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Yoga lessons for people who do and don’t practice

I decided to take my Inner Krishna -- the one that can only kick up into a handstand against the wall six out of 10 times -- to the 2007 Yoga Journal Conference in Lake Geneva, Wis. It’s a celebrated gathering for some of America’s greatest yoga teachers and most willing and tattooed students.

The YJ Midwest Conference runs four days and includes dozens of daily classes and discussions, everything from “Kundalini Yoga for Happiness, Peace and Powerful Energy” to “Understanding the Power of Online Marketing.”

Yes, yoga is Big Business in America, and that’s a mixed blessing because our Western practice of this ancient and still evolving Eastern philosophy has a few kinks to work out. For instance, yoga is a body- and mind-transforming experience, not a competitive sport. If you find yourself looking around the room and comparing your Downward Dog to someone else’s, you’re not doing yoga. And yoga is not gymnastics. It’s not about wrenching your knees out of alignment to do a deeper lunge or pulling your shoulders out of their sockets to reach your arms higher and higher.

Here’s a sampling of smart stuff from the YJ faculty of Famous Yoga Teachers, healthy lifestyle lessons that can benefit us all:

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  • In many strength-training sports, you get strong by shortening your muscles. Check out a bodybuilder’s bulging biceps. Those muscles are contracted. Tight. Easily injured. But in yoga you gain muscular strength by lengthening your muscles, by creating space and allowing the energy to flow more freely. That’s a more balanced, less risky way to be strong, says Aadil Palkhivala, creator of Purna Yoga. He’s a master teacher who also convinced me that wearing a Blue Tooth device in your ear, so close to your brain, is a really stupid thing to do (more Aadil at www.yogacenters.com).
  • Yoga is a wonderful way to move and balance energy, but it has a shadow side, too, says Ganga White, a yoga teacher for more than 40 years and co-founder of White Lotus Foundation. People hurt themselves doing yoga because they are too aggressive. (Attention non-yogis: Doing too much, too aggressively, is the root of most sports injuries). “The further you go in any pose, the closer you are to your edge of injury,” says Ganga, who is a great advocate for a kinder, gentler, more individualized practice that supports overall well-being. His new book is “Yoga Beyond Belief.” Read it and believe it (www.whitelotus.org).

“Your yoga mat is your own little place to learn about yourself,” says Desiree Rumbaugh, a playful and gifted senior certified Anusara yoga teacher. Her workshop was all about principles of alignment that protect, strengthen and heal the upper back, neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists. Anyone out there who wants to prevent aches and pains in those areas? Desiree has a great enthusiasm for the metaphysical side of yoga, too. A backbend isn’t just a backbend, she says. “It’s about opening your heart and letting go of fear.” It’s this extra dimension that makes yoga the uber-sport of enlightenment (www.desireerumbaugh.com).

  • Matthew Sanford -- the keynote speaker -- is the most amazing yoga teacher you’ve never heard of. When I think about his story, I’m in tears all over again. Part sadness, part joy. Matthew was in a car accident 28 years ago. It killed his father and his sister and left him, at 13, in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. When he told his doctors he felt “something” down there, in his legs - “a tingling, a presence” - they told him his feelings weren’t “real.” It took years for Matthew to overcome his doctors’ ignorance and discover that his mind and body were connected at a very deep level, and that he could access that level and bring energy and awareness to his entire body through yoga. “The prana (‘life force’ in this context) gets aligned,” says Matthew. “And it can happen whether you are paralyzed or not.” And the point is? When you integrate body and mind, your world opens up in profound ways. For more, read Matthew’s mind-blowing book “Waking” (Rodale Press), or visit and donate to his nonprofit (www.mindbodysolutions-mn.org).

“A path of realization - big or small - almost always starts bumpy.” -- Matthew Sanford, in “Waking”
NEXT WEEK: Listening with your feet and other practical tips from the radiant and renowned yogi Rodney Yee.

Marilynn Preston -- fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues -- is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to MyEnergyExpress@aol.com. To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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