Tuesday, Oct. 3, Noon ET

Tales of a Yoga Convert

(Nick Lacy - The Washington Post)
Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; 12:00 PM

Writer Jennifer Huget once thought yoga was only for "for wispy little waif-girls who eat two cubes of tofu and a granola bar for dinner."

Now, after a few months of regular yoga sessions, Huget says she's in the best shape of her life. She'll be online Tuesday, Oct. 3 at noon ET to discuss her conversion from yoga skeptic to advocate.

Read Huget's story: Who, Me? A Yogi? (Post, Oct. 3)

A transcript follows.


Jennifer Huget: Greetings, fellow yogis -- and all you naysayers, too. I've just come out of savasana and am ready to chat. Let's all take a few deep, calming breaths and get started.

One thing first: Lots of you are asking for specific recommendations for yoga studios and teachers in the D.C. area. I don't live there any more, so I can't really offer any suggestions, other than to dig around, find studios in the Yellow Pages or on-line, and go give a few a try. You'll find lots of different styles and different vibes in the studios, and one's bound to be right for you. And please don't give up if your first experience isn't perfect; just think about what you didn't like about it, maybe talk to the teacher and see if she or he can offer a way around it, and, if not, go try another place. Many of my yoga friends go to several different studios.

I see, too, that a chatter has asked about at-home video yoga. I am completely in favor of them -- as long as they're good ones, such as those by Rodney Yee, Shiva Rea, Patricia Walden; I also love the "Yoga for Dummies" DVD for beginners. Check the box for info about whether the video's right for beginners or for intermediate or advanced practitioners and give it a try. One big caveat, though: I really think beginners should try some live classes first, to have an experienced teacher get you started on the right track. Sometimes teachers notice that your alignment is off or something and they can help you fix the problem.

Okay, let's answer some questions!


Farmington, Conn.: Jennifer, I wish I had a dollar for every time I have checked the phone book, went online, clipped ads, etc. about yoga programs in my area. Yoga looks and sounds so appealing to me, but I can't imagine myself in a class. I am 51 years old, about 20 pounds overweight, work at a stressful, yet sedentary job in the financial advisory business. In the last two years, it has become difficult to walk up two flights of stairs. I could never do aerobics for more than 15 minutes -- even when I was 31. I need to move more -- would you recommend yoga to someone with my profile?

Jennifer Huget: I recommend yoga to someone with ANY profile, including yours. You might want to think about taking a private class or two to get you started; most private studios offer that option, which costs a bit more but might be worth it in terms of getting personal tips for your body type. And also, if you feel embarrassed -- which I hope you wouldn't, because nobody's looking -- it's nice to have the privacy. But I encourage you to get started now and see how great you feel in a few months. Just don't overdo it; that can lead to injury and discouragement. Good luck to you!


Anonymous: I don't doubt the health benefits of yoga, but I just can't get past the mysticism that seems to run through most yoga instructors' teachings. In other words, I find it hard to separate the practice of yoga from it's religious origins.

Before the e-mails start coming in, let me stress that I'm not anti-religion, and I'm not not saying that yoga should be religion-free. If people want to learn yoga that way, fine. But I'm wondering if there's a way to learn yoga while minimizing the religious aspect of it.

Jennifer Huget: Religion has never entered into any of the scads of classes I've taken. Yoga really isn't a religion, at all. But if you're talking about spirituality--i.e., being in touch with your own inner being and thinking about the way your spirit interacts with others in the universe, then, yeah, some teachers are big on that. That's one of the things I've liked about it: it's a groove we can all get into, no matter what our religious leanings may be.


McLean, Va.: Please tell me where you take those yoga classes. What is good attire to wear for a yoga class? Also, is there any benefit to doing Bikram "hot" yoga over other types?

Jennifer Huget: I've never tried Bikram, so I can't say for sure. All I know is that I work up plenty of sweat without the room temperature being high, so I'm not sure of the value for me. But, hey, if it appeals to some folks and keeps them engaged in their practice, I say fine by me.


Washington, D.C.: I am somewhat of a yoga skeptic. That is, I like doing yoga poses to stretch after a workout, but I can't get into doing a whole hour of yoga. Am I missing something?

