Special Issue: Aging Well

Who, Me? A Yogi?

(Nick Lacy - The Washington Post)
By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Well, now there's a sight I never thought I'd see: my own butt, from underneath and behind, without a mirror!

I'm standing in a variation of a pose called wide-legged forward bend (Prasarita Padottanasana I, in the traditional Sanskrit appellation), my torso draped toward the floor, my hands holding the ankles of my outstretched legs, the crown of my head reaching between my feet.

Five years ago such a stance would have been unthinkable. Literally. Not only could my body not have managed it, but I didn't have the capacity to picture myself engaging in what I thought of as a lunatic-fringe practice: yoga.

In its purest form, yoga -- the word derives from the Sanskrit term meaning "to join" or "to yoke" -- is supposed to unite the individual self with the universal self, essentially doing away with the self-conscious "I." So I hate to admit that the next 2,000 words of this article are going to be mostly about Me. (Ask Jennifer more about this article and yoga in her live discussion)

But I hope that when I finally shut up, a lot of other middle-aged, slightly pudgy, crazy busy and distracted women (and men, too) who think yoga's only for wispy little waif-girls who eat two cubes of tofu and a granola bar for dinner and burn aromatherapy candles while uttering mystical prayers will think again and, maybe, give it a try.

Before this whole yoga thing happened to me in 2003, millions of people over the past several thousand years beat me to it. Yoga's long been touted, particularly in its native India, as a philosophical and physical system that brings calm and balance to the body and brain. But until recently in Western civilization, yoga has been on the fringes, lumped with other alternative approaches to health and well-being, such as macrobiotic diets and primal scream therapy.

In the past couple of decades, though, brought into the limelight by celebrities such as Sting, Madonna and Mariel Hemingway, yoga has moved toward the mainstream.

A February 2005 Harris poll commissioned by Yoga Journal, the leading American yoga magazine, found that 7.5 percent of U.S. adults, or 16.5 million people, practice yoga; that's an increase of 43 percent from 2002. Of the 16.5 million people now practicing yoga, the poll revealed, 41.6 percent were between 35 and 54 years old.

I joined their ranks three years ago when a neighbor who had had her yoga-teacher training at the renowned Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass., put up a sign in the local library, offering cheap, weekly yoga classes right there in the community room.

I still cringe when I think of the get-up I wore to those early yoga classes: a pair of big baggy culottes whose elastic waistband kept slipping floorward and a T-shirt that billowed, also floorward, covering my face and exposing my belly and bra with each downward dog.

The teacher, appropriately, was starting us out slow, easing us into a dozen or so of yoga's most basic poses -- or asana. I felt immediately tapped into the ancient tradition. Creaking my way through my first-ever sun salutations, I couldn't believe that this -- these straightforward, intuitive positionings of torso and limbs -- was what yoga was.

My teacher ceased the library classes after a few months, turning her attention to building her own studio. She continued to teach at the local Y, though, so I signed up there. YMCAs are a great place to get exposed to a variety of teachers (whose personalities shape the way they teach) and styles of yoga (of which there are many -- too many, say some who think the whole field, fueled by individual egos, has grown unyogically complicated).

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