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Madonna does it. So do Cameron Diaz, Jamie Lee Curtis, and even Raquel Welch. Once relegated to a counterculture, yoga is offered at nearly 75 percent of all health clubs in the country, according to a 2000 report by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Yoga dates back as far as 4000 BC, developed first in India. The word "yoga" stems from the classical Hindu language, Sanskrit, and means "union."
"The primary goal of yoga is to create a union of your mental and physical sensations," says Gregory Durham, a personal trainer and yoga instructor based in New York City.
One of the best things about yoga is that anyone can do it at any level and at any age. Much anecdotal and some scientific evidence shows that positive effects of yoga include better sleep, more limber joints, and some serious stress relief.What's the difference among yoga styles?
There are many styles of yoga, and it mostly comes down to individual preference, Durham says. Here are some of the most commonly offered options.Hatha
"Hatha is the original and most popular style of yoga," Durham explains. "It is the yoga from which all others descend." The goal of hatha is general good health, attained through three main components: poses (asana), breathing (panayama), and meditation (dhyana).
"It seems strange, but you achieve exercise and relaxation at the same time with hatha yoga," Durham says.Ashtanga
Developed specifically to build strength, flexibility, and stamina, ashtanga is a strenuous yoga, sometimes called "power yoga." It involves breathing coordinated with a fast-paced series of poses. The goal is to improve circulation, gain strength, build endurance, and calm the mind.Bikram
Developed by Bikram Choudhury in the 1960s, this style entails 26 poses, always performed in an exact sequence and in an extremely hot and humid room.
"The use of heat, which allows the muscles to truly stretch, is particular to Bikram, but all yoga instructors and practitioners know that the warmer the space, the more flexible you'll feel," Durham explains. Bikram yoga claims to circulate oxygenated blood throughout the body, thus restoring proper weight, muscle tone, good health, and general well-being.
"Many people swear by this style, but for others, the heat is too intense," Durham says.Vinyasa
"Vinyasa means 'flow' in Sanskrit, and it aptly describes this practice that focuses heavily on breath," Durham says. Here, poses are linked, generally at a fast pace. There is no set sequence, which allows instructors to evolve and tailor routines.When should you practice yoga, and when should you avoid it?
For energizing effects, some people choose a morning routine, while others prefer evening classes for meditative and relaxing results. Although Durham encourages yoga at any time, he suggests putting yoga on pause if you're suffering from the flu or other serious illness. Serious conditions, such as joint pain, disc degeneration in the back or neck, or sciatica warrant advice from your doctor before starting yoga. The myth that menstruating women shouldn't do yoga mostly stems from the discomfort some women experience. You can still go to class, just sit out postures that increase menstrual pain, Durham advises. Also, pregnant women should seek out classes catering to them. "Not all postures will be appropriate," Durham notes.
Whatever yoga you choose, remember, it's not a competitive sport. "The key is to continue to challenge yourself," Durham says. If you're considering a videotaped lesson, Durham points out some caveats for beginners: "Yoga has thousands of subtleties that you won't recognize unless you've worked with an instructor. Not to mention that nothing beats the immediate instruction you get from a class."