Ever since Oprah featured a segment on yoga and Madonna beat back her nasty side with namastes, Americans can't get enough of the ancient Indian practice.
Though 5,000 years old, yoga has boomed in recent years, with private instructors, gyms, community centers, even churches offering classes to help people wind down, focus, get limber and stay fit.
Yoga Journal magazine estimates that 15 million people in the United States practice yoga, twice as many as five years ago.
The nationally recognized instructor Aadil Palkhivala said when he opened Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Wash., 12 years ago, his was the only such facility in the area. Today there are dozens of yoga studios - "within walking distance," he joked.
So what's behind the yoga craze?
For starters, Americans are more passionate about fitness in general, instructors say. At the same time, yoga's exotic image has transformed into one that appeals to mainstream, Western tastes.
More important, yoga seems to work.
Yoga emphasizes stretching, building core body strength, controlled breathing, enhanced circulation and deep relaxation.
For these reasons, doctors in this country have started to recommend yoga for their patients based on its value as a fitness routine alone. Coupled with meditation, it is also used to reduce stress and high blood pressure, bolster the immune system and even treat depression. Many cancer and AIDS patients, as well as pregnant women, practice yoga. More vigorous types of yoga - which induce increased heart rates and sweating - have become popular among people who want to lose weight.
"There are very few people, from kids on up to seniors, who wouldn't benefit from it," said Dr. Peter McGough, chief of the University of Washington Medicine Factoria Clinic.
McGough noted yoga's positive effects on musculoskeletal disorders - such as arthritis - in particular.
But while studies in India, Europe and the United States point to yoga's potential benefits in a number of areas, even some yoga supporters concede more research is needed to track its long-term effects.
Yoga has become so commonplace that it's easy to lose sight of its roots and original purpose. The word itself is a Sanskrit expression that refers to a "yoke" or "union." As both a philosophy for living and a physical exercise, yoga unites the mind, body and spirit, bringing mental clarity, health and balance, its adherents say.
The ultimate goal of a yoga student is to reach a state of enlightenment, or ecstasy, through disciplined meditation.
But most Americans practice some form of hatha yoga, which focuses on breathing exercises and striking complex poses, or "asanas," that encourage flexibility, balance, strength and good energy flow through the body. Traditionally, hatha yoga serves as a foundation for other, more cerebral types.
"Hatha yoga is just the bait," Palkhivala said in his soothing, breathy delivery. "The mind is much more subtle and the emotions even more subtle." As students learn the physical techniques and begin to feel the benefits, he said, some may want to venture deeper.
Palkhivala says yoga has become popular as more and more people grapple to find a real purpose in their lives, something to aspire to. They're seeking spiritual fitness, as well as elastic hamstrings. He believes it's important for people to shop around for an instructor who can teach not just physical techniques but yoga's deeper principles.
"There is an urge to find something greater than the humdrum repetition of an unfulfilling existence," he insisted. "People are beginning to ask the question, 'So what?' "
Whether or not people reach an end to spiritual suffering through yoga, its physical effects alone keep people coming back.
"What yoga does is it moves the body in all different directions," without the repetitive motion of say, an aerobics routine, said Joseph Rodin, director of Northwest Yoga Festival, a four-day event featuring lectures, yoga classes and performances at Seattle Center that kicks off tomorrow. "It takes your body through its full range of motion."
Doctors and physical therapists agree yoga benefits a variety of age groups, body types and physical conditions, but they are reluctant to rank it higher than other forms of exercise.
Some people get more pleasure from - and are therefore more likely to stick with - aerobics, pilates or sports, which also promote fitness and stress relief.
New yoga styles are springing up all the time to accommodate different needs, including some people's desire for a routine that gets the blood pumping.
One of the hottest - literally and figuratively - is bikram yoga, which uses high room temperatures to loosen muscles and promote the release of toxins through sweat.
Whereas the iyengar style of yoga taught at Palkhivala's studio emphasizes meditation and holding individual poses for long periods to perfect form, bikram yoga involves a set of 26 poses that flow from one to the other. The faster pace and saunalike conditions offer a stimulating cardiovascular workout.
At The Sweat Box on Seattle's Capitol Hill, "Hot Yoga" instructors crank up the heat to 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit for each 90-minute class in the bikram style.
It may sound excruciating, but the studio's co-founder, Frankie Oser, said more than 2,300 students have taken classes in 3 1/2 years of business, and many of those are repeat customers.
Oser said Hot Yoga helps deliver more blood to muscles, speeds the breakdown of glucose and fatty acids, improves coordination, makes muscles less prone to injury, reduces heart irregularities and burns fat.
It's a total body experience, Oser said, "from head to toe, inside and out. ... Your whole body is worked out every time you come in."
McGough advises people with pre-existing medical conditions or who are on certain types of medication - blood-pressure drugs, for example - to consult a doctor before joining a particular yoga class, just to make sure the style is appropriate for them.
While yoga instructors usually ask students about medical concerns before classes begin, most are not equipped to do in-depth screenings. It's up to the student to bring up any issues.
A person who has especially tight hamstrings, for example, may want to avoid yoga routines that call for strenuous forward bends, because this might lead to injury.
Another aspect of yoga classes that may attract people is the lack of competitiveness.
While yoga students strive to be more self-aware, they also work at being less self-conscious in relation to those around them.
But to eliminate the social pressure altogether, some yoga students prefer one-on-one sessions.
Many instructors offer classes in studios built onto their homes or in neighborhood storefronts. In settings like these, the feeling is more intimate and the embarrassment of making a mistake is minimal, since nobody's watching.
