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Learning to breathe

A beginner’s guide to yoga

Created date

May 24th, 2011

What is the fastest growing sport in America? Yoga! According to a 2008 Yoga Journal study, an estimated 16 million people practice yoga and 18.5% of them are over the age of 55. Once considered a fringe activity, yoga has gone mainstream. Yoga studios are everywhere and yoga books, DVDs, clothing, and accessories are flying off the shelves, making yoga a $5.7 billion industry. Yoga s popularity has a lot to do with emerging research indicating that it helps reduce stress and increase fitness, flexibility, balance, and mental stamina. However, practicing yoga means many different things to different people. Fitness-minded yoga buffs might move quickly through a challenging routine of poses that gets their hearts pumping and their muscles quivering. Yogis in search of relaxation could spend an hour sitting quietly on their mat, softly inhaling and exhaling. Some practice yoga at home using a DVD or a book as guidance; others go to classes run by trained professionals. For some, yoga is a predominantly spiritual practice, while others prefer to focus on the physical and mental challenges of the activity. Yoga is the ancient practice of balancing mind, body, and spirit. How to achieve that balance has spawned many interpretations and traditions in yoga. For a beginner, finding the right kind of yoga for you might take some time, but the process of exploring your options can be fun and enlightening.

Getting started

Anyone can practice yoga. It doesn t matter how old you are, how fit you are, or even how well you can move, says Susan Bowen, co-owner of Thrive Yoga in Rockville, Md ( Yoga starts with breathing. If you can breathe, you can practice yoga. Thrive Yoga offers a variety of classes, from beginner to advanced. If you are entirely new to yoga and want to try a class, Bowen suggests you speak with the teacher beforehand. Be candid about any physical limitations you may have. Whether you suffer from a bad back, a finicky knee, or a stiff hip, yoga teachers are trained to help you modify poses so you can participate. Bowen says that the true beauty of yoga is that it encourages you to work within your ability, without regard for what the person next to you is doing. Many studios offer specialized classes for people with limitations. Thrive offers a weekly therapeutic yoga class for people with injuries or chronic stiffness, and it recently held a workshop for people in the early stages of Alzheimer s disease. Patients and their companions learned a repetitive routine they could also do at home. Bowen says there is a yoga option out there for everybody. If movement and holding poses is too much for you, try a breath and meditation class. The simple act of clearing your mind and focusing on the breath does wonders.

Challenging yourself

A few years ago, Walter Bull of Raleigh, N.C., was suffering from high blood pressure and a host of other ailments. Disturbed at the downward trend of his health, Bull decided it was time to make some changes. He had never been a particularly athletic person, but the fact that he was over 60 did not stop him from starting an exercise program. He began by walking around his neighborhood. Then his doctor suggested he give yoga a try. An avid deal seeker, Bull took advantage of great offers from coupon services like Groupon and LivingSocial to try different local yoga studios at a nominal cost. One of those deals was offered by Raleigh s Arrichion Hot Yoga (, which combines a hot yoga practice with circuit training. Bull loved it. It was exactly what I needed, he says. By the end of the year, I was functioning much better and I was completely off the blood pressure medicine. Bull has taken over 100 classes at Arrichion since November and aims to complete his 200th class before he reaches his 70th birthday on June 23. The class is very energizing, he says. And over time, I ve seen great improvement. I can now get into postures that I ve never been able to do before. Quinn Reynolds, owner of Arrichion Hot Yoga, calls Bull an inspiration. Not only is he stretching his muscles, but he s building his muscles, she says. The last time I saw him, he was doing these pull-ups that were very difficult. Bull is deeply committed, taking as many as three classes in a single day. For most people, especially beginners, Reynolds suggests practicing yoga three times a week to see the benefits. For all the strength and ability he has mastered, Bull believes the greatest benefit of practicing yoga is the simplest. The most important thing I learned in yoga was to breathe. That has done more for me than anything else. Anytime I come upon any kind of challenge, whether it s a medical challenge or a driving challenge, I breathe. You can breathe through anything. michele.harris

Yoga Terms

  • Sticky mat-a rubber or foam mat on which you practice yoga. Most studios have mat rentals for a nominal fee. If you plan to practice regularly, you should purchase your own mat. They range in price from about $20 to over $100.
  • Vinyasa flow- synchronizing the breath to yoga poses. Vinyasa classes move or "flow" from one pose to the next.
  • Hatha yoga- a style that focuses on posture and alignment.
  • Hot yoga- yoga practiced in a heated room. Temperatures vary from between 85 ' and 105 ' . The heat helps muscles loosen up for easier stretching. Before trying hot yoga, ask how hot the room will be and what the studio's policies are regarding leaving mid-class. A towel and a drink are essectial for hot yoga. Always check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program, but this is doubly true before starting a hot yoga practice.