Madonna has publicly admitted she does it. Gwyneth Paltrow has been photographed doing it. Sting and his wife have done it for years. And about 30 million Americans from all walks of life currently do it.
It, of course, is yoga.
But what most people think of when they think of yoga doesn’t even scratch the surface.
“When people talk about yoga, they are generally talking about Hatha yoga, the physical practice,” says Meredith McFadden, owner of Pure Yoga Pilates Studio in Wilmington. “In reality, yoga encompasses much more—spiritually, physically and philosophically.”
Indeed, the practice of yoga is much more than a system of physical exercise for better health or weight loss. “The physical practice of yoga is just one aspect of yoga, which is a deep topic that is literally thousands of years old,” says Johnny Gillespie, founder of Empowered Yoga and Plexus Fitness in Wilmington, Newark and Hockessin.
“Yoga is a vehicle for learning more about yourself,” says Jacque Wisnauskas, yoga coordinator at Yoga Dover. “Yoga helps you let go of ‘shoulds’ and helps you learn how to be in the moment. Instead of focusing on a ‘should,’ just be in awe of what you can do right now. Yoga teaches you that.”
Gillespie looks at it this way: “There is no difference between yoga and life. That’s what yoga means—it means your life and how you live it. It’s about letting go of your ego and learning to be happy.”
Page 2: Why? Because it’s Good for You
Who should take yoga? In a word, everyone, according to Jacque Wisnauskas, yoga coordinator for Yoga Dover.
“Different people will benefit from yoga in so many different ways, depending on where they are in their lives, what their goals are and what they bring to their practice,” Wisnauskas says. “Many people report fewer health problems, even after just a few classes. Their quality of life improves. It’s huge for some people to be able simply to move better, reach for things, and live a better life.”
“Where else can you get a great physical workout that helps you identify emotional patterns that are limiting you, provides an intellectual workout and promotes spiritual awareness?” asks Eddie Harrold, owner of Comfort Zone in Lewes.
“Yoga is so much more than stretching,” says Johnny Gillespie of Empowered Yoga and Plexus Fitness. “Yes, there is an element of stretching to a yoga practice, but there also is a whole lot more.”
The many benefits of yoga can be loosely divided into several categories: spiritual, mental, physical and internal.
Spiritual Because of the mind-body connection that yoga practice promotes, yoga can help you quiet and calm your mind, leading to reduced stress and anxiety, fewer sleep problems and an enhanced ability to deal with the tension in your life. “Through yoga, you learn to use your breath as a tool to help lower your reaction to stress,” Wisnauskas says.
Mental Many people practice yoga for the mental benefits, including better body awareness and focus. Yoga teaches us to live in a more aware, less reactive state. The meditative aspects of practice can help improve focus and, ultimately, memory in children and adults. “Yoga can help us learn to manage things that stress or test us,” Wisnauskas says.
Physical “Yoga strengthens your entire body, from your feet all the way up,” says Gillespie. “Through learning to strengthen your body, you increase your flexibility.”
Increased flexibility, especially in the hamstrings, hips, spine and shoulders, is a common benefit seen by many yogis. Increased core strength also can result, as can better balance between the sides of the body.
Yoga can also help manage weight. “The physical demands of yoga can lead to calorie burn and weight loss,” says Meredith McFadden of Pure Yoga Pilates in Wilmington. “But weight loss also can result because being more mindful and aware can reduce overeating and unconscious snacking.”
Internal Yoga poses and the diaphragmatic breathing that yoga teaches help massage your internal organs, leading to better circulation, improved digestion and a stronger immune system. Because of its focus on the back and core, yoga also can help release tension and compression on the spine.
“Yoga is not medicine,” says Maria Abbruzzi, yoga instructor at Milton Chiropractic in Milton. “But it is amazing how much it can improve your well-being. Before beginning my own yoga practice, I suffered from migraines. Once I started practicing yoga, they went away.”
Page 3: Styles–Defined
Are you totally confused by all the types of yoga classes offered? Fear not. Here’s your handy guide to the most popular traditional styles of yoga.
Hatha What most people think of when they think of yoga, “Hatha is the umbrella under which all other forms of yoga fall,” says McFadden. If a class is listed as Hatha yoga, it will generally be slow paced and provide a good explanation about the various poses and postures.
Iyengar According to McFadden, Iyengar is the most prevalent form of yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar brought it to the West from India. The style, performed slowly, focuses on spinal alignment and posture. “Iyengar is especially good for people with scoliosis or other back issues because of its strong focus on the spine,” says McFadden.
Ashtanga Unlike Iyengar, Ashtanga is a flowing, physical, athletic style of yoga. Ashtanga classes follow a structured sequence of poses in the same order each class.
Vinyasa Derived from Ashtanga, Vinyasa is more flowing and creative. “Vinyasa classes take an Eastern tradition and cross it with Western philosophy,” McFadden says. Vinyasa is based on a series of poses called Sun Salutations, which match movements to breaths.
Power When you ratchet Vinyasa up a notch, you get Power Yoga, which is very physical, athletic and fast-paced. Many power classes are based on a flowing style such as Ashtanga, but Power Yoga will not necessarily stick to the same strict set of poses.
Bikram Do you like it hot? If so, Bikram is for you. Based on the teachings of Bikram Choudhury, Bikram classes, often called hot yoga, take place in a room heated up to 100 degrees. They feature a series of 26 poses. The heat helps participants sweat out toxins and can push some participants to their physical limits.
Gentle If you’re looking for a slower workout, try Gentle Yoga. You’ll get many of the same breathing, relaxation and stretching benefits as other classes, but without some of the physicality or challenges. “Gentle Yoga is perfect for seniors, people with medical issues or illnesses, or those recovering from injury,” McFadden says. “Some classes may involve restorative postures that facilitate deeper relaxation.”
