Yoga: everything 'ohmmm' is new again

July 22, 1993|By Kathleen Curry | Kathleen Curry,Charlotte Observer

I am flat on my back on a blue vinyl mat in a gym that smells vaguely of yesterday's karate class, listening to haunting flute music, staring at the ceiling, exhaling breaths deep enough to fill sails, pressing my body into the earth and thinking . . .

This is exercise?

An hour later even my toes are trembling as I stretch oh-so-placidly to pose my body into positions that existed before some civilizations were born, witnessing my muscular tensions and my preconceptions drain away.

This is exhilarating.

This is yoga -- and it's hot.

Yoga is the newest fitness craze nationwide -- if anything that dates back 6,000 years and is synonymous with the 1960s can be called new.

But this is not your parents' incense-and-peppermint yoga. Yoga is invading aerobics studios and physical education classes, and the yogi next to you just might work for IBM.

"The stress level of our lives right now appears to be compelling people to hunt a way to release stress and tension," says Gail Fries, an elementary school teacher who teaches yoga two nights a week in Charleston, S.C.

Newsweek magazine officially anointed it as a trend last year. The 25-year-old YogaJournal, published in Berkeley, Calif., has watched its circulation double during the last five years.

With her serene demeanor and taut, sinewy body, instructor Mary Lou Buck of Charlotte is a walking advertisement for the benefits of yoga.

"Yoga is the oldest exercise known to man," she says.

Yoga has numerous variations, from meditation (the person sitting in the "yoga position" for hours and chanting is the common cliche) to psychology to stretching. The different schools of yoga are named for the gurus who developed them.

Ms. Buck and Ms. Fries teach "hatha yoga," the most popular form of yoga in the United States these days. It is the most physical form of yoga, concentrating on strengthening and toning muscles while focusing one's breathing as a cleansing tool for the mind.

The goal is always unity of body, mind and spirit -- yoga's Sanskrit translation is "unity."

As a result, yoga may be the perfect '90s fitness tool. In the sky's-the-limit '80s, people wanted to look good; in the down-sizing '90s, we want to feel better.

"As a physical therapist, I've been looking for 15 years for some answers to neck and back pain," says Jan Tooke, who is a self-described veteran of the pain wars himself, from chiropractors to surgery to electric stimulation and psychological therapy. "Then I walked into one of [Ms. Buck's] yoga classes and saw the answers have been here all along."

Mr. Tooke now recommends yoga regularly to his patients (and anyone who asks) as a tension reliever and a way to conquer chronic pain.

Many of the positions are named after animals and nature -- the Cobra, the Crane, the Sun, the Ocean. Some are deceptively simple-looking.

Ha.

Yoga instructors can spend the better part of an hour teaching people to simply stand correctly. In the basic triangle position, more than 50 different muscle groups are working at the same time when it's done correctly -- building strength in the legs, aligning and opening the hips, relieving the lower back, stretching the hamstrings, easing the neck and shoulders and opening the chest.

And that's one of the beginning poses. Others can take years to perfect.

Even novices claim yoga has eased headaches, stress and asthma, encouraged weight loss, lowered blood pressure and added years to their lives.

"It's a way of exercising that I never hurt the next day," says Alaine Pribisko, who began taking yoga about two years ago on a whim. "I feel really good the next day. I have more energy; I'm more flexible."

The hardest part about yoga, Ms. Buck and others believe, isn't the muscle work. It's accepting that it is a unity of body, mind and spirit.

Wait a minute. Spirituality. Isn't yoga, well, one of those religions?

That's a misconception Ms. Buck hears too often. She remembers that it was only five years ago that she learned her lesson, when she was teaching fitness classes and using basic yoga at the end as a cool-down.

"If I called it slimnastics or stretching, it was fine," Ms. Buck says. "But one day I called it what it was -- yoga. One woman got up and left, refusing to do it."

Today, Ms. Buck underscores to new classes that yoga has never been a religion.

"I'm conscious of not emphasizing the meditation part -- I don't even do the 'ohmmm' chant for several sessions with new people," Ms. Buck says. "We don't want to sound weird."

But, nearly all devotees of yoga say, you may come for the muscle work, but you'll stay for the peace of mind.

"When people come in to my classes, their first question is not that they are looking for a way to meditate," Ms. Fries says.

"But through getting the body more supple, you become more peaceful and one thing leads to another."

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