Sting, who spends two hours daily in the lotus position, credits yoga with his awesome ability to make love for five hours at a stretch. Madonna can wind her leg behind her head. Yet yoga is far more profound than its recent "celebrity" status suggests. It can range from a series of poses that increase flexibility to a deep spiritual path whose ultimate goal is the revelation of the higher self and higher states of consciousness.

The word "Yoga" means union, conveying the discovery of the soul and way to union with it. This can be a union between an individual and their highest self or an individual and the universal soul.

Yoga's familiar physical poses—called "asanas"—and part of the discipline of Hatha Yoga are actually a tool to help students find their way to those higher states. "It's really to control your mind," Adrienne Burke of New York's Jivamukti Yoga Center says of physical yoga, "because our mind has so many thoughts. It's a lead-in to meditation. And meditation leads to God realization. So it's really about being able to tame your mind through a physical practice."

Yoga should never induce pain. Pain signals that you are going too far too fast. The secret of working on any pose is to "breathe into it," allowing each breath to gently enhance your ability to stretch a tiny bit more. It's a lesson in delayed gratification so leave your competitive streak at the door. And it doesn't matter who is more flexible because the goal is something far less quantifiable—expanded awareness.

Yoga's American father, the late Richard Hittleman, began studying yoga at age nine with a Hindu employee of his parents. Hittleman's Yoga For Health television series, which premiered in l961, was seen around the world.

In the east, however, yoga goes back just a tad further. It is mentioned in Indian scriptures over 3,000 years old. Some claim the practice dates back five or six thousand years and includes more than 86,000 poses. Anyway, it is two thousand years since the sage Patanjali wrote the "Yoga Sutra", still the authoritative text on yoga.

Everything flows from the "Yoga Sutra" but with varying emphasis. Different teachers specialize in different branches derived from the texts. Raja Yoga is the mastery of the mind and the senses.

Mantra Yoga aims for perfection through reciting sacred syllables. Followers of Jnana Yoga focus on devotion through chanting on knowledge, delving deeply into spiritual texts, learning Sanskrit and other ancient languages.

Others work for selfless reasons like Mother Teresa, practicing Karma Yoga. Kundalini Yoga (which focuses on the body's seven chakras or energy centers) and Iyengar Yoga (the method of revered teacher B.K.S. Iyengar) are also popular.

Hot of late has been Ashtanga Yoga, so-called "power yoga," and the most athletic derivation of Hatha. Ashtanga itself could be 2,000 years old and was supposedly rediscovered in the l930s from ancient Sanskrit writings found on a bundle of banana leaves. Ashtanga synchronizes movement with breathing and involves the fluid transition from one pose to the next in a smooth sequence, creating heat in the body to release toxins. It is physically taxing and not for wimps.

Classic Hatha Yoga is the yoga most of us are familiar with. Hatha encourages us to convert our bodies into temples. It develops body, breath and mind and fends off the immobility that comes with aging. Hatha poses lengthen the spine and through the breath, tensions and stresses held in the body are released.

Yoga poses work on an opposition principle. You work your outer thighs then your inner thighs, your chest muscles then your back muscles, front of legs, then backs of legs, and so on.

"It's not like when someone leaves a class they are enlightened," says revered Los Angeles yoga teacher, Ana Forrest, "but they feel better and they are more in their body and their chemical balances are more balanced. You feel fresh, like your cells have been washed. You feel energized. It's like the taint of overwhelm and despair gets washed out of you."

Yoga aids concentration, discipline and balance. The asanas, through squeezing different parts of the body, are said to massage the internal organs and improve lymph flow. Does yoga have the power to relieve pain?

"Yes," says Ana Forrest who often works with terminally ill cancer patients. "Does it always work? No. Does it save lives? Sometimes.

Dr. John Parziale's study at Brown University's School of Medicine, found that golfers' common wrist, shoulder and back injuries were reduced by yoga's strengthening and stretching exercises. A University of Pennsylvania study found that yoga eased the pain of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome more effectively than traditional treatments. Yoga's reach continues to expand. For instance, specialty classes are now springing up targeted to help fybromyalgia patients and patients recovering from breast cancer.

In l998, JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) reported the results of controversial diet doctor Dean Ornish's Lifestyle Heart Trial which suggested that long term, his regime of a low-fat diet, yoga and other stress reducers like meditation, dramatically reverses heart disease.

"The Ornish group used a particular lineage of Hatha Yoga taught by Swami Satchidananda," explains Melanie Eller of Ornish's Preventive Medicine Research Institute. "The five components for the cardiac patients are the asanas, deep relaxation, visualization, breathing practices and meditation."

Bikram Choudhury, longtime yoga teacher to stars like Raquel Welch, promises more health benefits than most. He also turns up the heat; his studio temperatures reach 110 degrees. He claims he can help—not cure, but help—ailments ranging from migraine to emphysema, anemia, varicose veins and hemorrhoids.

In fact, yoga has made a truly large leap towards mainstream acceptance. Some companies now offer workers alternative health care plans that give a 50% discount on yoga and some Northern California residents with Kaiser Permanente plans also receive some coverage. Who'd have thought we'd ever see the day when you could ask for a yoga prescription?

Yoga and the Food We Eat—Greet Your Food with Reverence

Since the body's vital energy—its "prana"—comes from air, water and food, yogic philosophy treats food with a reverence alien to westerners. What you eat reflects your mental and spiritual purity and freshness is vital. There is less focus on nutritional content, more on the nature of the energy held inside the food, which falls into three categories.

Sattvic: Pure and life-giving, increasing joy, strength, health and the life force. Includes grains, legumes, dried and fresh fruits, vegetables (especially raw veggies), nuts, seeds, herbs, dairy products and natural sweeteners like honey or molasses.

Rajasic: Over-stimulating and capable of leading to disease, pain and grief. Includes foods which are bitter, sour, salty, overly hot, burning, and dry.

Tamasic: Food that is putrified, stale, impure or rotten is believed to make people lazy and dull. This group includes mushrooms because they are grown in the dark plus hard-to-digest deep-fried foods, meat, fish, eggs, alcohol and drugs like opium and marijuana. Some foods, like fruit, are capable of being sattvic when freshly picked, rajasic when battered or blemished, and tamasic when overripe and shriveled. The very action of eating can be tamasic—i.e. if you overeat—or rajasic—if you eat in a rush. Whenever you're under stress or rushed, stop and take a few deep breaths.

Yoga Video Tapes

Rent or buy Kathy Smith's New Yoga series, Karen Voight's Yoga Sculpt tape and Byran Kest's, The Power Yoga Series. The Jivamukti Yoga Center also offers four classes on audiotape via 1-800-295-6814. Check them out and just say OM!, USA
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Sue Russell
Sue Russell