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New to Yoga? Learn to Bend

Q: My friend took me to a yoga class last week. It seemed fun at the time and very relaxing. But it was kind of hard to get into some of the positions. The problem is that I've had a bit of back and leg pain ever since and I can't really stand up for too long or bend over without pain. I'm really OK, but did I do something wrong?

A: Holy mantra! You got thrashed by yoga! But hold on a minute - before anybody gets hot under the meditation robe, I want to point out that this does not happen very often. Most yoga classes are quite safe, and you probably run more risk with this kind of a reaction when starting a new exercise program than you do with yoga. Still, it can happen. This gives me a chance to blabber a bit about how great yoga usually is and how to choose the style and class that works for you. I also want to encourage you to jump back on that downward dog - uh, I mean horse.

Yoga is first mentioned in the Vedic texts, which outline a system of health promotion and healing that began in India thousands of years ago. Its fundamental philosophy is that mind, body and spirit are united. The word yoga stems from the Sanskrit word for union. It is about much more than just getting into odd poses.

There are eight branches of yoga, including meditation, dietary practices, religious thought and breathing techniques (called pranayama), as well as the postures (asanas). Yoga practitioners believe in a universal life-force called prana, which is the same stuff that the Chinese call ch'i. Prana also means breath, which tells you how important breathing exercises are to yoga practice. The underlying philosophy is one of nonviolence and avoiding materialism and greed (does this sound like something our country could use?) This nonaggressive approach to life is fundamental to the discipline and has had great effects on the world. Mahatma Gandhi did not get his ideas out of thin air, after all. And Gandhi had a substantial influence on many other world leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Practicing yoga is becoming increasingly popular. In New York, where I live, it's very common to see folks on the subway with a rolled-up yoga mat and a blissed-out look. And no wonder: On a practical level, yoga can be useful for high blood pressure, heart disease, back pain, asthma and, perhaps, many other conditions. It has been an important element in Dr. Dean Ornish's heart-disease-reversal program. In 1998, The Harvard Health Letter referred to it as "the ultimate mind/body workout."

Research on the medical effects of yoga is still in its infancy, but it is steadily increasing. Several prestigious medical journals have published yoga studies, including one last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association that looked at yoga's effects on carpal tunnel syndrome, a very common nerve-pinch condition in the wrist. Investigators are particularly interested in the effects of yoga on the immune system, stress levels and emotional well-being. This falls into a larger field called Psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the relationship between our nervous system, our immune system and our emotions. This is a serious field of science, with a substantial body of data to support it. We can expect yoga to play an important role in the future of this kind of research.

Yoga, like coffee, comes in a variety of tastes and strengths, from gentle decaf to thermonuclear espresso. This may have been part of the problem with your first class. It is important to start with an extremely gentle beginners' class. The common Hatha form tends to be gentle, although any form of yoga can be taught gently. The precise and beautiful Iyengar form is the dominant type of medical yoga in India and can also be a good place to start. Sivinanda and Viniyoga are excellent as well. But Kundalini, Power Yoga and Astanga may be better for a more advanced practitioner. Of course, it all depends on the individual yoga teacher. At any rate, be sure to start with a very gentle class.

The other potential problem for beginners in yoga classes is peer pressure. You know: You see everyone else in the class with their heels behind their heads and you think everyone is looking at you because you can barely reach your foot. Peer pressure can cause injuries. Good yoga teachers know this and will try to shield you from it. But even the best teachers may not be able to protect every person from pushing too hard. Ultimately, you have to protect yourself.

Here are some do's and don'ts:

  • If you have a serious medical illness, heart or lung disease or joint problems, ask your medical doctor if it's OK to do yoga.

  • If your health status is a bit more complex than the average bear, consider a private session.

  • Investigate studios and teachers before choosing your class. It's not a bad idea to ask around a bit. Teacher training can vary widely, from rigorous instruction with nationally uniform examinations, as with Iyengar, all the way to some pretty light and fluffy training programs.

  • Watch an instructor and a class before you decide to take it, especially if you're just starting.

  • Don't keep going with the class if you start feeling sick, dizzy or disoriented. You have nothing to prove.

  • If you're pregnant, be sure to go to a teacher who has experience with pregnant women.

  • And don't expect yoga to cure a serious medical condition - that's not realistic.

  • Finally, try to avoid the heavy attitudes and ego posturing that can go on in some yoga classes. I've seen plenty of yoga people with huge chips on their shoulder, which is weird given the underlying philosophy. This "I'm so spiritually advanced," swamier-than-thou attitude is obnoxious and clearly reveals the person's underlying spiritual frailty. Some students in yoga classes need to show others what they can do. They show up in their Gucci leotards and full makeup. Just remember, the ones who have really "gotten it" are the sweetest, most unassuming people in the world. Forget about the posers and what anyone else thinks. Just relax into it and go for your own experience. Above all, have fun.

So, my crippled-by-yoga friend, you might want to try again. Be sure to check in with your own doctor first if you have any serious medical condition, or if you're not feeling better in a couple of days. Yoga can be wonderful stuff, improving flexibility, sleep, stress tolerance and your sense of well-being. Just start a little slower this time, and don't pay attention to what anyone else thinks. That's probably not such a bad idea for a lot of things.

For more information, visit OnHealth

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