The practice of yoga — the mental, physical and spiritual practices and disciplines that aim to transform the body and mind — can be traced back to 400 A.D. By the end of the first millennium, hatha yoga — the type of yoga that uses physical postures and is popular in the west — had emerged. Yoga’s combined focus on mindfulness, breathing and physical movements brings health benefits with regular participation. Yoga participants report better sleep, increased energy levels and muscle tone, relief from muscle pain and stiffness, improved circulation and overall better general health. The breathing aspect of yoga can benefit heart rate and blood pressure.
In the last few decades, yoga has become an extremely popular discipline, emerging in studios and exercise facilities throughout the country and here in Iowa. The 2012 “Yoga in America” survey, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Yoga Journal, shows that the number of adult practitioners in the US is 20.4 million, or 8.7 percent. The survey reported that 44 percent of those not practicing yoga said they are interested in trying it.
These Johnston residents have tried it, and now they’re hooked. They say yoga is really for anyone, and anyone can come to love it as they do.
A few years ago, Jenna DeRoos decided she was finally going to give yoga a try. She went to studios downtown a few times or in West Des Moines, but it wasn’t terribly convenient to travel that far, and she wasn’t committed to it. When a studio opened in Johnston, though, she was elated.
“I was thrilled,” she says. “I am there every day doing class. They have a wonderful sense of community, and you start to get to know people. They’re very inviting, and you get hooked.”
When she began doing yoga more and more, she started craving it, she says. She says it’s different than other exercises because of the connection between body and mind, and the quiet it brings to your mind.
“With other exercise things, I’d go because I had a good group of friends who encouraged me, but I couldn’t say I really enjoyed it,” she says. “But I love yoga. This makes me feel good, and I get the exercise and stretching components, too.”
Another yoga regular, Kelly Sullivan, says she’s always been very active, especially with running. But running was putting a lot of stress on her body, and she was getting injured frequently. She sought out yoga as a way to exercise with less stress.
“I was looking for a gentler way to work out, and a friend invited me to a class,” she says. “It was warm, it was a nice gentle way to work out, and it balances me out from running. That tightens me up, and then this stretches me out.”
Yoga has also been a way to improve her running, Sullivan says. She ran in half marathons before starting yoga, but she credits her yoga workouts an important part of being able to complete her first two marathons.
Mary Foldes is new to yoga, but she says she, too, is hooked after a friend encouraged her to give it a try. She has had back problems off and on, and she credits yoga to strengthening her body enough that chiropractor visits are a thing of the past.
Giving it a try
One of the major benefits to yoga is that it’s appropriate for almost anyone. It doesn’t matter what your size is, what your physical shape is or how old you are. Modifications are taught for the poses, so anyone can take advantage of its benefits.
Pauline Tan teaches yoga at a local studio. She says she took her first class 16 years ago when she was working in Singapore, and she’s been hooked ever since. She has since completed a 500-hour training and attended more than 100 hours of additional training and workshops including Ashtanga yoga, yoga for athletes, anatomy and universal yoga.
Tan says it’s important for newcomers to yoga to understand that some fall in love right away, and others might take a bit more time. In either case, yoga is something anyone can do.
“I always advise new students to approach their first yoga experience with an open mind,” she says. “One thing for sure is that yoga is for everyone. It is can be just a matter of finding the right teacher and community with which you can start your yoga journey. And it is just that — a journey.”
Tan also reminds people that flexibility is not required to practice yoga. Many people think they need to be flexible to practice yoga. The physical practice of yoga is about finding balance in your body, stability with mobility and strength with flexibility. Everyone has something to gain from a regular yoga practice that can be sustained for the rest of his or her life, she says.
Tan says it is human nature to be self-conscious when taking on any new physical challenge. But a good teacher will help one remember that the experience is theirs and theirs alone. Don’t worry about what is going on with the person next to you, as that is also part of the discipline that happens with yoga.
Yoga postures look and feel different to everyone, she adds, so participants shouldn’t compare themselves to yoga magazine covers or others in the class.
“Be patient, and practice as often as you can,” Tan says. “Your practice won’t get better by watching or reading about it — you have to just get in and do it.”
Foldes says she was a bit apprehensive before her first class, too. She wasn’t sure she could do these crazy poses like she saw people doing in movies. But it didn’t take long for her to decide that it didn’t matter — her experience was hers alone.
“After you go and give it a try, you realize everyone is at a different level, and it doesn’t matter,” she says. “You do what you can, and they encourage you to move to the next level. Give it a try and see if it’s for you.”
Sullivan says she felt similarly — like she wasn’t sure she could do what everyone else was doing.
“Be humble,” she says. “Those poses that you see those yogis doing, it takes years to master to that level. It’s about respect for your body at that moment. Don’t compare yourself to the person on the mat next to you. That’s what I like about it, too. It can really be for any fitness level.”
All the yoga participants agree that they are hooked on yoga now, and they intend to keep practicing it for the foreseeable future. They’ve seen health benefits, and Sullivan says she asked her husband if he could see any change in her since she started taking yoga.
“I think my whole family loves it because I’m a calmer person and can handle stress better,” she says. “It’s slowed me down and provided a way for me to be present for 60 minues, and that flowed into the rest of my day and refreshed me. It’s turned into something so much more than a workout.”
Tan says practicing yoga has many physical benefits such as improved flexibility, strength, joint mobility, posture and circulation. As your practice deepens and you learn to incorporate breathing with movement, and to find ease throughout your entire practice — even in challenging postures — it can be extremely transformational on emotional, mental and spiritual levels, too.
“On a good day, my yoga practice feels like a moving meditation that is both restorative and rejuvenating,” she says.
They all agree that yoga offers a time for quiet reflection in a busy day — something that is definitely lacking for many people. It’s also a way to take care of yourself and show respect for your well-being.
“I heard someone say yoga is for anyone who can breathe,” Sullivan says. “It really centers me and refreshes me and brings balance to my life, and I love it.