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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Demystifying Yoga

By Diane Vadino for MSN Health & Fitness

Yoga can be intimidating to newcomers. Here's how to overcome your apprehensions and get out your yoga mat.

Yoga: So healthy! But also, so intimidating. The word is out about its myriad benefits—improved strength and flexibility, reduced stress, greater peace of mind—but something about yoga strikes fear into the limbs of newcomers in a way that aerobics and spinning simply don't.

Could it be the size-zero cuties in hot pants sauntering across the studio? The former gymnasts happily twisting themselves into pretzels? Maybe it’s the thousand-yard stare of the longtime practitioner who instinctively knows what to do with his socks, precisely how to place his sticky mat, and exactly the pose that’s coming up next. There's no doubt about it: Your first yoga class can be downright daunting. But it's a fear worth conquering—not only because of the health benefits, but because, in truth, few activities place such importance on acceptance, tolerance and noncompetition.

Here, we answer some common questions to help you overcome any apprehension and get you out there on the mat.

Am I too fat?

For Austin, Tex., yoga instructor Abby Lentz, it's one of the questions she most frequently fields—and her emphatic reply is always no. "There are still lots of benefits to be had, even if you can't touch your toes," says Lentz, founder of the HeavyWeight yoga program, which caters to hefty students. "You just have to let yourself move slower, use props, and don't let yourself do anything dangerous."

And Lentz should know. The 242-pound marathon runner and triathlete became an instructor after having an epiphany: "All along I'd been asking myself, 'How long would it take me to lose X amount of pounds so I could be a yoga teacher?' ” she says. "But eventually I found acceptance with my body and affection for it, just the way it is." Now she’s committed to ensuring that other would-be yogis don't wait to be thin before beginning a practice. As part of that devotion, she promotes swapping the ideal of the slim, trim yoga student for a more inclusive image. "You flip through those pages of the yoga magazines, and you get the impression yoga is for people who are thin and fit already," she says. "But it's for everyone, regardless of what you weigh or your size."

Am I flexible enough?

We've all seen people snake their way into hypercomplicated yoga poses: Midair splits balanced on one palm, a foot wrapped casually around the neck. It can seem impossible for those of us who can’t even touch our toes with straight legs. "What we're sure to tell new students is that someone who has his foot around his head might have been doing yoga for 10 years," says Chris Jensen of the Yoga Center of California in Costa Mesa. "We take it very slowly, and we emphasize a lot that there's really no competition in yoga—you can just go at your own pace."

And it's a forgiving pace. Some teachers remind students of yoga's "50-year plan"—that if their heels don't touch the floor after a year in Downward Dog, there's always hope for the next 49—though most instructors would caution new yogis against such goal-oriented thinking.

Will I lose weight?

"Somebody sat in my class and was like, 'How many calories do you think I burned today?' ” says Lentz. "I was like, 'I haven't a clue, and that's not the point.' ” Lentz encourages students who want to slim down to view yoga as one segment in a three-part fitness plan that also includes weight lifting and aerobic exercise. "I was like, 'If you want to burn calories, walk around the block or go swimming, and if you want to build muscle mass, go to the gym and lift weights,' ” she says. "But yoga is the foundation that supports those other two physical activities."

That being said, there are many different kinds of yoga, some more physically intensive than others. If you're looking for a calorie-burning workout, try an ashtanga or vinyasa session rather than a yin or restorative approach—though in every class the most crucial factor is the instructor.

I'm Christian. Can I still participate in yoga?

Yoga classes occasionally include chants or songs in an unfamiliar language, and Eastern religious icons—say, a small statue of the Hindu god Ganesh—sometimes are displayed in the studio. That's part of the reason behind the rise of so-called Christian yoga, which replaces traditional texts with biblical passages, and why Christian groups occasionally challenge yoga programs in public schools.

But most instructors are quick to point out that yoga is widely considered a spiritual, rather than religious, practice that in no way challenges a yogi's personal beliefs. "I always say to people that I was raised a Catholic, and I went to Jesuit schools my whole life," says Lynne Begier, founder of Back Bay Yoga Studio in Boston. "You can make yoga as spiritual as you want, and you won't be preached to and required to do anything you're not comfortable with."

What should I wear?

"Loose, comfortable clothing," says Jensen. "Our students wear a wide range. There's no set thing, as long as it's not tight or binding." (Jensen points out that jeans, for example, likely would become uncomfortable.) One caveat: Before that first class, consider trying Downward Dog on the living-room floor: Palms and heels on the ground, hips up, so the body resembles an inverted V. A T-shirt that’s too loose will slide down, making for an uncomfortable—emotionally, at least—class. And then there's the question of what to do with your socks: "Socks or no socks, it doesn't make much of a difference," Jensen says. However, some teachers feel more strongly about the issue, so when in doubt, pull them off!