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I never thought I'd find myself in downward dog in the middle of New York City, not caring about the tourists staring and taking pictures of my sky-bound butt while sweat and sunscreen dripped into my eyes. But there I was, doing just that, not once, but once a week for an entire summer.
And I wasn't alone. What started as a small yoga class of 10-15 students in Bryant Park in 2005 grew to a class of more than 200 people three years later. In parks, on beaches, at hotels, in swimming pools, and especially in their own living rooms, people are doing yoga everywhere. According to the Yoga Health Foundation, 20 million Americans are practicing yoga, and that number is quickly rising.
So why are more people adding yoga bends and twists to their fitness routine?
Johannes R. Fisslinger of the Yoga Health Foundation and founder of Yoga Month, a nationwide campaign to promote health awareness, has a simple explanation for yoga's growing popularity: "Because it works!"
He's right. When you practice yoga even once, you can immediately see its benefits: Your posture is better, you feel more flexible, and your body becomes more toned. (Need proof? Take a look at Madonna's buff biceps or Gwyneth Paltrow's firm figure. That's yoga.)
Fisslinger adds that yoga's benefits extend well beyond your body. Whether you're relaxed and lying down in corpse pose or trying to balance in tree pose, yoga engages your mind, body, and spirit. "There's an emotional and mental connection," says Fisslinger. "It affects your whole being. Yoga centers you and gives you inner strength."
And experts say yogic breathing techniques can help insomniacs sleep better and ease anxiety and depression. Still other research shows that people who practice yoga lose weight and maintain a healthy weight more easily than those who don't practice yoga. And if that's not enough to make you do some sun salutations, a consistent yoga practice can also lead to a healthier heart in just six weeks, according to a Yale University School of Medicine study.
Can you tell we love yoga here at FitnessMagazine.com? We're addicted, and we feel out-of-alignment, stressed, and confused when we don't get our fix. The great news is that you don't have to join a posh yoga studio to make yoga part of your fit life: You can still reap the benefits of yoga in ways that better fit your style. Whether you're on a tight budget, a dedicated gym-goer, a runner, a hardcore video gamer (or mother of one), or a gymnastics enthusiast, we've found a yoga class for you.
Do the words vinyassa, hatha, asana, and chakra make you want to scratch your head instead of inspiring visions of restorative headstands? If yoga is a complete mystery to you, read on.
To mark September as National Yoga Month, yoga health experts and teachers are visiting 10 U.S. cities and offering free classes, workshops, and music to all.
"The main mission is to take yoga to everyone, so people can witness how yoga can transform their minds without a lot of money or time," says Vera Alexander, Executive Director for Grants & Media of Yoga Month. "Yoga is accessible and easy for everyone to do."
Even athletic types can benefit from a yoga practice, says Alexander, an avid runner. "I found that yoga helped with my joints and mobility," she says. "Once you're exposed to yoga, you'll see how it really helps you."
Chanting and meditating not your style? No worries. "Practitioners can choose their own style," says Alexander. "There are more hybrid classes available, like dance and yoga and acrobatics and yoga. You can merge yoga with what you're already doing."
If cash is an issue, there are donation-based classes, community classes, and free online videos, says Fisslinger. All you need to bring is yourself.
Most gyms offer standard yoga classes like Hatha and, our favorite, Vinyassa, which combines flexibility moves and strength-building exercises into a fast-paced routine with excellent cardio benefits. But more and more we're seeing national gym chains like Equinox create their own hybrid yoga classes featuring cycling, rock 'n' roll soundtracks, and even super-beginning classes to attract a different kind of yogi.Cycle In/Yoga Out
Busy bodies can squeeze in cardio, toning, and relaxation with this combination cycling and yoga class. Instructor Steve Hsu, a lifetime certified Spinning instructor and certified yoga teacher, combines high-energy indoor cycling with restorative and relaxing yoga for a balanced approach to exercise in his Cycle In/Yoga Out class in Equinox Fitness in Pasadena, California.
The first half of each session begins with 30 minutes of intense cycling. But there's no pressure to go beyond your boundaries. "I want students to be self-accepting," says Hsu. "I teach them to listen to their bodies and respect where they are mentally, physically, and emotionally."
During the last half of the class students stretch and do restorative yoga poses to release tension and decrease their heart rate from the intense cardio work. Since cyclists spend a lot of time hunched on a bike, restoring posture is super important.
"What's great about the class is that it's not just 'Go, go, go!'" says Hsu. "Yoga balances the high-energy and intensity from cycling. It totally makes sense to combine the two."
By starting with a high-energy cycling workout and ending with relaxing yoga poses, you can increase your aerobic capacity, build strength in your legs, increase your flexibility, and relax -- all in one hour.
"My students tell me that they feel more at ease and calm after their workouts," says Hsu. "They're not too ramped up."
Multitaskers can be zen too!Rockin' Vinyasa Yoga
You're more likely to hear Kanye and Fergie instead of Oms and chanting in this hip yoga class. Instructor Adam Goldstein of Equinox Fitness in Roslyn, New York, created Rockin' Vinyasa Yoga after hearing complaints from people who yawned at the thought of chanting during their workout.
"I wanted to tell people about yoga because it had such a great effect on me, but they thought it was boring!" says Goldstein. "So I decided to crank up the music."
Goldstein plays everything from Annie Lenox to Timbaland and doesn't use the same set of songs twice. Classes start with a slow song and breathing exercises. Then the beat speeds up as the class goes into twists and standing and balancing poses. Each class ends with a relaxation period in savasana, or corpse pose.
