The Diet Detective: Is Yoga Just Fancy Stretching?

I have to admit that I've only gone to one yoga class in my entire life--it was at the fancy New York City Jivamukti Yoga Center.

All I remember is that I didn't feel very welcome in my shorts and T-shirt, and I was in pain for about two days. Now don't get me wrong--I've tried to go again on several occasions. Recently, I sat in the studio and tried to block out the blasting music from the packed spinning class next door, but became too stressed to wait for the tardy teacher.

Of course, I've read and heard a lot about yoga's purported benefits, but I was still a bit skeptical. I thought maybe it was just a case of the "emperor's new clothes"--you know, everybody thinks it's "cool," and no one wants to go against the "in" crowd. And not to sound naive, but it did cross my mind that maybe yoga is really just a fancy way of stretching with a few extra breaths and some meditation thrown in for good measure. And when you get down to it, is yoga actually as good as say, running, weightlifting or meditation?

Yoga is an age-old form of exercise that incorporates strengthening, breathing, stretching and balance--it's a hybrid of physical, mental and spiritual traditions that began in India more than 5,000 years ago. Yoga--which means "to yoke," or to forge a union between mind and body--was created to experience spiritual enlightenment.

In the last 10 years, yoga has been popularized and turned from a rigorous spiritual discipline into an "instant" fitness system. It's unclear how many Americans are practicing yoga, but a 1998 survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC pegged the number at more than 18 million. Although there are no recent figures, it appears that this number has grown significantly within the last five years.

Why has it become so fashionable? Well, it could be because of its professed healing qualities--devotees are pretty emphatic about the benefits on three levels: physiological, psychological and biochemical. The claims range from better strength, flexibility, posture, coordination, balance, stress-reduction, stronger bones and cardiovascular conditioning, to prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. The health benefits of yoga are just beginning to be investigated by the mainstream medical community.

How does yoga create a total body workout? Well, there are four components to general fitness: aerobic capacity, muscle strength, muscle endurance and yoga's most noted contribution--flexibility. "In a way, it's kind of the ultimate stretching, because you're holding your stretch for about two minutes, and this allows your body to reach its full potential in terms of range of motion [flexibility]," explains Stephen Rice, M.D., Ph.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.

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