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Who, Me? A Yogi?
She Thought She Was Too Uptight for Yoga. But She Gave It a Try, And, Wouldn't You Know, It Transformed Her Body and Mind.

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).

But Y yoga classes are usually on the short side, and there's no way to create any yogic ambience in a room that's built for aerobics and smells like sweat. And then there's the vultures-at-the-door syndrome: Just as you're easing into the hard-earned, restorative relaxation pose called savasana that closes every yoga session, the folks waiting in the hall for their spinning class make their presence noisily known. And you can read their minds (not that yoga teaches you to do that, of course): Get out of our room, you wimps, and let us real exercise buffs have the floor.

What's It Do?

Which leads us to the million-rupee question: Just how effective is yoga as a form of fitness training?

That depends, of course, on what kind of yoga you're doing, how hard you work at it, and how often you practice. That's in fact one of yoga's great assets: You can take a gentle approach, just to gain a bit of flexibility and relaxation, if that's what your body needs. If what you crave is a full-out daily workout that gets you sweating, makes your heart pump and builds muscle, you can find that in yoga, too.

A study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found only modest cardiovascular benefits among sedentary women, average age 33, who undertook an eight-week course of thrice-weekly gentle hatha yoga classes. But the participants did realize improvements in flexibility, muscle strength and endurance, and balance.

A companion study examined the cardio benefits of the more strenuous "power" style of yoga and found them to be minimal. (For brief definitions of common styles of yoga, see box.)

That may well be, but I'm convinced that yoga's by far the best thing I've ever done for my body. Throughout the 1980s, I spent hours with Jane Fonda and her scrunch-socked cohorts, following along as her videotapes led me through energetic aerobics routines. I think that activity kept me in okay shape -- at least prevented my backsliding into complete bodily ruin as I maintained the eating habits I had cultivated in college, where I majored in pizza and minored in beer.

But it got pretty boring. I tried jogging, but my form was bad and I ended up developing enormous calf muscles that plague me (and prevent my wearing go-go boots) to this day. I pedaled exercise bikes, treaded on treadmills, cycled on elliptical trainers. I exercised every day -- perhaps to the point of obsession. But I never felt like I was in good shape, and I didn't much look like it, either.

Now I wish I had all those hours back. Because after just a short while in yoga, I've realized more physical benefits than I gained through all those other efforts combined. My once-flabby upper arms are strong and lean. (Well, okay, there's still a good-sized flap there, but it's way better than before.) I stand taller and hold my shoulders up and back instead of slumping down and inward. My step is lighter, and my "core" abdominal muscles -- though still lined with a fair share of chub -- are damned strong.

I can do push-ups and full backbends and one-armed side planks. I can balance in tree pose and in scale, or prop my knees on my upper arms, palms to the floor, liftng my feet into a pose called Crow. There are still zillions of poses to be learned, huge challenges to be faced, but I have no doubt in my ability to someday achieve them. Best of all, recently a fellow student told me I was her role model -- and that she really admired the muscles in my back. Muscles in my back? Who'd've thunk it?

Feeling the Flow

My neighbor ultimately opened her beautiful, intimate studio close to my home. I take a 75- to 90-minute class there four times a week. If you sign up for a package of classes, they'll cost you just $10 a session.

The studio's style is in the vinyasa flow tradition, in which we move fairly vigorously from asana to asana in a dance-like rhythm, concentrating less on striking perfect poses than on our deep, calm breathing. The idea is to allow your breath, flowing in and out through your nostrils, made audible by a slight constriction of the back of the throat, to carry you through your practice, giving you something to focus on when you start to strain, helping to relieve tension and bring softness to your body as you move. (In yoga, such controlled breathing exercises, which can be practiced with or without the asana, are called pranayama.)

To me, learning to control my breathing -- and hence calm my nervous system -- has been yoga's chief benefit. It has given me, a lifelong mind-racer and ruminative worrier, the ability to chill out and stay that way. The yogic practice of clearing the mind of distracting thoughts has taught me that I don't have to fully think every thought that flits into my mind. That knowledge was a revelation and a liberation.

Yogic breathing also has built my endurance: I can climb the mile-long, seemingly vertical trail to the top of my local Appalachian Mountain ridge with nary a huff or a puff. And during our annual weekend at Cub Scout summer camp in June, I surprised myself by easily passing the swimming test.

None of that surprises Timothy McCall, medical editor for Yoga Journal. McCall, author of the forthcoming book "Yoga as Medicine," due out in 2007, says that while sound research into yoga's health benefits in the Western medical literature is scant, a number of benefits are clear.

McCall rattles them off: Yoga, he says, has been shown to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and respiration rate; it shifts the balance in the autonomic nervous system, encouraging more relaxed responses to stimuli; and it builds muscle and bone strength and boosts the immune response.

"In the reductionist world of medical science," McCall says, "we're always looking for just the one thing" to which a treatment's health benefit can be attributed. "Yoga taps into dozens of different potential mechanisms of action simultaneously."

The Mystical Tour

Not that exercise is what yoga's all about -- unless you want to just stick with the physical part, which is perfectly legit. But yoga's psychological and, yes, spiritual benefits have come to mean as much to me as the physical training.

I was raised with no formal religious training, and for the most part I've been grateful for the chance to explore and find my own spiritual path. But I have also lacked a framework through which to view and analyze life's happenings and people's behaviors.

I can hear you now, dear reader, sighing: You knew this was going to turn evangelical. I don't want to proselytize, but in describing my yoga experience I'd be dishonest if I didn't mention that it has changed my way of looking at the world. I've embraced the yogic principles of equanimity -- basically, maintaining an even keel -- and "lovingkindness" (okay, that's another word I'd never have believed five years ago that I'd be even thinking, much less saying aloud), which means, well, just what it sounds like. I'm slower to judge other people, better at seeing their side of the story, less inclined toward jealousy. I just seem to take life better in stride.

At the heart of all these changes lies the sense of physical empowerment I've gained through my yoga. Never before in my life have I felt "good" at any physical activity.

Well, I take that back: When I was a kid growing up in Rockville, I felt really good at riding my bike (until, having actually uttered the phrase "Look, Ma, no hands," I flew over the handlebars to land face-first on the pavement, as my poor mother, whom we actually do call "Ma," watched, helpless).

And I remember one day in phys ed class in elementary school, I felt really good at doing jumping jacks. I was throwing every bit of my effort into my jacks, raising my arms high and jumping with legs wide. It felt joyously great -- until the teacher bellowed at me to stop goofing around and do 'em right. A few years later, as we did straddle splits on the gym floor in PE class, the teacher announced to the entire class, "Look at Jenni's chubby thighs!" I was 13.

Now, I know that yoga's supposed to be all about the journey, not about getting "good" at it. But I hope you'll forgive my distinctly unyogic thoughts when I say that I'd dearly love to gather those gym teachers -- and, sure, Ma, you can come, too -- and have them watch me as I kick up into a handstand and hold myself there for five or 10 breaths. Or have them join me in 25 straight sun salutations. They might just poop out. But me -- chubby thighs notwithstanding -- I'll just be getting started. ยท

Jennifer Huget, at right, is a regular contributor to the Health section. Comments:health@washpost.com.

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