Yoga: Stretch Yourself
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Yoga: Stretch Yourself

Better your body and balance your entire outlook.

Why Try Yoga?

Imagine This... You've spent some quality time on your yoga mat, and it shows. But it's not just your posture that seems different lately; it's your entire outlook. When the world seems a little upside down, you don't let it throw you off balance anymore: You just ease into an inverted pose and put the world back in proper perspective. You don't bend over backwards for just anyone, of course -- but you could, if you were so inclined. Once you stretch yourself with yoga, you'll never need to snap back into the same old stressed-out, hunched-over shape again. So take a deep breath, and prepare to walk tall. You can do it!

The Payoffs

  • Stress relief. The breathing techniques, stretches, and restorative poses you'll learn will help you handle life's tests, from blind dates to boardroom presentations and even labor pains.
  • Strength. The poses may feel good, but make no mistake, this is serious exercise. Stick with it, and you'll soon gain muscle tone, improved endurance, and better balance.
  • Concentration. If you're impressed at how far you can stretch your legs after a couple months of yoga, just wait until you see what it does for your attention span!
  • Self-acceptance. When you pay closer attention to your body and recognize that you are capable of much more than you'd imagined, you'll learn to stop judging yourself and respect the woman you are.

From the book: YOU CAN DO IT!, The Merit Badge Handbook for Grown-Up Girls, by Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, (c) 2005 (Used with permission of Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco, CA, www.YouCanDoItBook.com.)

Meet Your Mentor

Nora Isaacs

What She Does: Nora is a senior editor at Yoga Journal as well as a sought-after private yoga teacher. She writes regular features for Yoga Journal, as well as articles for Salon.com, Natural Health, and San Francisco magazine.

Why She Does It: "My parents practiced yoga and started teaching in our basement when I was growing up. In suburban New Jersey, our family definitely stood out. I didn't know too many other kids who went to ashrams on weekends! Like most kids, I went through a period of being embarrassed by my parents as a teenager and actually dropped yoga for a while because I didn't want to stick out. But I got back into it after I moved to New York for graduate school because I started getting panic attacks. Thanks to yoga, I knew I had the tools I needed to manage my stress; it was just a matter of using them. Eventually I moved from New York to California, got the call from a journalism school friend that Yoga Journal was looking for a journalist who taught yoga, and I thought, 'This is perfect.' It's a blessing that I can pursue two things that I love at the same time."

Word from the Wise: "One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching for me is watching beginners gain an awareness of what their bodies can do. The first day when I ask beginners to move their right shoulders, you can see they really have to think about it. But after a couple of weeks, it becomes second nature."

Badge Steps

1. Explore your options.

If you know what you want out of a yoga class going in, you're more likely to leave it with that bona fide, yoga-fied look of serenity on your face. So ask yourself: Do you want to relieve stress, regain your strength after an injury or illness, lose weight, or gain flexibility? "Yoga can help you meet all these goals," says Nora. "The trick is finding the type of yoga that's the best match for your interests." Pick the type of yoga that most closely matches your personal goals.

Iyengar. Expect to hold poses for a long time while you make small adjustments to achieve ideal body alignment and greater awareness of your anatomy. This type of yoga helps improve your posture and relieve stress, and is less aerobic than other disciplines. If you have any injuries, you'll need to work closely with your teacher so that you don't strain yourself while working on some of the more challenging poses.

Bikram or Ashtanga. You'll perform a specific sequence of postures in rapid succession, and after a few classes, you'll fall into the rhythm of movement. This type of yoga is highly aerobic and hypnotic, too! If you have blood pressure or heart problems, you should probably choose a less strenuous type of yoga. Bikram yoga is taught in a very hot room to warm the muscles, so be careful not to let yourself get dehydrated.

Integral, Sivananda, and Kripalu. These practices are more meditative and focus on inner strength in addition to outward movements. You'll learn to relieve stress with deliberate movements, plus breathing exercises that help strengthen the body as they clear the mind.

Anusara. This type of yoga focuses on maintaining body alignment and seeing the divine nature within each person. It's a serious workout and physical discipline, but the teaching approach is lighthearted and playful. "Anusara is fun, so it's gaining popularity," says Nora.

Next, track down yoga studios that offer classes in the type of yoga that seems right for you, with some help from friends who do yoga and listings on community bulletin boards. If you come across class listings for Pranayama and Hatha yoga, don't be confused. Pranayama is breathing exercise, which is a component of most types of yoga, while Hatha is an umbrella term that includes all yoga with physical poses -- and technically, all the types listed above fall under this rubric.

Find a few yoga classes that promise to meet your needs.

2. Try out a few classes.

Beginning classes should last an hour and a half, with a brief meditation at the beginning, warm-up stretches, a series of standing poses, forward bends, back bends, a resting pose, and a meditation at the end. As you become more advanced, your teacher may add in headstands and other inversions. Spend a month trying out a few of the most promising class options you've found, taking into consideration:

Level. "It's very important that you take a class specifically for beginners at first, rather than a mixed-level or advanced class," says Nora. "You don't want to get overwhelmed or hurt yourself trying poses that are really too difficult."