Jennifer Huget: Ah, that's a great question. Lots of fitness buffs think they'll find yoga boring. But once you get into the rhythm of your breathing and lose yourself in your body's motions, it becomes very engaging and so much more fun than a battering workout. To me, anyway.


Washington, D.C.: I'm new to yoga. Is hatha the best for beginners? Could you walk us through what happens in a typical class? Are all yoga classes a series of poses done in sequence?

Jennifer Huget: Every yoga class is different, depending on the teacher, the style of yoga, the composition of the class that day...Most yoga that you'll find offered in studios and gyms is a form of hatha yoga. Just about any style is "good" for beginners if the teacher is attuned to your status as a beginner and adept at helping you modify poses to accommodate your beginnerness. But if you find yourself in a room full of yoga jocks (something I've never encountered, by the way; I've found experience yogis to be most welcoming, helpful, and encouraging IF they see that your efforts to learn yoga are sincere), then go away and find a better place.

Most vinyasa flow classes follow a basic sequence, with lots of variety within. You start out slow, work up some heat with some sun salutations, do some standing balances and other standing work, head down to the floor for some floor-based poses, do plow pose and shoulder stand, and finally--aaaah--relax in savasana.


Arlington, Va.: Are you ever concerned about the issues of cultural and religious appropriation in Western yoga classes? I'm not a practicing Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain, and I've always felt ill at ease with the idea of taking this practice on without that context. I know that you said that it changed your spiritual outlook, but have you considered converting to one of these faiths?

Jennifer Huget: I think yoga is one place we can all be spiritual together, no matter what our religion may be.


Kensington, Md.: Hi Jennifer, I am nearly 83 years of age. I am married to an Indian and have always wanted to try yoga. However, I am very stiff and I know I could never twist myself into a pretzel like I see people doing. I have a cousin, my age, in Toronto who actually teaches yoga to senior citizens and is always encouraging me to try. She herself stands on her head every day....something I could never imagine myself doing in a thousand years. How can I get started...any suggestions?

Jennifer Huget: You go! I think you should check around for a teacher sensitive to older bodies' needs and ask for a private lesson to get you started. I can't say for sure that you'll be bounding up into a headstand right away, but who knows? I know that, even at age 45, I never thought I'd do a headstand, much less a full handstand. Does your Indian spouse do yoga or know anyone who does? That might be a good place to start. Get busy imagining yourself doing it!


Sacramento, Calif.: Hello,

I have been suffering from hip and lower back pain. I had my first appointment with a physical therapist today, who told me that I need to strengthen my core and increase my flexibility. I am a runner and cardio kickboxer who has found yoga too boring in the past but I'm willing to try anything at this point. Has yoga given you any improvement in these areas on your body and do you have any advice on a yoga practice I should try to achieve those goals? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

Jennifer Huget: Oh, my, yes: with proper instruction from a teacher sensitive to injuries and your body's little quirks, I think yoga's the very best thing you can do to improve your core strength and your flexibility. My core is so strong, I can rip a phone book in half with it. Or something like that...


Arlington, Va.: I am intrigued by your claim that you found yoga as a way to "chill out." I, too, have a racing mind that can't stop at one thought, but must over-analyze that and then the next 10. I would love to get into yoga for that and the other benefits you mention.

Do you think you can attain the same results (mind and body) from doing yoga at home with videos? I like the flexibility of working out when it is convenient for me, not when classes are offered.

Jennifer Huget: I do think you can achieve that state of mental calm by doing yoga at home -- yogis have been practicing on their own, in private, for thousands of years. But I think if I were you I'd also do a bit of reading, just to plant some meditative ideas in your head. Try browsing the bookshelf at your bookstore and see what appeals to you.


Laurel, Md.: Dumb question here: should yoga be done on an empty stomach? That is, should it be done before lunch, or before dinner?

I am not obese but I have a paunch and after I eat (and I don't overeat), some poses make me want to hurl.