If you're over Spinning class but still want to sculpt and tone your body while rocking out to your favorite tunes, this class is for you.
"My students tell me that they never thought yoga could be so much fun!" says Goldstein. Classes can turn into karaoke sessions, but students will definitely see results from this power yoga class.
The name of the class says it all. You don't have to be a contortionist to do yoga. Instructor Tara Robertson created Yoga for the Inflexible at Equinox Fitness in Palo Alto, California, after noticing that many people couldn't take advantage of advanced yoga classes. So Robertson designed a class that broke down every move and pose so that everyone can learn and be flexible.
"I want students to ask questions," says Robertson. "I want to keep a dialogue with them. They can always stop me or flag me down in class." This is the perfect atmosphere for any yoga beginner or skeptic.
Classes begin with breathing exercises, because, Robertson says, "your breath is how your body communicates with you. If you're having trouble breathing it means you're doing something wrong."
Robertson loves seeing students get excited when they see progress, whether they're finally able to touch their toes or twist a little further. Robertson's students include runners and bikers who want more flexibility along with people who have never done exercise before, and many of her students have moved on to more advanced classes.
For people who are completely new to yoga, this is the class for you. "Give one class a try and see if you feel any difference after," she says. "If it's not something you enjoy, you can always leave. But one class won't hurt you."
Who knew that video games could be good for you? The makers of Super Mario Brothers have once again changed the video game with the introduction of the Wii Fit, a video game accessory designed to get you, well, fit. The Wii Fit is basically a balance board with a baton that tracks your movements on your own TV. The fitness program built into the device includes yoga, strength training, and balancing games to help you get in shape. Step on the board to determine your weight and how well you can balance. Then do the yoga poses as instructed and watch your on-screen avatar to check your form. It's as close to a personal trainer as you can get.
Even better, you and your entire family can do yoga in your own living room. Our Wii Fit blogger, Danielle, got her 2- and 3-year-old to do yoga right alongside her, just because they could watch themselves on TV!
Think you need to shell out serious cash to get expert yoga instruction? Think again. Free and donation-based yoga classes are available so that everyone can get fit. The best things in life are free, right?Lululemon: An Athletic Store That Offers More
With free yoga classes and an extensive calendar of community-based fitness events, Lululemon Athletica is taking a community service approach to selling athletic gear. "We want to make our stores a hub of health and fitness," says Lululemon Community Manager Kerry Brown.
"We can work with the best instructors and provide the space for people to practice yoga," says Brown. About 40 people regularly attend the free yoga classes at each Lululemon store in the country and the numbers are growing. "More people are coming to yoga because it helps them do other activities and sports," says Brown. "They feel great afterwards. Everything's free, so if they like it, why not stick to it?"
At Yoga to the People's studios in New York City and Berkeley, California, the emphasis is on your yoga practice and experience, not how many sessions you'd like to buy.
Students can walk into a Yoga to the People studio and take part in a 60-minute class. As they walk out at the end of each class, they can discreetly drop their donation into a tissue box by the door.
With money taken out of the equation, Yoga to the People founder Greg Gumucio says the focus shifts to each individual's yoga practice, not the yoga teacher or the style of yoga. Yoga teachers are not announced and classes are structured so that beginners can participate without feeling overwhelmed.
Gumucio wants each student to get empowered through their practice. "You create your own experience," he says. "You are responsible for your body. You are your best teacher."
The city that never sleeps celebrates the New Year with champagne and tons of confetti. So how does it celebrate the beginning of summer? With sun salutations and tree poses.
Co-founder and president of the Times Square Alliance Tim Tompkins thought yoga in Times Square was a fitting way to celebrate the summer solstice. "After learning what the summer solstice represented, fertility and creativity," Tompkins says, "yoga seemed the perfect way to show the difference between the summer solstice and the winter solstice"
So on the first day of summer every year since 2003, thousands of people have attended free yoga classes in the middle of Times Square, concentrating on their poses and breathing and ignoring the noise from traffic, fire trucks, and tourists.
It's hard to believe that what started out as a yoga session with three people in 2003 has developed into a full-day event with more than 1,000 participants in 2008. "Our lives have gotten more and more frenetic," Tompkins explains. The need to get off the treadmill and take care of our mind, body, and spirit has gotten bigger as a result, he adds.
Can one really achieve peace of mind in an area filled by people, flashing lights, and noise? Personally, walking through Times Square makes me want to push a panic button, but Tompkins says that's the challenge.
"Anyone can find peace of mind at the top of a mountain," he says. "The challenge is to stay engaged with the rest of the world in the midst of all the craziness."
Indulge your adventurous side with AcroYoga, a playful form of yoga that mimics some concepts of acrobatics. Class begins with everyone in a circle exchanging names and introductions to break the ice. Then students work with partners, first mirroring each other's poses, then using their bodies to provide support in inversions like head and shoulder stands and in flying poses -- where one partner becomes the base while the other is the flier.
Co-founder and instructor Jenny Sauer-Klein wanted something fun and safe for a new generation of acrobats as well as for adventurous people. "A wide range of people do AcroYoga," says Sauer-Klein. "From ex-gymnasts to people who have never done yoga and want to play. They want to relate to other people. I think that's the common denominator."
Don't get discouraged if you think your bones will get in the way of doing AcroYoga. "Anyone who comes to this class can do this on some level," says Sauer-Klein. "It's not about being really strong or flexible; it's about coming with an openness to learn, to try."
"Just a small change, like 10 minutes of yoga a day, can make a big difference," says Fisslinger.
Find your own 10 minutes in one of these links.Why Yoga Is Good for You
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, August 2008.