Schedule. Look for beginning classes that are convenient to attend at least twice a week. Be realistic about your schedule. If you know you'll be working late in the coming months, don't count on making that 6 p.m. class -- especially if you'll have to fight traffic to get there. Yoga is meant to relieve stress, not create it!

Location. Classes close to home or work will make it easier for you to fit yoga into your regular routine.

Limitations. If you have any injuries or other physical constraints, be sure to consult the instructor beforehand to make sure the class won't overstrain you. You'll probably still be able to take the class, but the instructor may advise you to modify or sit out certain poses during class.

Before you go to class, ask what you might need to bring with you. Depending on the type of yoga, you'll need:

Clothes that move with your body. Avoid restrictive clothing that might limit your range of motion or make you uncomfortably hot.

A yoga mat. This ridged foam mat will keep you from slipping while you're holding poses. You might want to buy your own, so you can practice at home.

Blocks and a strap. These props can be used to help you stretch, and they're usually provided by the yoga studio.

Go to four or five different yoga classes in a month.

More Badge Steps

3. Commit to one class.

Once you've been to a few different yoga classes, you'll know what a difference a teacher can make. "Do you prefer teachers that are more or less strict? Do you feel more comfortable with an instructor telling you what to do or a hands-on teacher who will adjust your body for better alignment? Does it matter to you if the teacher is a woman or a man?" asks Nora. "Before you settle on a class, be clear about what kind of teacher works best for you."

If you know you'd have more confidence in a more experienced teacher, Nora suggests you find out if your instructor has been certified by the Yoga Alliance with 200 or 500 hours of training. "You also might want to find out who your teacher trained under, so you can have a better understanding of their style," she says. But she cautions that credentials aren't everything. "There are plenty of great teachers who aren't certified by Yoga Alliance, so your best bet is to discuss your specific goals with your teacher and talk to other like-minded students about their experience."

Once you find a teacher you feel good about, sign up for eight weeks of classes, and go at least twice each week. Going regularly will keep your muscles stretched and limber and help you remember the basic poses.

Sign up for eight weeks of class.

4. Strike a pose.

After just eight weeks of classes, you won't be just a poseur with your yoga poses. Sure, you'll know a sequence of stretches and poses you can practice at home, and you may already be working on more difficult poses like a headstand or a "dropback," where you come into a backbend from a standing position. But better yet, you'll know what it means to pay attention to yourself for a change and trust that inner voice that tells you to relax, believe in yourself, and let yourself stretch farther than you ever thought possible.

"Yoga changes you," confirms Nora. "The things that used to obsess you drop away. Your cravings will evaporate, all that concern and weight you've been carrying around will start to taper off, and you'll find you want to take better care of yourself and the people around you. And don't be surprised if you get the urge to go to bed early, so you can get up and do yoga!"

Reach a whole new level with yoga.

CONGRATULATIONS! Now that you've stretched your mind and your muscles, you know your own strength like never before. You did it!

More Tips and Pointers

Success stories from other women who have dared to dream.

I Did It!

"I remember watching more advanced yoga students and thinking, 'Not me, no way!' I had a hard time keeping my balance even doing basic bending poses because they gave me a head rush every time. But one day I stopped listening for the blood rushing in my ears and started concentrating on the teacher's instructions instead. Lie down: Hey, I could do that. Raise your hips: No problem. And before I thought about it too hard, I found myself lifting off from the floor and pulling my feet off the wall. I can't tell you what a triumph that was! I guess I'd always resigned myself to the equilibrium problems that run in my family, but that day I realized I could find my own sense of balance." -- Zoe

Getting Out from Under

"When I first started doing yoga, I was so focused on getting myself into the poses that I didn't think about how I was going to get out of them. I would do a pose, hold it, and then yank myself out of it as quickly as possible so I could get into the next one. I wound up with a lot of sore muscles, and I could never figure out why everyone said yoga was so relaxing! Then I found a teacher who told me that what I was doing wasn't yoga -- instead, I was becoming a contortionist. Once I became more focused on the process instead of just the end goal, I really began to stretch myself." -- Alison

You Too Can Be a Yogi

Forget the usual excuses!

"I have tight hamstrings." "I hear lots of people say, 'I want to try yoga, but I'm not flexible enough' -- but that's exactly why they should do it!" Nora says.

"I like to eat meat." A recent Yoga Journal poll found that only 10.8 percent of readers are vegetarians -- "And these are people who are really into yoga!" says Nora.

"It's too trendy." Yoga is a practice that is over 5,000 years old. It's been practiced in the West for nearly a century and has really gained momentum here over the past 40 years. "By now it's a cultural movement, not a trend," says our expert.

"That tantric sex stuff sounds weird." "Tantra is a very deep philosophy that doesn't have much to do with sex, and it's distinct from yoga," explains Nora.