Jennifer Huget: Hurling's not optimal. Opinions vary as to this, but most will advise that you not eat much before you practice. If it's a mid-morning class, though, and you don't want to starve, you might want to just have some yogurt or something else small and digestible beforehand. Yoga can be vigorous, and I often see people get lightheaded when coming out of poses where their heads are below their waists and then standing straight up, I think because their blood sugar is low. You should just play around with this and see what works best for you. I have to tell you that sometimes I eat a pretty substantial snack before I practice, when I know I'm going to go at it pretty hard. Today I ate some home-made whole-wheat bread with flax seed in it, dipped in some balsamic vinegar and olive oil, before I practiced. It hit the spot!


Harrisburg, Pa.: What do you believe would qualify someone to teach yoga?

Jennifer Huget: This is a great question. There's no universally accepted -- or required -- set of qualifications for yoga teachers, and only in recent years have certification programs been offered. Though I personally felt comfortable knowing my teacher had been through a rigorous training at a well-regarded school, I also know that there are older teachers around who have been self-taught and practicing for years and years, and I imagine their insights and skills match or beat those of, say, a much younger person just out of teacher training. I suppose this is an area where you just have to trust your gut.


Bethesda, Md.: I have been teaching yoga in the Viniyoga (Adaptive) Style in Bethesda for the past 27 years. I was delighted to see you emphasize the psychological, emotional and transformative benefits as well as physical ones available to anyone, regardless of physical limitations. Anyone in any condition can practice yoga and benefit from learning to breathe and balance as well as get stronger and more flexible. As our population ages, stress reduction and gentle forms of yoga will become an even more attractive option for people who now do nothing or pursue a sport that they can no longer play. Welcome everyone to the wonderful world of yoga!

Jennifer Huget: Hear, hear!


Washington, D.C.: I enjoyed reading your article! How many days per week do you think someone should practice yoga in order to see a real benefit? I'm currently doing one 1-hour yoga class per week (in addition to other exercise), but I don't know if that's enough.

Jennifer Huget: Another great question. I started at once a week and felt immediate benefits; I continued to do a cardio workout of some kind every day, even on days when I'd done yoga. A few months ago I decided to try dropping the standard cardio workouts altogether and to practice yoga for at least an hour a day. So far, so good: my skills have improved markedly, and I still feel I'm in decent cardio shape.


Bethesda, Md.: I am the yoga teacher with 27-years teaching experience who wrote earlier. As a former president of the Mid-Atlantic Yoga Association, I would like to suggest that people seeking a teacher consult that web site: mayayoga.org.

Jennifer Huget: Thanks very much for the resource!


Baltimore: I have tried yoga three different times (several sessions over the course of a few months) and have pulled a muscle each time. This has turned me off, obviously. What is a good way to push the limits of flexibility, in order to develop more, without overdoing it?

Jennifer Huget: I think this happens to a lot of people. It may be that you're bringing a competitive mind-set to your practice, which may make you push beyond your limits. It's better to build up slowly, accepting that you're not going to be the yogi-est yogi in the class at first, and just following your breath, using your breathing to relax and soften your muscles, and concentrate on the rhythm rather than on straining yourself. A good teacher will recognize when you're pushing too hard. On the other hand, you don't get better at it if you don't occasionally push beyond your edge, but usually that means holding a pose a few breaths longer than usual rather than straining your muscles beyond their comfort zone.


Dupont Circle: My gym offers free yoga classes at two different levels of instruction. I went on a whim and really loved it. Everyone should give it a try. Some people are very flexible, others like myself are not. It's not a problem. You do what you can do and no one judges. People who think it's not a workout will be surprised at the strength required to maintain position. And the whole breathing, focusing on your body thing is very relaxing. The only problem is that it's gotten very popular and now the classes are too crowded!

Jennifer Huget: Good for you, Dupont Circle! I wish everyone had access to your gym! I'm glad to hear it's going well for you -- and I'm delighted to know that you've found such a supportive, non-judging environment in which to practice!


