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Yoga For Wellness: Body, Mind & Spirit

Article By Cynthia Logan

Photos By Larry Cook

What's hip, hot and done in almost every gym and spa in America? Yep, yoga. What do Sting, Madonna, Kate Winslet, Raquel Welch, Ali MacGraw and the L.A. Dodgers have in common? Yep again-yoga. They're all hooked, along with a growing number of Americans, whether they're baby boomers with jolted joints or "x"ers who-hey, just know what's happening. Any way you look at it, the practice that began here around the time George Harrison got together with Ravi Shankar is now officially mainstream. It's so popular, in fact, that "Power Yoga" instructor Bryan Kest has up to 150 students in a single class! In Santa Monica, California (of course) there are four major yoga studios within a six-mile radius; all are thriving. Target, Big K , Wal-Mart, local libraries and video rental stores all carry the latest yoga videos.

What's the blockbusting draw? For one thing, it works. And keeps on working, on every system in your body, including the endocrine glands and fascial (connective) tissue-systems that aren't even touched by other forms of exercise. Though it's possible to sustain an injury, more often than not, yoga relieves many symptoms and conditions without the jarring impact other activities incur. Enthusiasts claim that many of the ills of our time, including hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis and diabetes can be prevented, alleviated or cured by regular practice of postures and breathing techniques.

And that's just the physical stuff. While the effort and rewards are powerful (a recent acquaintance confided that he thought he was in excellent shape until he took a yoga class!), the discipline also affords mental and emotional fitness; many people experience a deep sense of well-being from the very first class, walking out with a new found sense of relaxation and clarity of mind. Others experience emotional "cleansing" as repressed feelings are released to the surface. Such spontaneous experiences are respected and protected in the non-competitive, nourishing environment that most yoga classes provide.

On a psychological level, yoga can be a profound tool, gently uncovering negative patterns and offering more comfortable, spacious ways of being with yourself and others. It's like cleaning the windshield of your car, so that what you see is in fact what is there, not what you thought was there with mud and bug juice splashed in front of your eyes!

For those on a spiritual path, the discipline of a regular yoga practice provides a foundation which supports the trek. The word yoga, loosely translated from Sanskrit, means "union." For some, that means union with the Divine or with God; for others, it may be uniting hands to feet in a forward bend. But, beyond stretching, beyond strengthening, yoga clears pathways within the body that allows your natural energy to shoot straight through you, like a laser beam of light, illuminating the way. For those who have taken the difficult road, landing in prison, yoga can unlock metaphorical doors. Experimental programs with inmates have produced excellent results and, in some cases, been instrumental in complete rehabilitation. Other social applications have brought comfort to the mentally ill and relieved chronic pain and tension in thousands of individual cases.

Yoga is also very educational-you can't spend time on the mat without learning something about your body, whether it's a place you didn't know was so flexible (or so tight!), a habit you didn't realize you had, or how you organize yourself for movement. In India, yoga is considered "physical culture," and is offered in many public schools. Discovering details about the amazingly complex and beautiful organism we call home should be a rich experience everyone may enjoy-not just doctors, dancers and athletes. Learning to move properly is an investment in life-long health and adds grace and ease to daily life.

You may not look particularly graceful in your first yoga class, but putting yourself in what feels like an awkward position will yield great benefits-and you don't have to make yourself into a pretzel to realize them. Just learning to stand on your own two feet with awareness will go a long way towards standing on them more securely in the world, both physically and metaphorically. Even a gentle twisting posture will wake up your liver and spleen, assisting the release of toxins and strengthening your immune system. Any of the standing poses will firm and tone both arms and legs, and balancing postures will help you: a) feel like a dancer, b) ignite fierce determination, 3) awaken your sense of humor, or 4) all of the above!

Though the famous headstand should not be attempted by beginners, a shoulder-stand (it can be done with the support of a wall) benefits overall metabolism, can help prevent insomnia and allergies and reverse the effects of gravity. Known as the "Queen of the Asanas" (asana is the Sanskrit word for pose, or posture), the shoulder-stand is often maligned by well-meaning medical types, since it is sometimes poorly performed and can indeed compress the neck. Done correctly, however, it can actually correct neck problems and is wonderful for those suffering from both overactive and underactive thyroid glands. There are many gentle backbends appropriate for beginners; a version of the "cobra" pose is actually part of a back strengthening protocol prescribed by physical therapists. More advanced practitioners know the exhilaration that comes from defying gravity in the deeper backbends. In general, practicing yoga poses with deep breathing maintains a youthful spine, improves digestion and assists all body functions.

The multi-dimensional benefits of yoga have been recognized in Germany, Australia and England for use in medical treatment protocols. Here in the United States, Dr. Dean Ornish has established a rehabilitative program for cardiac patients which includes yoga and meditation as pivotal factors in reversing heart disease.

Bozeman boasts many different yoga styles, including Ashtanga (you'll need a sweat towel) Power, Flow, Kripalu, Kundalini, Bikram, Iyengar, YogaMotion, and therapeutic applications for your sensitive back-and everything in between. As a point of interest, all of the above are types of "Hatha" yoga, meaning that they focus on or include physical poses. Check out Yoga instructors in this publication, local gyms, the Emerson Cultural Center, the Kagy Professional building, YogaMotion, and the Food Co-op bulletin board to find classes, teachers and schedules. Why not try them all? Taking yoga classes could be numbers 1-10 on your New Year's resolution list Consider it a personal upgrade-you'll be investing in a vehicle you're going to own for the rest of your life, and there is no cheaper health insurance! Not to mention the fact that you'll be in excellent company.