YOGA? What is this strange and exotic form of exercise that has been turning up in the news lately? Who does it and why? "Yoga" may create images in your mind of an emaciated Indian enunciate sitting in pretzel position, naked on a bed of nails. But, would you believe that those who practice hatha yoga in the good ol' USA range from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Raquel Welch, from Sting to the Miami Dolphins? The practice is quickly gaining popularity among the health conscious who find that yoga is more effective than pumping iron for building strength and flexibility, more effective than aerobics for building stamina and breath control, and more relaxing than jogging. Its adaptable to any age or physical condition, from super active kids to sedentary seniors, and the benefits of a yoga practice are undeniable.

While our lives seem to be spinning at ever increasing speeds, yoga is emerging as an effective way to slow down and stay balanced while creating physical and mental vitality.

The beginnings of Yoga are lost in the history of India. It has been thought that yoga was originally developed to allow a spiritual seeker to gain complete control over his physical vehicle so that he could meditate uninterrupted for extended periods of time. While there are many branches on the yoga tree, the current popular adaptation of yoga to our modern lifestyle has taken the form of "Hatha Yoga". This form that tends to focus on "asanas" or poses to build fitness, control, vitality and harmony. The word "Hatha" comes from the Sanskrit "ha" meaning Sun and "tha" meaning moon, expressing the balancing of opposing forces. "Yoga" means "union" or "reintegration." Together, "hatha yoga" expresses the union or balancing of opposing forces. Through a yoga practice we can create balance, wholeness, health and peace within ourselves.

In this Valentine month of love, what could be more loving than to give yourself the gift of health, vitality and peace? Begin with just a breath, the basis of your life. Try inhaling deeply for 5 counts, hold your breath for 5 counts, and exhale slowly for 5 counts. Repeat 3 to 5 times. Notice how your mind slows down, your body releases tension, and your outlook becomes more relaxed. When we're relaxed, we're more patient and loving. By loving and caring for ourselves, we are able to create more peace and love around us.

When I was a kid, my Dad asked me if I could design a chair for people whose knees bent backwards. I'm still working on that one. But since I began doing yoga, I've been working on designing a practice for those of us whose knees bend forward many hours a day. What do we do with bodies that ache because we sit, and sit, and sit? We're a society of "chair people." We sit for meals, sit for classes, sit in the car, sit at a desk, sit in meetings and movies. We sit to talk on the telephone and watch TV, sit at computers, on planes, on trains, in waiting rooms. Some of us sit due to accident or illness, weakness, or job requirements. Some of us sit because we just have a lazy life style. Do you ever feel that your life has become a series of transitions from one seated location to another?

I don't think our bodies were meant to live that way! Most chairs aren't designed to support our bodies with healthy posture. They cause us to slump, curve our spines, push our heads forward or lean us back onto our tailbones. The worst back problem I ever had came after sitting in a seminar room for three days of lectures.

Inactivity can cause stiffness, backache, weakness, constipation, poor circulation, mental dullness, nervousness, cramps, and degeneration. Depressing thoughts. Whatever the reason and wherever you sit, its possible to begin to become fit, even while sitting in your chair.

Yoga, the 5000 year old gift of body/mind balance, can be adapted to a seated stretching program that can counteract the inevitable results of too much sitting. Body awareness, better posture, relief from aches and pains, as well as increased flexibility and strengthening, and a deep sense of relaxation can be achieved right where you are....are you sitting down?

Although a consistent yoga program of standing, balancing, lying poses, and inversions is a more complete practice, yoga need not be relegated to the yoga studio or health club. The time commitment of hours per week can sometimes be difficult to fit in to a busy schedule. Doing a pose or two hourly throughout the day can give you some of the benefits of a yoga practice and help relieve the results of sitting too much. In fact, small efforts while sitting in various daily situations, can contribute greatly to our strength, flexibility, relaxation, increased circulation, stronger respiration, and clarity of mind. Yoga poses adapted to small bites may not have the same intensity as a full yoga class, but the benefits of yoga are readily available to those who nibble on yoga throughout the day.

Those who are physically challenged due to age, illness, or who just can't do poses on the floor, need not miss out on the many benefits of yoga. Invalids, those confined to wheelchairs or recovering from injury, with their physician's approval, can benefit from their own adaptation of the breathing and gentle seated poses. Seated yoga can build the strength and flexibility, needed to progress to more and more challenging poses. Breathing, stretching and strengthening can be introduced at a slow pace, gently bringing bodies to new levels of fitness, increasing circulation and bringing in healing "life force" energy.

"Sitting Fit" benefits all of us, regardless of our physical condition. Sitting needs to be balanced with moving, breathing and stretching, so try some of these simple poses for a "mini yoga break." You'll feel the difference and return your attention to your work refreshed, more relaxed and with a clearer mind.

Sitting Fit Can Be Done in a Chair ... Anytime, Anywhere

Breathing Sit up straight on the edge of your chair, feet flat on the floor directly below your knees. Let your hands rest on your thighs. Take a long, deep breath, and exhale completely. Inhale deeply again, reaching for the ceiling with the crown of your head, lengthening your spine. Continue breathing with full deep inhalations and complete exhalations for 10 to 20 breaths.

As you exhale, slide your shoulder blades down your back, dropping your shoulders away from your ears as you reach through your finger tips. Keep breathing deeply for 3 to 5 breaths. Exhale as you lower your arms.

Shoulder shrugs Inhaling, bring your shoulders up tightly toward your ears. Roll your shoulders back, pressing your shoulder blades tightly together. Exhale as you press your shoulders down toward the floor. Inhaling again, bring your shoulders up again, roll them back and press your shoulder blades together, and release down. Repeat several times and don't forget to breathe!

Forward Fold Still sitting on the edge of your chair with your feet hip width apart, inhale as you bring your arms out to your sides. Reach forward with your chin as you rotate from your hips, exhaling as you bring your chest toward your thighs. Keep your back flat. With your next exhalation, allow your self to relax, chest on your thighs, arms and head dangling, relaxed. Take 3 to 5 deep, full, relaxing breaths. Inhale as you sit up slowly with a flat back.

Knee Raises Sitting up straight, inhaling as you raise your right knee up in front of you. Grasp your leg in front of your knee with both hands. Keep your back flat as you exhale and draw your knee in toward your chest. Hold it there for 3 to 5 breaths. Release as you exhale. Repeat with your left leg.

Susan Winter Ward, internationally recognized yoga instructor, author, and video producer, is the creator of Yoga for the Young at Heart™, a multimedia publisher which publishes an informative and inspiring collection of CDRoms, videos, audio tapes, books and television programs, as well as exciting vacation retreats. Her product line is available at: Yoga for the Young at Heart

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