The ancient mind/body discipline has been reinvented. Now fitness enthusiasts practice... THE NEW YOGA


How appropriate in the waning days of the millennium. Yoga, a mind-body discipline some 5,000 years old, has become the ultimate retro fitness trend.

And how typical of the times: We've added New Age music to the classes, and companies like J. Crew have come out with cool new lines of yoga clothes. People are doing the Salute to the Setting Sun, a yoga posture, to improve their golf games.

It's a far cry from sitting in the lotus position chanting "om." Consider the title of a book by Godfrey Devereux that HarperCollins published last year, "Dynamic Yoga: The Ultimate Workout That Chills Your Mind as It Charges Your Body."

Some fitness centers don't even use the y-word. Merritt Athletic Club in Annapolis offers a popular class called Reebok Flexible Strength that's based on hatha yoga positions. (Hatha yoga is the more physical form of yoga, the one most familiar to Westerners.)

"I use it as part of physical fitness," says 33-year-old Mary Ellen Didion, who takes a two-hour class once a week at the Yoga Center in Hampden. "It works for me."

A program survey by IDEA, an organization of health clubs and fitness professionals with members in 80 countries, shows that yoga is second only to boxing-based classes, with the greatest increase in growth in the last three years. In 1996 only 31 percent of fitness facilities offered yoga classes; now 64 percent do.

Surprisingly, purists aren't as worried about the mainstreaming of yoga as you might think. People who take it up as a great new aerobic workout are often drawn to its spiritual and meditative side.

"Most people go ... to yoga studios for physical reasons," says Catherine Arnold, editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal, published in Berkeley, Calif. "A bad back, or arthritis. Once they start they reach a point where they stumble on the spiritual component. It's a personal journey."

Safety issues, she adds, are more of a concern -- for both yoga traditionalists and health clubs. Anyone can call himself a yoga instructor and start teaching. "There are external pressures now from HMOs, insurance companies and even the government for the development of standardized certification," says Arnold.

Such is the price of popularity. How do you standardize the teaching of something that's primarily a spiritual discipline? "The movement toward standardization is definitely going to affect how yoga evolves in America," she says.

The reasons for yoga's current popularity aren't hard to figure out. For one thing, it has Hollywood's stamp of approval. Madonna has given up the gym for ashtanga, the most dynamic and athletic form of hatha yoga. Celebrities like Woody Harrelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Courtney Love and Ricky Martin have all embraced the benefits of the hip new/old exercise.

Until recently most people took up yoga as a way of slowing down, relieving stress and gaining flexibility. That was until Beryl Bender Birch wrote a book called "Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout" (Fireside, 1995), which introduced the concept of aerobic yoga and made it sexy.

Paradoxically, the popularity of power yoga has increased interest in the gentler forms as well. Physicians prescribe the stretching and relaxation techniques for everything from carpal tunnel syndrome to cardiovascular problems to stress. If doing yoga helps relieve stress (and just about everyone agrees that it does to some degree or other) it's going to appeal to a lot of people in the late '90s.

And then there are those -- have we heard about them too much already? -- aging baby boomers. The ones who took up jogging, step aerobics and weight training with so much enthusiasm only to wake up one morning to find that they needed to do something about their stiffening joints.

"A lot of the physical exercise my friends used to do like running, they can't do anymore," says Bob Glickstein, director of the Yoga Center in Columbia. "Yoga is an option no matter what your physical ability. Anyone can benefit."

Students are encouraged to go at their own pace -- gradually. No one is expected to twist himself into a pretzel in the first class. Conversely, no one should expect instant results.

"I was something of a couch potato," admits 59-year-old Martha Clasby, who took up yoga at the Greater Baltimore Yoga Center in Timonium to improve her flexibility. "Each time it's a challenge. It was a number of weeks until I noticed the positions were getting easier."

Yoga appeals to a variety of people, young and old, male and female, those in shape and those who aren't. It offers a holistic approach to developing the body and mind through proper breathing techniques, exercise positions and meditation. The yoga class at the Y or health club will probably emphasize the physical, but a little spiritualism almost always finds its way in.

A decade ago that might have been a problem, and meditation in an athletic club would have seemed a little strange. But we live in a global society now, and the idea of a spiritual-based path to well-being is a lot more acceptable these days.

"It's part of the baby boomers' maturing," says Tejal Murray, head of the Yoga Center in Hampden. "They're looking inside themselves for contentment. People have tried a lot of things, exercised a lot of ways. What they really want is more spiritual grounding in their lives."

Catherine Arnold of Yoga Journal agrees. "We saw a period through the '80s and early '90s of withdrawal of teaching the spiritual even in the yoga studios. They just didn't go there. In the mid- and late '90s people want that. There's a lot more interest in it."

It used to be that participants in yoga classes were women with a median age of 30 to 55, says Glickstein. That's no longer true. Classes at his Columbia center include teenagers as well as seniors, and men are taking up the discipline in greater numbers than ever before.

"I believe in it," says 34-year-old Louis Sengare, who has started classes at the Downtown Athletic Club. "It's a way of relaxing, to start your day with a better balance of mind and body and soul. That's what I believe in."

These days men seem more comfortable than they might have been even a decade ago in a class where muscle power isn't as important as flexibility and balance.

Sengarre is taking a session at the Downtown Athletic Club that Suzanne St. Onge teaches at 9 in the morning. The lights are low, and she's talking quietly to her students.

"You're not really looking in front of you," she intones. "You're just allowing your gaze to rest there. Your right leg is heavy, putting in roots. Your left leg is lighter." Here she slowly raises her left leg and places the sole of her foot on the side of her right knee, forming a triangle with her leg.

"Envision yourself as a strong tree. When you're ready, inhale and raise your arms, forming the branches." She places her palms together above her head.

St. Onge balances seemingly without effort while her students hold the posture (also known as an asana) for as long -- or as short -- a time as they can.

At the end of the hour and a series of asanas that stretch every part of the body, St. Onge has her class sit cross-legged to chant "om." The syllable reverberates gently through the darkened room.

"I don't want to come off as a kook," she explains later. "But I do impose the 'om.'"

It's the most basic mantra, or chant, in yoga -- a sacred syllable that represents the fundamental sound of the cosmos.

And typical of our times, it's also the name of a new yoga-inspired active wear from the hip California sportswear line Bisou Bisou.

Getting started

Start with the Y, your own health club, senior center or the Yellow Pages under "Yoga."

* Ask friends for recommendations.

* Styles of yoga and instructors vary enormously. Experiment to find a class that feels right for you.

* Talk to the teacher about his or her background, training and philosophy before the first class.

* Don't eat before class, even if it isn't aerobic yoga.

* Tell your instructor if you have any physical problems before the class starts.

* Wear comfortable athletic clothes such as spandex, T-shirts, sweats and tights.

* Don't wear shoes. Yoga is done barefoot.

* Regular practice and regular class attendance are essential.

* Don't expect instant results.

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