Whether you are just starting an exercise program or seriously training to dethrone Lindsey Vonn as the reigning World Cup queen, include yoga as an essential element in your conditioning. Yoga stands-out as the one vigorous exercise which promotes muscular strength and grace while it develops psychological and emotional well-being.
Fans of NBC's smash hit "The Biggest Loser" should approach yoga as Jillian Michaels in slow motion, a boot camp exercise with the volume turned way down. Renegade Jazzercizers will recognize yoga incorporates many challenging modern dance moves, substituting peaceful meditation for perkiness; and discouraged Pilates practitioners or throw-backs to the aerobics age will appreciate how yoga builds strength, balance and grace. Natalie Coughlin and her friends on the swim team already know the profound joys and profuse benefits of daily yoga practice. Ballerinas accept yoga as a natural part of a day's preparation for their art. Skeptics, focused on yoga's apparent simplicity, demand, "How hard can that be?" Then, they try it, discovering pains in muscles they thought existed only in Grey's Anatomy.
In yoga, muscles matter.
One experienced yoga teacher quips, "If yoga were easier, we would see more men in yoga studios." She goes on to explain that sustained yoga practice builds strength and flexibility appropriate for hard work and endurance exercise. "Although football players would reduce stress injuries if they practiced yoga, they would forfeit a little bit of their explosive power." The best yoga practice requires holding the poses and moving from one pose to the next at approximately the speed of a glacier. Muscle groups stretch and flex as you move, and you must exercise both your mind and your body to maintain both your balance and your dignity. In the same way Jillian Michaels promotes muscle tone over raw strength, yoga slowly adds muscle mass while it radically builds strength and control. Swimmers, runners, and dancers flock to yoga classes. Rugby players, not so much.
Yoga teaches "mind over matter."
Whether or not you feel prepared to accept yoga's profoundly spiritual element, at least embrace its benefits for your thoughts and feelings. You may not meditate as you practice yoga, but you must concentrate on your breathing and movement. Instructors suggest beginners focus on the animals associated with each pose or pay attention to each of the chakras the poses open, energize, and strengthen. One skeptic, somewhat shamefaced, confesses, "At first, the spiritual element in yoga seems like just so much New Age nonsense, but when I actually tried it, it worked. Mind over matter, I guess." Because of its soothing, calming effects and its influence on concentration and self-control, yoga is the exercise-of-choice among psychotherapists who prescribe regular exercise for their patients suffering with bipolar disorder.