Yoga gains popularity and locations

Elbows out. Chin down. Exhale. Reach up. Exhale. One more.

A packed class of students sweats profusely as these instructions issue from Colleen Bourgeois, proprietor of Bikram's Yoga College of India La Jolla at 565 Pearl St. during one of her "hot yoga" classes.

Hot yoga devotees work out in a room heated to 105 degrees. The heat helps keep their muscles warm, helps their bodies to become more supple and compliant, Bourgeois tells them.

"Yoga is meditation," notes Bourgeois. "Breathing is one of the most important parts. It helps to oxygenate your body. It also helps with your respiratory."

One female student in Bourgeois' class creates a "perfect" straight line with her body while arching her leg backwards performing a characteristic "pose" that yoga practitioners strike during a 90-minute group workout.

"Look to the (full-length) mirror and breathe," intones Bourgeois, "don't think of anything else: Just breathe."

Some of your muscles will contract, other muscles will relax, explains Bourgeois as she guides her class through a choreographed routine of yoga poses. "You have to challenge yourself," she adds. "You have to go beyond where you want to go sometimes. Learn to focus. Engage the mind's eye."

An ancient spiritual practice originating in India, yoga is becoming increasingly "mainstream" as an alternative form of exercise and meditation. Yoga means "union" in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. Union, in yoga, occurs between the mind, body and spirit. Yoga is mostly associated with the practice of asanas (postures) of Hatha Yoga, or as a form of exercise. Major branches of Yoga include: Hatha Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga.

Many think yoga is just stretching. But it is really about creating balance in the body through developing both strength and flexibility, practitioners say.

This is done through the performance of poses or postures, each of which has specific physical benefits. The poses can be done quickly in succession, creating heat in the body through movement, or more slowly to increase stamina and perfect the alignment of the pose. The poses are a constant, but the approach to them varies depending on the tradition in which the teacher has trained.

There are at least half a dozen full-blown yoga studios in La Jolla. The majority of gyms and physical fitness centers in the area also offer yoga classes as an integral part of their program mix. Yoga can also be a cross-over discipline employed by fitness trainers who apply it to sports training and rehabilitation.

Gerhard Gessner, owner of Prana Yoga at 1041 Silverado St., started out in the martial arts and became a "convert" to yoga, embracing its inherent peacefullness and discipline. He taught yoga classes in a La Jolla gym for 13 years before opening up his own studio.

Explaining yoga's numerous physical and mental benefits, and its overriding purpose, Gessner said: "It's really not about how advanced a level of pose you can do. The basic goal, as the Dalai Lama says, 'Everybody wants to be happy.' People don't come here to get beat up. They come here to be more happy, to have more mobility in their body. They want to feel better about themselves. Open up.

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