Burke, Va.: I had a similar conversion to yoga in the last year. I was never athletic and hate to exercise but I have found myself going to yoga class twice a week and practicing at home. For the people that are looking for yoga classes in the area, the Fairfax Parks system offers classes at all its rec centers and I've found them to be inexpensive and very good. They also tend to be less spiritual. That being said, yoga is not a religion, if anything is a philosophy and one that I have found very interesting. One of the most thought-provoking things yoga has taught me is to live in the moment. It doesn't matter what you were able to do in the last class or what you think you should be able to do, it's what you can actually do right now. Live in the moment and you live more and regret less. Can't say I learned that in any step class I took.

Jennifer Huget: Very well said, Burke! I'm happy for you that you've found yoga, too. Makes the universe a better place. And I agree -- living in the moment is one of yoga's most valuable lessons. I use it all the time, on and off the mat.


Alexandria, Va.: I thought your article was great, something I have been trying to get across to people for many years (I am a yoga teacher!). The people that could benefit the most from a regular yoga practice are the ones that hardest to convince to give it a try! It is NOT a religion, it is a way of looking after yourself and understanding your "self" -- it is the greatest gift you can give yourself!

Jennifer Huget: Well, if enough of us keep talking it up, maybe the message will get through! Thanks for writing.


Washington, D.C.: Where did you take your yoga classes? Is there a list of criteria for finding a good yoga class and do you have any suggestions for good classes in either upper Northwest or Maryland? Thanks.

Jennifer Huget: Hi, D.C.: Can I ask you to go back and read my intro to this chat? It will answer your question -- sort of! Also, an earlier chatter gave a link to a Web resource for finding teachers.


Frequency to see improvements?: Hello! I really appreciated your article on yoga. I took a few classes but am wondering how often you're supposed to take it each week in order to see results. My gym offers it three times a week, but, due to other conflicts and scheduling, I can only attend one class a week. Is taking only one class a week enough to see improvements? Or will it take that much longer to see improvements since I'm only taking it once a week. I also do cardio and strength training during the week if that helps.

Thank you!

Jennifer Huget: Thank you, Frequency. Can I ask you to check my answer to another chatter, just a few people ahead of you? Thanks!


Yoga Teacher Certifications: As someone who's training to be a certified yoga instructor, if you are concerned about finding a teacher with certification, the Yoga Alliance keeps a list of certified schools and teachers. They are certified in all different styles of yoga but have to have at least 200 hours of training. Their lists are online at http://www.yogaalliance.com.

Jennifer Huget: Thanks for this excellent tip!


New Haven, Conn.: I've always found yoga to be too boring and prefer kickboxing for my cardio and Pilates for my stretching/toning. How would you convert people like me?

Jennifer Huget: Hi, New Haven: Either adjust your expectations and give yoga another try, seeing if you can get yourself into a good yogic groove, or seek out a class that promises to be more vigorous and challenging than most. New Haven's got lots of yoga around -- good luck finding just the right place.


Bethesda, Md.: Great timing! I've thought of trying yoga but haven't taken any steps yet. I'm a runner looking for a strenuous workout while improving balance, agility and inner tranquility. Any specific advice on how to get started (e.g., what kind of yoga, finding a studio, books, DVDs)? Thank you!

Jennifer Huget: Hi, Bethesda: I think I've answered most of your questions in answers to others, but the main message is just to get out there and look. Ask other people -- you'll be surprised to find out who's doing yoga these days. And do check out the Yoga Journal Web site -- it's got a whole section for beginners. By the way, it's a great yoga magazine; I find lots of inspiration there.


Alexandria, Va.: I would not recommend a beginner start yoga through videos. I have seen students who have practiced with videos for some time before coming to a class and have got into some bad postural alignment habits, which then takes some time to fix. A few classes before practicing with a video advised!

Jennifer Huget: I agree. I bought some DVDs early in my practice and found them baffling. In fact, I bought Jane Fonda's yoga video years ago, and it sat on my shelf forever because I couldn't make heads nor tails of it.


Rockville, Md.: Jennifer I really enjoyed your article about how you were when you began to practice yoga and how far you have come. I have felt so much like your article I thought you wrote about me. I live and breathe yoga 24 hours a day, teach it and am a direct student of an enlightened Yogic Master. I wanted to ask you: Is your mind still now?

