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As Crystal Jones begins the Wednesday evening class, the 17 students are seated lotus-style on thin mats spread across the floor.
As Jones speaks to students about where they felt discomfort last week, she reminds them of a few practical tips: stop when you feel pain, go barefoot so as not to slip on the mats and don't eat a big meal before class.
Most of the students in the class are beginners to yoga who came looking for a way to relax after stressful days. Jones helps them unwind, beginning with a 10-minute meditation to clear their minds.
As Jones speaks, the soft sounds of a lute and chirping birds plays in the background.
During the next hour, Jones takes the students through a series of asanas, or poses, that will stretch different muscle groups in the body. She explains what movements to make to achieve each pose, and also how to get out of a pose should pain arise.
"You should make your moves as smooth as possible," she says.
Yoga, an ancient form of exercise and meditation that first developed in India, is gaining popularity in Southeast Missouri. Area fitness centers and yoga studios offer classes on almost every night of the week.
Most Western students use hatha yoga, which includes a prescribed series of postures and breathing exercises. Area classes tend to focus more on the fitness benefits and less on the spiritual aspects of yoga.
"I think as the Baby Boomer population ages, and they know that you can't keep pounding those joints, they will look for alternatives," said Carlea Lastrapes, who leads both yoga and Pilates fitness classes at Universal Health and Fitness Center.
Yoga offers more flexibility and strength training through exercises done primarily on floor mats. Pilates uses only mats to complete its flow series of stretches and exercises.
Debbie Leoni, manager of Main Street Fitness in Jackson, Mo., said she's had requests for a yoga class for at least 10 years but couldn't find an instructor who could teach yoga without its spiritual perspective and chants.
The fitness center just began offering the classes in the summer. "We wanted to do more fitness and flexibility and balance, and reducing stress," she said.
Because the classes at Universal don't have chants or meditation, "true yogis would say we're missing the mark," said Lastrapes.
Yoga is a mind-body exercise, not just a physical exercise, said Lori Mahala of Spirit of Harmony Yoga Studio. Her classes meet at Centenary United Methodist Church.
She said her students realize they don't have to join a gym to be in shape.
As strength and flexibility increases, so does a person's energy and stamina. The condition of being overweight is really just the body being out of balance, Mahala said, and yoga can help bring the body back in balance while addressing the emotional and mental side of weight loss.
Yet fitness-based yoga likely won't help participants drop pounds instantly, but it can be a good addition to another exercise regimen like aerobics, weight-training or running and cycling.
Learning to breathe
Keeping balance and learning the breathing is probably the most difficult aspect of yoga for beginners, said Nan Hobbs, who teaches classes at Main Street Fitness.
Regardless of where you attend, the class begins with a meditation and warm-up stretches and then moves into a series of exercises for each muscle group. Each of the poses has a name: downward-facing dog, mountain, warrior, triangle and corpse are some.
Every move can be modified for beginners, but regulars can add elements that give them a greater challenge. The focus is on posture and breathing deeply and doing only what the body allows, said Leoni.
Delilah Bruckerhoff chose yoga because it is known as a stress reliever, she said. She attended her second class of an eight-week session with Jones on Wednesday. She already had completed an earlier eight-week session.
"It comes easier after the first eight weeks, and you'd be surprised just coming once a week how much you gain even without practice," she said.
Bruckerhoff is awaiting instructions about how to take yoga "off the mat" and incorporate its practices with exercises and breathing techniques done during the day.
As people feel stress, they begin to breathe more shallowly, Mahala said. In yoga, the challenge is to focus more attention on breathing. In her classes, Mahala tries to work with students to coordinate their breathing.
"Most people are unaware of their breathing on a daily basis. As I lead the class and tell you how to move, I ask you to inhale or exhale," she said.
People who suffer from back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia and other ailments can benefit from the exercise. Some of the yoga exercises have been adapted for use in PACE classes for people with arthritis, said Lastrapes.
The idea is for participants to focus on themselves and not be in competition with anyone around them.
Mahala said, "This is a journey. We all have a beginning point and you don't have to worry about anybody else."
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