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Where there's a yoga blitz, there must be yoga biz. To dress for a class, you need only some old, loose-fitting clothes and since you perform barefoot, no fancy footwear. Yet Nike and J.Crew have developed exercise apparel, as has Turlington. For those who prefer stay-at-home yoga, the video-store racks groan with hot, moving tapes. The Living Yoga series of instructional videos taught by Yee and Patricia Walden occupies five of the top eight slots on Amazon's vhs best-seller list. "Vogue and Self are putting out the message of yoginis as buff and perfect," says Walden. "If you start doing yoga for those reasons, fine. Most people get beyond that and see that it's much, much more." By embodying the grace and strength of their system, Yee and Walden are its most charismatic proselytizers new luminaries in the yoga firmament.
"Madonna found it first, and I'm following in the footsteps of the stars," groans Minneapolis attorney Patricia Bloodgood. "But I don't think you should reject something just because it's trendy." Bloodgood had the bright idea to commandeer part of the lobby in the office building where she works for a Monday-evening yoga class. Yoginis can spend a weekend at (or devote their lives to) such retreats as Kripalu, where each year 20,000 visitors take part in programs ranging from "The Science of Pranayama and Bandha" to African-drum workshops and singles weekends. In L.A. they can mingle with the glamourati at Maha Yoga (where students bend to the strains of the Beatles' Baby You're a Rich Man) or Golden Bridge (where celebrity moms take prenatal yoga classes).
Yoga is where you find it and how you want it, from Big Time to small town. In the Texas town of Odessa, Therese Archer's Body & Soul Center for Well-Being has 15 dedicated students, including an 18-wheeler diesel mechanic who drives 50 miles from Andrews, Texas, to attend classes. "He is very West Texas," Archer says, "and I thought he would flip when he saw what we did." Yet in eight months the mechanic has sweated his way up from beginning to advanced work. At the 8 Count exercise studio in Monticello, Ga., Suzanne McGinnis runs a "yoga cardio class" that mixes postures with push-ups, all to the disco beat of tunes like Leo Sayer's You Make Me Feel Like Dancin'. As yoga classes go, this is not an arduous one, but the students don't know that. They grunt and groan exultantly with each stretch, and are happy to relax when McGinnis stops to check her teaching aids: torn-out magazine pages and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga.
So yoga can be fun or be made fun of; it can help you look marvelous or feel marvelous. These aspects are not insignificant. They demonstrate the roots yoga has dug into America's cultural soil deep enough for open-minded researchers to consider how it might bloom into a therapy to treat or prevent disease.
The sensible practice of yoga does more than slap a Happy Face on your cerebrum. It can also massage the lymph system, says Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Lymph is the body's dirty dishwater; a network of lymphatic vessels and storage sacs crisscross over the entire body, in parallel with the blood supply, carrying a fluid composed of infection-fighting white blood cells and the waste products of cellular activity. Exercise in general activates the flow of lymph through the body, speeding up the filtering process; but yoga in particular promotes the draining of the lymph. Certain yoga poses stretch muscles that from animal studies are known to stimulate the lymph system. Researchers have documented the increased lymph flow when dogs' paws are stretched in a position similar to the yoga "downward-facing dog."
Yoga relaxes you and, by relaxing, heals. At least that's the theory. "The autonomic nervous system," explains Kripalu's Faulds, "is divided into the sympathetic system, which is often identified with the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic, which is identified with what's been called the Relaxation Response. When you do yoga the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body you initiate a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the Relaxation Response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms."
But the process isn't automatic. Especially in their first sessions, yoga students may have trouble suppressing those competitive beta waves. We want to better ourselves, but also to do better than others; we force ourselves into the gym-rat race. "Genuine Hatha yoga is a balance of trying and relaxing," says Dr. Timothy McCall, an internist and the author of Examining Your Doctor: A Patient's Guide to Avoiding Harmful Medical Care. "But a lot of gym yoga is about who can do this really difficult contortion to display to everyone else in the class." The workout warriors have to realize that yoga is more an Athenian endeavor than a Spartan one. You don't win by punishing your body. You convince it, seduce it, talk it down from the ledge of ambition and anxiety. Yoga is not a struggle but a surrender.
It may take a while for the enlightenment bulb to switch on for you to get the truth of the yoga maxim that what you can do is what you should do. But when it happens, it's an epiphany, like suddenly knowing, in your bones and your dreams, the foreign language you've been studying for months. In yoga, this is your mind-body language.
In daily life, that gym-rat pressure is even more intense: our jobs, our marriages, our lives are at stake. Says McCall: "We know that a high percentage of the maladies that people suffer from have at least some component of stress in them, if they're not overtly caused by stress. Stress causes a rise of blood pressure, the release of catecholamines (neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate many of the body's metabolic processes). We know that when catecholamine levels are high, there tends to be more platelet aggregation, which makes a heart attack more likely." So instead of a drug, say devotees, prescribe yoga. "All the drugs we give people have side effects," McCall says. "Well, yoga has side effects too: better strength, better balance, peace of mind, stronger bones, cardiovascular conditioning, lots of stuff. Here is a natural health system that, once you learn the basics, you can do at home for free with very little equipment and that could help you avoid expensive, invasive surgical and pharmacological interventions. I think this is going to be a big thing."
McCall, it should be said, is a true believer who teaches at the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Center in Boston. But more mainstream physicians seem ready to agree. At New York Presbyterian, all heart patients undergoing cardiac procedures are offered massages and yoga during recovery. At Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, cardiac doctors suggest that their patients enroll in the hospital's Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center, which offers yoga, among other therapies. "While we haven't tested yoga as a stand-alone therapy," says Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, the center's director, patients opting for yoga do show "tremendous benefits." These include lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, increased cardiovascular circulation and, as the Ornish study showed, reversal of artery blockage in some cases.
Yoga may help post-menopausal women. Practitioners at Boston's Mind-Body Institute have incorporated forward-bending poses that massage the organs in the neuroendocrine axis (the line of glands that include the pituitary, hypothalamus, thyroid and adrenals) to bring into balance whatever hormones are askew, thus alleviating the insomnia and mood swings that often accompany menopause. The program is not recommended as a substitute for hormone-replacement therapy, only as an adjunct.
Some physicians wonder why it would be tried at all. "Theoretically, if you pressed hard enough on the thyroid, you possibly could affect secretion," says Dr. Yank Coble, an endocrinologist at the University of Florida. "But it's pretty rare. And the adrenal glands are carefully protected above the kidneys deep inside the body. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that you can manipulate the adrenals with body positions. That'd be a new one."