Jennifer Huget: Hi, Rockville (my old hometown!) I'm embarrassed to say I don't quite understand your question! Maybe I'm not as far along in my journey as you are...Thanks for asking, though!


Alexandria, Va.: Jennifer -- Can you describe your home practice, particularly what your home practice was like when you first started out and how it evolved as you progressed, and, especially, how your practice helps you master or become more proficient in different poses? I love my yoga class and maybe I practice once a week, or I just do 20 minutes here and there -- and I never see any improvement and have been at the same level for years. Thanks!

Jennifer Huget: Hi, Alexandria: When I first started practicing on my own at home, I had the same problem: I didn't know how to challenge myself enough to make any progress. (It was still great, though, to have a physical activity I could do any time, any where, with no special equipment.) So that's when I started doing tapes and DVDs. I never could do a handstand, for instance, until I started doing this Rodney Yee tape. Now I don't think twice about flipping my feet up above my hands!


St. Mary's City, Md.: To the kickboxer/runner from Sacramento who needs to strengthen their core and found yoga too boring:

If you haven't already, try a "flow" yoga class. I am a runner as well and have found the pace more to my liking than relaxation yoga.

Jennifer Huget: Hi, St. Mary's City: Good advice. I agree.


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for your article. You look fantastic in your handstand. I still have to use the wall! As someone who identified with your former gym teacher's nasty comments (my own P.E. teacher told me once that I was going to be a "BIG girl" in snide tones because I hated running and competitive activities... when I was 7) I just wanted to add my two cents. Your description of yoga as more than just a physical activity was spot-on, and for that reason, I wish more schools and parents would encourage kids to start yoga (many years before we took it up!) as an alternative or accompaniment to traditional, super-competitive activities that can provide self-confidence and athleticism, but can also promote injuries and self-image issues. Funny thing about yoga is, it has given me toned, beautiful arms and abs -- but that's no longer really the point! I only wish I could have learned some of my yoga lessons earlier.

Jennifer Huget: Hmmmm, Arlington, I wonder if we had the same gym teacher? I think schools are starting to get the message about yoga, and I think it won't be uncommon 10 years from now for kids to get yoga instruction in school. But of course not all P.E. teachers are trained to teach yoga. I love the fact that lots of non-school yoga programs for kids are popping up. I wrote a Post article about one a few years ago -- I wonder if I could find that link again.

And, yes, the toned arms and all that ARE beside the point. But don't you secretly DIG having them??


16th & U, D.C.:: I do yoga and Pilates. I was wondering if you could comment on the morphing of these practices at gyms into something they think their customers want. For example, a lot of gyms don't have certified Pilates instructors teaching Pilates and a number of gyms don't do any "mind," only the "body" aspects of yoga. They also make the yoga move faster because they think Westerners don't want slow-moving exercise. I find this a matter of concern -- thoughts?

Jennifer Huget: 16th and U, this is a great question. I have to say that I don't really like it when teachers incorporate Pilates into yoga classes, because while many of the moves are basically the same, and while they work many of the same muscle groups, they really aren't part of the same tradition. I find the Pilates a bit disruptive to the flow, and I also think adding Pilates is a bow to the fitness-first folks. I think Pilates is terrific, don't get me wrong. I just think it belongs in its own class.

As for the slow-moving nature of yoga, some of the most challenging classes I've taken have been those in which teachers have had us move slowly but hold poses for a LOOOONG time.


Moonbat, Richmond, Va.: People, be aware that the twisting of yoga is very bad for herniated discs.

Jennifer Huget: Thanks, Moonbat: Many yoga moves are contraindicated, as they say, for folks with certain medical conditions. A good yoga teacher will ask new students at the start of class whether they have any injuries or weak spots and will work with the student to accommodate those spots throughout class. That's where good training/experience come in.


Laytonsville, Md.: Have tried yoga for beginners before, but found that arthritis and joint replacement limit my ability to kneel or put weight on my hands and wrists. Is there a gentle form of yoga that would help balance, flexibility, etc.?