Jo Leffingwell, a former Seattle theater actress, exercised patience and grace as she coached this reporter through a series of warm-up stretches, breathing exercises and iyengar poses, followed by 10 minutes of meditation and a lesson in yoga teachings, at her studio in Seattle.
Leffingwell explained that just as a person's mind has tendencies and cravings that lead to an imbalanced life, that person's body has tendencies that can lead to physical imbalance, discomfort and pain. It could be shortness of breath, an inability to twist in one direction, or simple tightness in the back or legs resulting from a lack of exercise, stress or a previous injury. Yoga, she said, "shows you what the tendencies are in your body and brings you back to a more balanced state."
She encourages her students, as they bend and flex into position, to take their time and truly "experience the posture." If you can't bend over and touch your ankles on the first few visits, or balance your body on one leg, that's fine.
"What you're trying to do is be present in your body, moment by moment," she said.
Leffingwell explained that an essential part of yoga study is learning sutras, or words of wisdom about yoga, the self and the universe, many of which have been passed along for thousands of years.
One prominent idea embodied in both the physical and mental aspects of yoga is the belief that inside each person is a being that "sees" everything clearly. Some might think of it as the conscience, or intuition.
The problem for many people, Leffingwell said, is that they make decisions that contradict their own higher instincts. They get swept away by a jumble of thoughts, memories, fears, frustrations, expectations and desires, and life loses focus and meaning.
While many experts are pleased that people are introducing themselves to more physical types of yoga, they say the greatest path to a healthy life is connecting with that inner being.
"Yoga helps bring out what you are," Palkhivala said. "You have to face it, and sometimes it's not pleasant."
But if mastering yoga poses and getting a good workout are all you're looking for, that's OK, too, he said.
"The house is huge," Palkhivala said, referring to all the yoga choices people have available to them. "Where you want to live in it is your choice."
YOGA TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS
- Shop around and find an instructor whose technique and teaching style suit you. This is very important, instructors say. Many yoga teachers are poorly trained or don't work well with clients. If you don't have a good feeling about the first class or two, move on.
-Take it easy. Yoga is about self-awareness, but also patience. You shouldn't expect to be able to perform every asana, or yoga pose, after a couple of tries. Some require a high level of flexibility, so you may have to work your way up to them. Trying too hard at the beginning also may lead to muscle and joint injury. Focus instead on breathing deeply and understanding how your body moves and where the most tension occurs. Let the instructor know about any past injuries and health concerns before the class begins.
-Don't worry about your neighbors. Yoga is not a competitive sport, so if the student next to you can fold himself in half while standing, don't be discouraged. Focus on your own ability level and progress.
-Go with your emotions. Yoga is ultimately about transcendence and liberation - from pain, memories, anxiety, this month's household budget, everything that keeps you from being at peace with yourself. Think of yoga as a way of identifying obstacles in the mind and body and working through them.
-Yoga (YOH ga) - Sanskrit for "yoke" or "union," in this case, a union of mind, body and spirit. There are eight progressive "limbs" in yoga ranging from moral discipline, self-restraint, posture, breath control, sensory inhibition, concentration and meditation to ecstasy, all leading to "liberation."
-Asana (AH suh nuh) - A physical posture, or yoga pose.
-Hatha (HAH thuh) - The method of yoga most practiced in the United States, focusing on asanas and breathing skills. Many styles of yoga fit under this umbrella, from slower-paced iyengar yoga to flowing ashtanga yoga to bikram or "Hot Yoga."
-Ashtanga (Ahsh TONG guh) - A type of yoga that uses a fast-paced series of postures in a nonstop sequence, providing a solid workout. A variation is called "Power Yoga."
-Bikram (BEE krum) - Another flowing style of yoga that incorporates temperatures over 100 degrees to help loosen muscles and cleanse the body through sweat. Also called "Hot Yoga."
-Viniyoga (VEN ee yo guh) - A milder category of yoga that is tailored to the emotional and physical needs of the student.
-Iyengar (I YEN gar) - This popular yoga features a slower pace, focusing on precision and proper alignment. Students breathe methodically and hold each posture for extended periods, working to refine them over time. Students can use props, such as blocks and straps, to help achieve their postures.
-Ananda (Ah NAHN da) - A more spiritual form of hatha yoga that uses breathing, postures, silent affirmations and meditation.
-Namaste (Nah mas TAY) - A traditional yoga salutation meaning, "I bow to you." It's one person's humble recognition of another's soul. To give the greeting, press the hands together at the chest, as in prayer, close your eyes, and bow your head. It's OK, but not customary, to say the word aloud.
-Pranayama (Prah nah YA ma) - Breath-control exercise.
-Mantra (MAHN trah) - A sacred sound that has a transforming effect on the person saying it.
-Om - A common mantra, just one syllable but spoken in a deep, resonant, elongated breath.
-Sources: Yoga Journal, Joseph Rodin, Aadil Palkhivala and Jo Leffingwell
-Yoga Journal has an online site with interviews and practical information on various types of yoga, as well a directory of yoga studios at www.yogajournal.com.
-"Autobiography of a Yogi" (Self-Realization Fellowship Publishers, $6), by Paramahansa Yogananda.
-"The Healing Path of Yoga: Time-Honored Wisdom and Scientifically Proven Methods That Alleviate Stress, Open Your Heart, and Enrich Your Life" (Three Rivers Press, $17), by Nischala Joy Devi, Dean Ornish and Shaye Areheart.
-"Yoga RX : A Step-by-Step Program to Promote Health, Wellness, and Healing for Common Ailments" (Broadway, $17.95) by Larry Payne, Richard Usatine, Merry Aronson.
-"The Tree of Yoga," (Shambhala, $13.95) by B.K.S. Iyengar.
(c) 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.