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ATLANTA - Brent Leggett and girlfriend Etsuko Tomeda sweat in a heated room to get conditioned for hiking.
Across town, Brian Alton practices a 5,000-year-old tradition to tone his body and expand his mind.
And in a suburban storefront, Wendy Steinbaum perches on a pile of blankets to help her relax.
They're all practicing yoga, but in different ways.
"I feel in shape to do anything, go hiking, whatever," says Leggett, 39. Since he started doing bikram yoga two years ago _ a style practiced in a room heated to about 100 degrees _ he's noticed that his energy level is higher.
Leggett and Tomeda, 40, often take classes together. She says the heat helps protect against muscle strains.
"Even when I think I might have done too much, (afterward) I don't have any injuries," Tomeda says.
Millions of Americans are taking a chance on yoga, shedding the notion that it's just about chanting or twisting your body into pretzel shapes. Classical yoga is an eight-stage process of spiritual development that involves ethical discipline, posture, breathing exercises and meditative practices.
According to a study published last month in Yoga Journal, more than 7 percent of U.S. adults nationwide, or 15 million people, now practice yoga, a 28.5 percent increase from the previous year.
When Margaret Pierce and her late husband, Martin, started the Pierce Yoga Program 30 years ago, they taught 80 students a week in a carriage house. Now the program occupies two buildings, employs six instructors and offers 30 to 40 classes a week.
In 2000, Atlanta's first certified bikram yoga studio opened. Since then, two more have opened, and a fourth will open Sept. 1. Yoga classes are also offered at sites such as YMCAs, gyms and community centers.
As yoga's popularity has continued to grow in recent years, more styles have been introduced. Most are based on hatha, the poses or '`asanas'' that make up the physical aspect of yoga. Some types focus mainly on the physical, while others have a more spiritual bent.
"Yoga is definitely trendy right now," says Jaya Devi, founder of Kashi Atlanta, a yoga studio. "It's ironic, a 5,000-year-old tradition suddenly becoming trendy. Not many trends have those kinds of roots."
Devi thinks people are looking for something more from exercise programs than simply improving their bodies. ``I think people are looking more for depth of spirituality, a mind-body-spirit connection," she says.
Another trendy exercise regimen, Pilates, uses poses similar to yoga. But while both systems build strength and flexibility, yoga is a holistic spiritual discipline aimed at helping people live their lives in a state of balance and composure. Pilates is focused on physical conditioning and was created to help rehabilitate injured soldiers following World War I.
"Yoga is there to work out kinks in the body to get you ready for meditation, as opposed to just getting a workout," explains Atlanta yoga instructor Mukta Khalsa. "You can go to the gym for that."
But there's no denying that yoga can help you maintain a healthy weight, increase your energy and decrease stress. Alton, 30, of Atlanta, says he has shed 60 pounds since he started studying iyengar _ a style that emphasizes proper alignment _ in January 2001.
"When I turned 29 I weighed 260 pounds, and I knew I didn't want to weigh that much when I turned 30," Alton says. He started taking one class a week; he's now up to three or four. "Yoga can improve your entire life outlook," he says.
Maury Fradkin, 57, a retired Atlanta physician, says he recommended yoga for his patients and for women in general.
"There are different benefits at different times in life," he says. Yoga improves stability and balance, which people tend to lose as they age. The postures help build upper body strength, which may protect from injury in a fall. In addition to the physical benefits, Fradkin says yoga "unclutters the mind," bringing focus and clarity.
Steinbaum, 65, of Sandy Springs, says that studying svaroopa _ a form aimed at releasing tension _ for more than two years has helped her overcome daily fears.
"I find myself doing things I never would have done in the past, taking more risks."
Greta Lorge writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cox News Service