan said. "The positions we do are universal. Each position warms and prepares the body for the next position."

Hogan said Bikram specifically boosts the immune system, regulates metabolism and "physically makes (participants) feel great."

Yoga teachers agreed that one of the greatest benefits of any style of yoga is overall physical well-being. Because of the manipulations and compressions of the body, they said the exercises help stimulate many of the body's organs and systems, promoting better general health.

Eirk-Greenwood said she has never felt better since she's been practicing yoga, although it is "hands-down the hardest thing I've ever done with my body in my entire life."

Since she got involved with yoga five years ago (after 10 years of teaching group fitness activities), she has dropped two dress sizes, become stronger, requires less sleep, had more energy and developed more endurance.

"There's nothing wrong with aerobics, but for me, you're working one muscle -- the heart," Eirk-Greenwood said. "With yoga, there's a complete fitness system."

Her favorite style of yoga is ashtanga, a Sanskrit word meaning "eight limbs."

Known as the "power yoga," ashtanga includes six series, or levels. The first series includes 55 postures that involve numerous push-ups and flexibility-inducing stances. Only two people in the whole world -- practitioners in Texas and India -- can do all six levels, and the first level is enough to last a lifetime, Eirk-Greenwood said.

Oddly enough, she said, the postures actually get harder the more you do them because the more adept you become, the more challenging you can make them. With yoga, "you're never done," she said. "It's just something you constantly improve on."

Ashtanga is not for beginners, Eirk-Greenwood said, and students should start with another style and then progress to ashtanga.

Each form of yoga has a reason to recommend it to meet an individual need, Eirk-Greenwood said. The environment can vary from class to class also, as some instructors and pupils prefer music and others want to work out in silence. And while there are people who find it easier to contemplate their postures with a minimum of lighting, others are more comfortable taking instructions under bright lights. As a result, Eirk-Greenwood said, beginners check out several studios and health clubs and try different techniques to "find out which styles work for you."

The average price per class in the Louisville area is $10 to $20 a class, and package deals are usually available through studios and fitness centers.

Few "props" are needed in yoga, and if they are, usually the instructor provides them. Some people find using a "sticky mat" helpful, however, because it keeps them from slipping.

Sportswear companies have developed yoga lines as interest in the techniques has blossomed, but pricey labels are not required. All that is required, Eirk-Greenwood said, is comfortable attire that isn't too revealing as participants move from one posture to another.

Generally, instructors said, to get the greatest benefit from yoga, students need to attend at least three days a week. And some centers, as well as bookstores, sell books and videos for people who want to practice at home.

Eirk-Greenwood said attending multiple classes each week becomes easier the more students get involved. "It takes over your life in a very good way. It makes you feel so wonderful, you can't just not practice it. Eventually, you'll want to do it more and more and more."