everyone's been telling you yoga would be really "good" for you -- but you're not sure why and you haven't a clue what kind to try. Do not despair. I myself am not really a yogic sort of person, and I wasn't exactly thrilled having to research this. But I came, I saw, I stretched and in the end felt quite wonderful. Yoga arrived in the West hot on the heels of flower power and has grown steadily in popularity since. It is a 5,000-year-old or so system of breathing exercises, bodily postures and mantras developed by monks in India to aid their ability to meditate.
The word "yoga" itself means yoke, or union, in this case between body and mind. The mother of all yoga is hatha yoga. ("Ha" means sun, "tha" moon, a reference to our yang and yin energy currents and the possibility of bringing them into equilibrium.) Yoga schools all draw on the thousands of postures and exercises that make up hatha yoga.
I start my tour with some ashtanga, or power yoga, which I try out at the Yoga Studio on Bloor near Spadina. It lives up to its reputation as a hardcore workout, incorporating a hop from one pose to the next so there's no downtime. I start with a beginner's class ($17 each/$72 for five) and am immediately heartened that dancing, cycling and Pilates have bestowed on me a decent level of fitness (for a writer anyway). Still, plenty of strenuous push-up-like moves leave me a little wobbly on my pins.
My major gestalt in this class is realizing the importance of pulling my perineal and lower belly muscles in tight to prevent me from stressing my spine and help me maintain balance. (Yoga includes a fair bit of standing on one foot.) Afterwards, even a bike ride through Sunday's Chinatown traffic can't rock my hard-won serenity.
I sure am happy to have mastered the perineal locking technique the next day at the Bikram's class, ($20/$160 per month for unlimited classes) in their facility on Spadina near Bloor. This is considered the most macho yoga around. There is no way I would have survived all the contortions while standing on one foot without knowing about the perineal/belly-support technique. (This helpful tidbit isn't mentioned by the instructor, however. Possibly, it's not officially part of the Bikram's approach.)
I wouldn't recommend Bikram's if you're just getting off the couch unless you positively don't mind failing miserably in public. It's done in a room heated to about 38 degrees Celsius. All postures are done twice in a row, and they're tough. Oddly, I like it best. The instructor here gets kudos for being eagle-eyed -- none of my errors are missed and all are expertly dealt with through verbal instruction or gentle physical adjustment. My one worry, though, is that I am several times asked to lock my knee, which I learned was a no-no in Tai Chi classes.
My least favourite is kripalu, back at the Yoga Studio ($17/$72 for five classes). It's overcrowded and not physically challenging enough to give me that post-workout zest. I'm also rattled by the the instructor's physical adjustments. Spoiled by my Pilates teacher's very gentle touch, I find the firm push on my back here not nearly subtle enough. On the plus side, there's some chanting, which combined with the movement helps me identify some elusive emotions. A fine place for the totally out of shape, but tight-wired types will find the classes' molasses pace a challenge. Find someplace with fewer students per teacher.
There are many other styles to choose from. Sivananda yoga is, like kripalu, a meditative style. Kundalini yoga incorporates breathwork, postures, mantras and meditation. Flow yoga is aimed at opening the chakras, energy centres that link body and cosmos. Iyengar is considered good for beginners because it's picky about aligning the body. Shop around for what works for you. And start slow.
"Yoga increases concentration, relieves stress, builds strong muscles and bones, helps with alignment (very good for injuries) and enhances sexuality. I recommend a meditative style for people in high-stress, competitive jobs."
HELEN GOLDSTEIN, Yoga Studio
"There is a role for yoga in medicine, but it's not something I hear a lot about. Recently, I had a few patients with neck and arm problems who I felt were overdoing it with head and shoulder stands.' LINDA RAPSON, M.D., acupuncturist and chair of the Complementary Medicine Section of the Ontario Medical Association
"Sweating promotes toxin elimination, which slows aging and prevents injuries. Bikram's yoga increases circulation but is contra-indicated for those with infectious viral diseases or cancer.'
Bikram's Yoga College of India
"During their first class of kundalini yoga, people will have an experience they haven't had before, described as "greater awareness.'' JAI JOT KAUR, kudalini yoga teacher
"You were probably asked to lock a joint to protect the ligaments and muscles. Doing that for a prolonged period of time isn't that healthy."
MATHIAS NAUTS, osteopath