Jennifer Huget: Hi, Laytonsville! Good for you for wanting to stick with it and not just give up. There are so many gentle forms of yoga--you can even do yoga seated in a chair. Good teachers will know modifications to, for instance, take pressure off your wrists (some will have you rest on your knuckles or fists instead of flat hands.). Please talk to your next teacher before class starts and see what he or she offers in the way of modifications.


Silver Spring, Md.: I love yoga even though I get bored easily. I make myself go because its so good for my body and has always helped with my injuries. I am religious, but the "spiritual" type things do annoy so I just ignore them -- you don't have to say ohm with the class if you don't want to. I did have one question, I asked my doctor if yoga was considered a weight-bearing exercise (for osteoporosis prevention) and she said no but to keep doing it because it was so good for flexibility and core strength. Is that the general consensus?

Jennifer Huget: SS: I don't know about that weight-bearing/osteoporosis part; I'll have to look it up some time. But I don't think all yoga is equal in that regard, and I'm pretty convinced that holding my own body weight aloft in a headstand has to be roughly equivalent to some standard weight lifting.

By the way, I have never said Om in a yoga class. Nor has anyone ever asked me to.


Alexandria, Va.: Runner/people who like high activity: Ashtanga yoga -- this is a group of same postures each time. Vinyasa can be fast-paced or slow according to teacher or maybe a particular focus that day. For strength, alignment, long holds in postures: Iyengar. Agree with Jennifer -- try a few out and see which one and which teacher works for you!

Jennifer Huget: That's one of the great things about yoga, Alexandria. There are so many varieties; something for everyone!


Arlington, Va.: Thanks. That was a very well structured and persuasive case for yoga. And that comes from a former power-lifting-gymrat junkie type guy. I'm going to give yoga a second look when I get the chance.

Jennifer Huget: Woohoo! A potential convert! Hope you like yoga as much as I do when you try it again!


Washington, D.C.: What do you think about Bikram yoga or "hot" yoga, as it is called?

Jennifer Huget: Hi, there: As I said in my intro, I think Bikram's great for those who like it, if that's what keeps 'em coming back for more. But I sweat a-plenty without it, so I don't feel the need to try it...


Reston, Va.: Hi Jennifer:

I am nearly 50 and have been doing an early morning outdoor fitness class for more than two years. I love it -- it's a great mix of activities -- and have shaped up quite a bit.

But I'm feeling tight and "hamstrung," particularly in my upper legs and butt.

Is there a particular kind of yoga that would complement the running/aerobic/resistance stuff that I do in the morning (by increasing my flexibility)?


Jennifer Huget: Wow, an early-morning outdoor fitness class sounds great!

Just about any yoga program will help with that "hamstrung" thing -- but you just have to take it slow and easy so you don't end up pulling a muscle. Warm up well, don't overdo your stretches, and breathe breathe breathe. And of course tell your teacher your concerns so he or she can help guide you.


Reston, Va.: Yoga has literally saved my life. I was having frequent panic attacks and was put on medication that I was afraid to use. A friend suggested trying to control my breathing when I felt a panic attack starting. So I turned to yoga. I haven't had an attack in over six months because I now feel the control I have over my body that wasn't there before. And I don't use any medication either! I love it!

Jennifer Huget: What a great testimonial! I've had a similar experience, and I'm so grateful to have found yoga. My family's glad, too....Good luck, and thanks for checking in.


Arlington, Va.: I agree with you that it doesn't have to be religious to practice yoga. But my last two yoga teachers are very into telling me that my clogged nostrils have to do with blockages in my energy that their particular form of breathing will remedy, when in fact it's because they let their cat into the studio. I love yogic practice and enjoy the meditative moments but find myself annoyed with my teachers' efforts to incorporate very new-agey teachings into their classes. I'm not opposed to new age religious practice, either, I just don't want my yoga class full of it.

Jennifer Huget: Hi again, Arlington: I'd high-tail it to a different studio. Cats definitely shouldn't be in the studio; the teacher should be ultra-sensitive to allergies and such. And whether it's new-age stuff or old-age stuff or anything, the yoga studio's not the place for teachers to be shoving their way of thinking up your nose.


Jennifer Huget: Well, time does fly when you're having fun! Hope to see you all in the studio soon. Namaste.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company