Page 4: Yoga Hybrids
Like cars, yoga styles have evolved and morphed to fill the needs of consumers. This means there are more choices than ever. “As time moves on, you are going to see more and more hybrid styles of yoga,” Gillespie says. “Yoga will keep evolving to fulfill people’s practical needs.”
Wisnauskas also sees a growth in hybrid classes. “By taking a number of styles and blending them, you are creating new hybrids that can meet the needs of more people.”
The most recognizable yoga hybrid is a blend of yoga and Pilates, or Yogilates, which is offered at gyms and studios statewide, including many YMCA branches, Powerhouse Gym in Seaford and Pure Yoga Pilates Studio in Wilmington. Other non-traditional yoga styles have emerged, each with unique benefits.
Athletes will benefit from the Flexibility for Athletes program at Comfort Zone in Lewes. “Yoga is a great compliment to any sport because sports are so mental,” says owner Eddie Harrold. The program combines breathing techniques with yoga postures and meditation to enhance athletic performance.
Svaroopa yoga, or consciousness yoga, is the preferred style at Milton Chiropractic in Milton. The goal is to release and decompress the spine and the deep layers of tension, physical and mental, that surround it.
“It is a very different style,” says Abbruzzi. “It is not exercise-oriented. The poses are slow and simple, but the angles of the poses are very precise. Svaroopa is very accessible. Anyone can do this style of yoga.” Svaroopa classes also are offered at the Rehoboth Beach Yoga Center.
Yoga U in Wilmington offers Yin yoga classes once a month. “Yin yoga is completely different than the popular flowing and very physical workout types of yoga,” says owner Weese Wagner. “Yin yoga goes deeper in the connective tissues and ligaments through mostly reclining or seated poses that are held for a long time.”
The purpose of these long-held passive postures is to relax and release the muscles in order to improve joint mobility, which is crucial because loss of joint mobility contributes to aging.
Blending a hybrid with a hybrid, Yoga U now offers Lunar yoga classes, which mesh Yin yoga with the more flowing style that people are accustomed to. Another non-traditional form at Yoga U is Yoga Abs, a fitness class with elements of Pilates and yoga set to upbeat music. “Yoga Abs is very fitness-oriented, with not as much mind-body focus, but it provides an introduction to yoga for those who might not be as familiar with it,” Wagner says.
Several studios also offer special events or workshops. Recent workshops at Bethany Beach Yoga Center, for example, have focused on Preschool Yoga, Yoga on the Ball and Partner Yoga. Heather’s Holistic Health in Dover offers private yoga training.
Page 5: Before Your First Class…
We’ve all seen the gym rats who pedal aimlessly on an exercise bike, climb to nowhere on a stair stepper or race in place on an elliptical machine.
“It’s far easier and safer to go into a gym and get on a machine” than to try something new that might push you beyond your comfort zone, Gillespie says. “When you take your shoes off and start moving into the postures of yoga, you can really hurt yourself if the instructor doesn’t know anything about the spine and how the spine functions and moves.”
That’s why it is critical to verify that your instructor is certified through the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit organization that maintains national registries of certified yoga teachers and schools. Certified instructors, identified by the letters RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher), have completed a minimum of 200 hours of intensive study and training.
In addition to ensuring that your class is led by a certified instructor, McFadden and Wagner offer the following advice.
• Learn about the philosophy of the studio to make sure it meets your needs. Ask about the philosophy or goals of a particular class or style of yoga and about each instructor. Wagner suggests that you ask questions and “talk to the teacher to find out what they like. If you haven’t found the right class, right style or right instructor, keep exploring.”
• Find out what other certifications the instructors might carry. Do they have a dance background like McFadden? A fitness background? A medical background? Learn as much as you can about the facility and its employees so you can make an educated choice about which studio will provide the most benefits and meet your needs.
• Ask if the studio is heated or not. Though some people love sweating out all the toxins that have accumulated in their bodies, others may have difficulty breathing in a heated room.
• It pays to have as much information as possible before your first class. Never be afraid to ask simple questions, McFadden says. “What do you need to bring or wear? I’ve had some new students who didn’t realize they had to take their shoes off and were uncomfortable at first.”
• If you do not own a yoga mat, find out if the facility provides them. “Ask how much it costs to rent a mat. Ask if the mats are cleaned after use—and how often,” McFadden suggests.
Most important, remember that yoga is “very diverse. There are many different styles, so you shouldn’t base your opinion of yoga on one class,” Wagner says. “One size does not fit all.”
Page 6: Avoid Injury
As with any exercise, there is a risk of injury with yoga practice, especially among beginners. As a result, many studios and gyms offer beginner classes or programs. “If you are going to start practicing yoga, make sure you get into a beginners’ program,” Gillespie cautions.
McFadden agrees. “There is some level of discomfort in any exercise, but pain is never good. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.”
One way to protect yourself from injury is to talk to the instructor before class. “Arrive early, and tell the instructor you are new,” Gillespie says. McFadden takes it a step further. “Alert the instructor about any prior injuries, no matter how insignificant or irrelevant they may seem. A certified teacher can help you modify the poses you’re doing or offer alternative poses.”
Speaking of poses, some of them can be intense. Don’t push yourself further than you can go. Never force a pose, and never compete with the yogi on the mat next to you. The yoga studio is not a place to bring your ego. Do not compare yourself to anyone else in the class.
Is your yoga practice confined to your home? “Use caution if you are practicing yoga at home with a DVD,” says McFadden. “Any repeated movement that you do incorrectly can lead to injury.”