Yoga on steroids, or feel the yearn Health: Practitioners say they get sweat and a sense of calm out of Ashtanga, a vigorous series of postures that looks conventional, but a lot faster.

April 23, 1996|By Julie Hatfield | Julie Hatfield,BOSTON GLOBE

First there were power breakfasts. Then power candy bars. Now, please welcome power yoga.

"Power" is yoga's equivalent of the 6-mile run or the hours-long mountain bike ride.

Regular yoga is slow and leisurely; power yoga (known to purists by its Indian name Ashtanga) moves fast. Yoga is not aerobic or sweaty; power yoga is done in 80-degree heat, to get the sweat going and keep it dripping. Yoga is restful; power yoga has no rest periods, unless you count standing on your head as a rest.

You could call it yoga on steroids.

And although it is thousands of years old and was brought to this country in the 1970s, it has become phenomenally trendy in the '90s. Sting does Ashtanga. So do members of the former Grateful Dead, the Janet Jackson dancers and former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

To an outsider, it looks like conventional yoga that never stops moving. It is extremely vigorous, encompassing six progressively more difficult series of linked postures.

It is designed to build strength, flexibility and endurance while easing tension and reducing stress. It includes the same postures as regular yoga -- some of which involve complicated twisting and headstands -- but they are performed in a constant flowing movement, with no lengthy rests in between. A typical session is 1 1/2 to 2 hours long.

Yoga teachers call it the most challenging yoga ever seen in this country, and yet it flows so gracefully from pose to pose (especially if done by a teacher) that it looks like a dance. It appeals to men, they say, because it is so athletic, and athletes both male and female like it because it corrects the imbalances and tight muscles caused by the repetitive training and uneven use of muscle groups required by sports.

"When I saw Ashtanga, I realized that it was exactly what I had been searching for," says Boston teacher Regina French, who had been looking for a more athletic workout than she got at the gym. "All the machines and weights in the gym can be duplicated by Ashtanga yoga movements, with the same benefits," she says.

Ayn Rose learned how to teach Ashtanga in a four-day session in New York with Beryl Bender Birch, author of the book "Power Yoga" and generally regarded as the ultimate power yoga guru. Ms. Rose insists a person need not be experienced at yoga to do power yoga. "People use it for a workout," says Ms. Rose. "It's very exhilarating, but you don't have to do the headstands. The poses can be modified."

Like all forms of yoga, power yoga is not primarily intended as a fitness system but as preparation for meditation. The heat loosens the muscles, helping prevent injury and making it easier to move into the postures.

"It's all a means to still the mind of random thoughts," says Simon Jones, one of Ms. Rose's students and a research scientist. "I do power yoga for fitness, flexibility and stamina, but it also produces a sense of ease and grace. It gives me a positive outlook."

Bonnie Boyd, a software engineer, says that when she discovered power yoga six months ago, she gave up her 20-year TTC running habit: Now she does Ashtanga six days a week. "Running stopped being meditative for me," she says. "Ashtanga takes my desire for a meditative practice and a physical exercise and combines the two. Stress started draining away from my life after I started it, and now, even driving in traffic doesn't bother me."

Not that all yoga lovers will flock to it in droves. There are those who, if not skeptical of the concept of "power yoga," are downright negative. "It's frightening," says Amy Snyder, a pastry chef and a yoga observer, who finds the notion of power yoga to be nothing less than an oxymoron.

"It's a completely screwed-up mindset," she says. "It reminds me of the person I heard the other day who was talking about 'power napping.' "

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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