Call me an endorphin junkie. For decades, I satisfied my cravings for a runner’s high by sprinting or hiking up steep hills and keeping my heart rate elevated for as long as possible. Nothing could get between me and the need for speed–not dark of night, triple digit temperatures, or deep snow. On days I felt stressed, I ran harder.
But last year, my 40-year-old knees began to cry uncle. So I did something radical: I signed up for a beginner yoga class at my gym. I walked in feeling cocky, assuming I was too fit to break a sweat doing slow calisthenics. I walked out an hour later, my shirt drenched, my muscles relaxed, and my ego humbled after stretching dozens of muscles I never knew I had.
Now I’m hooked, one of many newcomers to a 5,000-year-old, spiritually rooted exercise. Today, yoga enthusiasts number 20 million in the United States, more than triple the number 10 years ago. And the limbering crowd isn’t limited to svelte celebs like Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow. Also on the bandwagon: pro football players, corporate executives, soccer moms, and people like me looking for low-impact ways to round out their exercise routines, while building greater strength and flexibility.
Physical therapist Don Berlyn of Flagstaff, AZ, is one of a growing number of traditional sports-medicine specialists who extolls the virtues of yoga both for exercise and rehab. “Compared to doing something like aerobics, where you’re just pounding away, the steady breathing pattern of yoga stimulates the part of your brain that leaves you feeling more relaxed,” notes Berlyn. He also likes the way yoga sessions help parts of the back, shoulders, hips, and legs that don’t get loosened by doing basic stretches before and after a run.
Years of inadequate stretching will shorten muscles and reduce flexibility, according to Jeff Midgow, M.D., of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lennox, MA, leaving a person vulnerable to aches and pains. But the stretching and deep breathing of yoga relaxes the resting tension of muscles and tendons, elongating them. “It also opens up space around the joints,” adds Dr. Midgow. “This improves circulation and allows your muscles and tendons to recover more quickly after exercise.”
The new routine certainly worked for me. After several months, I noticed a significant change in my body, especially in my legs. My knees and hips no longer ached after running. Even during rigorous backpacking trips in the Grand Canyon, I felt zero pain (a first) and an improved sense of balance without my usual morning-after muscle fatigue.