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.
I also felt stronger. "You're simultaneously lengthening and strengthening muscles," explains Kenneth Ravenstar, my yoga instructor at the Flagstaff Athletic Club. The increase in my flexibility and strength was especially evident on steep downhills, where relaxed quads and stable knees and ankles had me skipping past stiff-legged backpackers half my age. But the benefits go far beyond stronger bones and muscles. Regularly performing a series of rigorous poses--what Ravenstar calls a "moving meditation"--helped me shed stress like never before, keeping me centered, happy, and more focused on life's important issues.
For beginners seeking long-lasting physical benefits, Ravenstar recommends taking a few months of classes followed by thrice-weekly practice. Schedule too hectic? Take one class to learn technique, then do whatever you can at home. "Practice just 10 minutes a day," says Ravenstar, "and you'll get some benefit."
In that spirit, we offer the best Hatha yoga poses for backpackers. Do them in order and hold each pose for a few minutes while breathing slowly and deeply through your nose. Then, enjoy the buzz.
Downward Facing Dog
1 From a hands-and-knees position with your shoulders over your wrists, push up on the balls of your feet.
2 Lift your hips straight up into the air and your knees off the floor, keeping your legs straight. Your feet should be hip-distance apart; arms shoulder-width. Fingers and toes straight ahead.
3 Press your back away from your hands. Press your heels toward the ground without bending your knees. Look at your navel and breathe deeply. Continue stretching your arms and lengthening your spine.
1 Stand with your legs 4 to 4 1/2 feet apart.
2 Turn your right foot right 90 degrees. Rotate your left foot toward the front at a 45-degree angle.
3 Turn your torso to the right, so that your hips and shoulders face the same direction as your right leg.
4 Lift your arms until they're parallel with the floor.
5 Bend your right knee so that it is aligned over your right ankle. Keep your left leg straight. Raise your hands above your head with your palms together and arms straight. Look up and breathe.
1 From the Warrior 1 position, turn your torso to the left; move your right arm right and your left arm left.
2 Look out over your right fingertips and spread your toes on your right foot.
3 Press into the heel and outer edge of your left foot.
4 Bend your right knee deeper over your ankle. Keep your back straight without leaning forward. Press up with your abdomen and keep your tailbone angled toward the floor. Relax your shoulders and breathe.
1 From a lunge, with your right leg forward and your left foot back, lower your left knee to the ground.
2 Bring your right foot back toward your body, and open your right knee to the floor.
3 Position your right heel so that it rests 2 inches from the corner of your left hip and align your right knee with your right armpit and your right ankle with your left armpit. Extend your left leg straight back.
4 Walk your arms out in front of you. Lengthen your spine and breathe.
Repeat Warriors 1 and 2 and Lying Pigeon on the other side.
1 Start in a lunge position with your right leg forward, left leg back. Gently lower your left knee to the ground.
2 Bending your right knee, allow your hips to lean forward toward your right heel.
3 Keep your right foot flat as you lift your arms overhead with your palms together. Lift your head and reach for the sky.
4 Arch your body from the toes of your left foot to your fingertips.
5 Hold and breathe. Repeat on the other side.
1 From a standing position, draw your right foot up to the inside of your left knee. Press your right knee out to form a triangle.
2 Put your hands together in a prayer position at your heart or behind your head and stretch your arms toward the sky.
3 Look forward and breathe.
4 Repeat on the opposite side.