Modern yoga a take on an ancient art

Yoga: If your first thought is an emaciated, bearded holy man sitting on a bed of spikes, a little updating is in order.

Yoga is one of the most popular, fastest-growing health practices in the United States. Americans spend some $2.95 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, holidays, videos and more, according to a study commissioned by Yoga Journal, whose readership has doubled to 365,000 in the past four years. An estimated 16.5 million Americans practice yoga.

Yoga is especially attractive to Baby Boomers who have worn out their knees running, seen the power evaporate from their backhands and are thinking some exercise program with less physical impact on their aging bodies might be a good idea.

That is not to say that yoga is just for duffers. According to practitioners, yoga is a useful, sometimes essential practice for maintaining not just good physical health, but mental health as well.

According to Whitney Lawless, a yoga teacher and licensed massage therapist at The Massage Sanctuary in Capitol Hill's Loveless Building, there are so many kinds of yoga that it is easy to find one that matches someone's desires, needs and lifestyle. You can choose heart-pounding, sweat-inducing routines that call for bending in ways seemingly impossible for adult human beings, or slow-motion, elegant routines that don't even break a sweat.

Stretching is a big part of the physical routine, but that is the means toward creating strength and flexibility. The strength and flexibility allows practitioners to achieve balance in the body. The routines, incorporating poses with specific physical benefits, can be done quickly in succession - creating a sweat generating workout - or slowly to create stamina.

Yoga, which means "union" in Sanskrit, originated in India and is intended as a union between the mind, body and spirit. Yoga as practiced today in Seattle and the rest of Western culture, focuses on what the Indians call asana, which refers to the practice of physical postures or poses. Here the words yoga and asana are often used interchangeably.

"It is an ancient form of movement with breath for the purpose of liberating the spirit," Lawless said. "It is not religious. It comes from a religious tradition. It is a way of communicating with yourself."

The idea is that through a regimen of poses and postures the practitioner is able to focus on what his or her body is doing, where it is in the room, in the city, in the universe and thus become aware of him or herself. According to practitioners, that physical path to awareness, very simply put, makes you happy.

"In hatha yoga you work on liberating the spirit through the physical body," Lawless said. She said that meditation is an important part of the practice.

Intent is an import part of successful yoga practice, too.

"It's sort of focusing your brain first, before you start flailing your body around," Lawless said. "To understand the point that you are moving on purpose, not on accident because somebody told you to."

According to Lawless there is no single right way to do yoga, but there are wrong ways. The wrong ways are the ones that do not include mindfulness, that overextend the practitioner's abilities and can lead to injuries.

"There are a lot of unfamiliar movements that can cause injury," Lawless warned. She said that although lots of people learn yoga through books or videos, she recommends having a yoga trainer, at least to start.

Yoga can be done in a small area in your own home. What is needed is a clear area at least three-feet wide and as long as the person's height. Also, unobstructed overhead, the height of a standard eight-foot ceiling is fine.

Books and videos are widely available, often in second hand stores right next to the Jane Fonda workout videos. Classes are also easy to find with an internet search, and, according to Lawson, range from $8 to $18 per class depending on quality, duration and whether they are purchased individually or several at a time.

"I think you can do it right away," Lawless said about how long it takes to be able to practice yoga. "Anyone can do yoga at any age, other than very small children, because there are so many different kinds that you can do, regardless of any kind of physical limitation."

Once you are a practicing yogi (that is someone who practices yoga, not a baseball catcher), three times a week for 30 to 40 minutes is a good maintenance level.

"Once you start doing more than that, you start to get more radical," she said.

The Massage Sanctuary, 705 Broadway E, can be reached at 322-5549.[[In-content Ad]]