Feel a Gentle Pull Toward Yoga?
SWAP PULSATING DANCE MUSIC for the gentle lilt of bamboo flutes.
Trade athletic shoes for bare feet. And turn down the glaring
lights so the room is comfortably dusky. Then stretch out and
Preparation for massage therapy?
Perhaps. The atmosphere of serenity could just as easily be for a
class in yoga, which teaches the art of tranquility by quieting
your mind and stretching your body. It's no wonder that this
ancient Hindu discipline- which requires little more than a mat and
the willingness to learn-has become so popular in our frenetic
The appeal, says veteran instructor Ann Merlo, is yoga's
remarkable ability to promote flexibility of body and mind. "Yoga
makes you feel positive. It can turn a negative attitude into a
positive attitude," says Merlo, one of the owners and directors of
the California Yoga Center in Northern California and a yoga
instructor at Stanford University. "Yoga is about creating space in
the body, the heart and the mind. You get a clarity of vision that
makes you less reactive."
Whether you're a seasoned athlete or a novice curious about
yoga, start with an introductory class. Wear clothes that let you
move comfortably but aren't so baggy that they get in your way.
Bring a yoga mat, which has a textured, slightly sticky surface
that prevents your bare feet from sliding while you're holding a
pose or moving from one posture to another.
There are many varieties of yoga, from Bikram yoga, which is
performed in a 105-degree room, to hatha yoga, which blends poses
and breathing to foster a sense of composure. Not every class
billed as "yoga" actually is one, though. Some yoga classes are
designed solely for exercise, which shortchanges participants of
yoga's powerful mind-body benefit, says Thomas Fortel, a Big Sur,
Calif., yoga instructor.
"In our culture, we value yoga as a workout," he says, "but the
purpose of yoga is to clear the mind for meditation."
Finding a Teacher
The most important aspect of a yoga class is the instructor.
Because there's no mandatory accreditation program, anyone can
claim to be a yoga instructor.
Ask your instructor about her experience, credentials and
philosophy. Merlo, who has been teaching for 20 years, is
accredited through Yoga Alliance, which certifies instructors who
meet its standards for training and instruction. One sure sign of a
dedicated instructor is an ongoing commitment to learning, so Merlo
recommends asking your instructor where he or she studies. "A
teacher who doesn't have a teacher? I'd really question that," she
During class, the instructor will give clear directions on how
to position your body in various poses or postures, or asanas. Some
poses improve flexibility and balance. Others stretch and tone
muscles or promote feelings of peacefulness. A skilled leader will
correct your poses, either by verbal command ("Raise your chin and
tuck your tailbone under") or, if it's OK with you, by gently
positioning your body.
Tapping into your ability to create your own oasis of calm is
one of the fundamental benefits of yoga. It's never about competing
with classmates to master poses. That's why, Merlo says, no matter
how many classes you take or how many years you study, the art of
yoga is always called "practice." - By June D. Bell