Yoga joins a long list of fitness fits and starts

March 25, 2001|By SUSAN REIMER

I played tennis, but switched to racquetball because I couldn't serve.

I ran 10K races and 10-mile races, but switched to power walking when everyone else did.

I did aerobics in one of those cute little spandex outfits, and moved up to step classes with the fitness herd.

I have swum laps and lifted weights. I mastered the Stairmaster, and then I spun off into spinning classes.

Now, I have added yoga to the list of fitness regimes that I expect to abandon.

I generally renew my commitment to physical fitness with a change of disciplines and some modest shopping.

There is nothing more invigorating than new workout clothes. One look at those shiny, ankle-length spandex tights everyone was wearing at my health club, and I knew I had to give yoga a try.

(There are no special shoes required; yoga is done barefoot. But you do have to buy a special mat.)

Armed with my purchases, I marched into the gym where I joined yet another cresting fitness trend.

Yoga was invented 4,000 years ago as a meditative series of poses designed to bind the mind, body and spirit.

It was less about fitness than it was about generating the strength and flexibility to hold those poses long enough for spiritual reflection.

Typically, Americans got hold of it, and yoga became less a sacred tradition than an exercise craze taught by overnight yogis wearing spandex and headsets.

It is the fastest growing activity in health clubs, and something like 19 million people practice yoga -- three times the number of 10 years ago.

It could be, however, that the renewed popularity of yoga (it was big with counter-culture types in the late 1960s and early 1970s) has less to do with the blink-of-an-eye American attention span than it does with -- here we go again -- the aging of the population.

Face it. The knees of us baby boomers can't take the pounding anymore, and we all seem to have back problems. We are looking for something that we can continue to do as we age.

They were wrong when they said it would be tennis, and bowling just doesn't have the numbers. It might be yoga.

While one part of the body is lengthening, another part is strengthening. The balance required by some poses causes the nervous system to work harder. The focus on breathing works the cardiovascular system.

Yoga strengthens the muscles, deepens breathing and makes the spine more flexible. But its original purpose was to bring balance and self-knowledge to its practitioners.

Face it. Most of us need a quiet mind as much as we need a good, toxin-shedding sweat. Each class begins and ends with a period of quiet and meditation. Yoga's new popularity may be a reflection of our need for stillness, for decompression and not our boredom with the treadmill.

(You have to wonder, however, about anything Madonna swears by. )

I'm not sure Americans can give up their need for results, however. If yoga doesn't produce a flat stomach, it could lose its following to Pilates.

And we don't seem to be able to do anything without competing at it. I am waiting for the day when yoga students take their poses on stage like Charles Atlas.

Perfection in yoga might be as difficult to achieve as perfection in golf, and Americans like to see improvement. I'm as guilty as any.

When my daughter asked if practicing yoga meant I was about to change religions, I responded irritably that it was a challenging form of exercise.

"I am just adding it," I told her, "to the list of things I can't do."

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