Try this: Sit up straight, close your eyes and breathe in deeply through your nose for two counts. Bring your breath down past your ribs, into your belly. Now breathe out for two slow counts, drawing your navel toward your spine. Repeat several times. OK. Open your eyes.

If you've never done yoga before, you've just had your first taste of it. How do you feel?

Chances are you feel more relaxed. With continued practice of yoga breathing and postures (asanas), you also could improve your flexibility, coordination, posture and balance and build strength and endurance.

There's more. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine, regular yoga practice can help reduce anxiety, slow breathing, lower blood pressure, alter brain waves and make your heart work more efficiently. On top of all that, it just plain makes you feel good.

But before you sign up for the nearest yoga class, you need to know that yoga isn't easy. It demands discipline and concentration. The good news is you can do yoga almost anywhere and you can get its benefits in just 10 to 20 minutes, once or twice a week.

THE YIN AND YANG OF YOGA

From the Sanskrit word yuga, which means "union," yoga aims to induce physical, mental and spiritual well-being through a combination of postures, breathing, meditation and other practices.

The claims for yoga's benefits are mounting as its popularity increases.

The National Institutes of Health (US) says that, combined with diet and exercise, yoga can reduce cholesterol levels. It may also ease arthritis, help people stop smoking and improve some of the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. Many yoga enthusiasts claim that yoga can treat specific mental and physical disorders, but there aren't enough randomized, controlled studies to support the claim.

At this time, yoga falls into the category of something that may help you and is unlikely to hurt you.

GETTING BENT INTO SHAPE

If you want to give yoga a try, your best bet is to find a good instructor to teach you the poses. Doing them incorrectly or going beyond your limits can cause injury.

There's no certification for yoga instructors, so ask people you know for recommendations. Then ask the instructor about training and qualifications. Ideally, you want someone with a serious interest in yoga who has studied and practiced for years, not just a fitness specialist who knows how to strike a few poses. The popularity of yoga has created a demand for instructors, so some fitness clubs put aerobics instructors through a weekend of yoga training. It's not enough.

Make sure your instructor can adapt poses for different levels of flexibility. Also, tell him or her about any physical limitations you have and ask whether there are postures you should avoid. In your first class, make sure the instructor watches the students and corrects postures. If not, try another instructor.

There are a number of books and videos on the market that also can teach you yoga routines. Look for books with easy-to-follow instructions and drawings. For videos, look for the same things you'd look for in an instructor: Are there demonstrated adaptations of postures for those who are less flexible? Are the instructions clear and detailed?

NONCOMPETE CLAUSE

Yoga is a noncompetitive, self-improvement activity. The point is to listen to your body and to be in harmony with it, not to push yourself to get your nose on the floor like the person next to you. As with any activity, mild discomfort comes from challenging your muscles, but pain is a signal to stop.

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