"I already have a religion." No conflicts here! "Yoga is not a religion," explains Nora. She describes it as a "meditative practice" that inspires reflection and complements religious belief, much like writing in a journal or taking a long walk.

No Pain, Just Gain

Feel those muscles -- without the sprains and strains.

After your first few classes, "muscles you never knew existed will be aching," says Nora. But after your first couple of weeks in a class, you'll find you can hold poses for longer and that your flexibility has increased: "You might be surprised how easy it is to touch your toes!" Whatever you do, though, don't force it. "As in any physical activity, there's a possibility of injury, especially when you push yourself too far, too fast," she says. "Too often, we apply our Western ideals of competition and perfection of the physical body onto yoga, which is about being attentive to your mind and body." In other words, "No pain, no gain" does not apply -- when you feel pain, stop.

It's All Right to Cry

Get a load off your mind with yoga.

How is it that without any warning or physical pain whatsoever, people are suddenly moved to tears in the middle of a backbend? Ask a yoga teacher, and you'll get this response: "The issues are in your tissues." As Nora explains, yoga poses stretch out and open up entire sections of your body and your mind that are usually defended and tightly closed -- think of how often you fold your arms across your chest, cross your legs, and push unresolved issues to the back of your mind. "Over the years, yoga instructors have noted that certain poses tend to facilitate emotional release -- in particular, backbends, and movements that open the hips," she says. "It happens all the time, and it's embraced as a natural part of yoga practice."

Advice from the Expert

Nora's Tips: Yoga Within Your Limitations

Yoga gives you plenty to do, even when you're:

Recovering from a sports injury. "An instructor who specializes in therapeutic yoga may be able to work with you one-on-one to help you rebuild your strength," advises Nora. "As always, pay attention to how each pose makes your body feel, and avoid any poses that give you sharp pains. The tendency is to do what everyone else is doing in class, but if something doesn't feel right, it's not."

On your period. The conventional yoga wisdom is that women should avoid upside-down poses when they're menstruating. "Many believe that this reverses the apana, which is the downward flow of the body's energy," says our expert -- but others just call it uncomfortable. On the other hand, she says, "Restorative, nonstrenuous poses and certain forward bends can be great for easing cramps."

Pregnant. Seek out a trained prenatal yoga specialist. "Prenatal yoga focuses on squatting and breathing to get ready for labor and forward bends that strengthen the lower back," she explains. "Recently a student of mine had a baby, and she told me yoga made her labor much easier -- it strengthened her pelvic floor, and she knew how to breathe." Nora recommends avoiding new poses, backward bends, twists, and inversions after your first trimester and steadying yourself with props, such as blocks for standing poses and a chair for support during forward bends.

Beyond the Badge

If you love it as much as you thought you would, dream on...

  • Take a yoga break. Smokers take breaks throughout the day to indulge their habit, so why shouldn't you take a few minutes out of your day to enjoy a much healthier habit? Nora practices breathing exercises on her morning commute to work and says it's a great way to start the day: "Take five minutes in the morning before you get to work to just sit and breathe." To rejuvenate yourself before and after a big meeting, close the office door, throw down your mat, and do a few poses -- or flee your cubicle, and step outside or use the hallway. If you work at home, you could practice breathing while vacuuming and add a few forward bends. So what if your neighbor catches you in the act -- who cares how it looks if it feels great?
  • (Re)treat yourself. When those daily breaks just aren't enough and that deep relaxation at the end of class feels like it's over far too soon, treat yourself to a yoga retreat for a day, weekend, or even a week or two.
  • Go deeper. "There are eight limbs of classical yoga, and physical yoga is only one of them," Nora explains. "There's a lot of mental work to be done, too." To make the mindfulness you gain from yoga part of your daily life, she suggests writing in a journal. To explore this practice and other forms of reflection further, check out Meditation: Get an Inner Life. But not all yoga practice is inwardly focused, as Nora points out: "One of the ideals of yoga is to be more compassionate toward the world."
  • Mind your health. Check out Care for Your Health to take charge of your health maintenance plan and challenge old habits with the Nutrition: Eat It and Quit It: Break Bad Habits badges.

 
Great Escapes

Renowned yoga retreats:

Inner Harmony in Brian Head, Utah Offers intensive yoga classes in a down-home, rustic setting with good vegetarian meals. You'll spend a fair amount of time in class, but there are also hikes and field trips.

Kripalu in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts This idyllic Berkshires retreat offers yoga, rest, and relaxation in a converted monastery. For a truly spectacular experience, go in the fall when the leaves are changing color.

Maya Tulum in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula Take a couple of yoga classes a day, and you'll still have time to enjoy swimming, snorkeling, the nearby nature preserve, and complete spa services -- this is the life!

Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos Isles, British West Indies A Shambhala holistic spa in a splendid setting surrounded by Caribbean blue waters, featuring special "Healing Weeks" plus yoga classes and legendary massages year-round.

Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico This yoga center and spa attracts yoga teachers from around the world to teach a variety of classes. After class, you can look forward to a hot tub, sauna, and other spa amenities, plus exploring Tecate.

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