Dev Kar closes his eyes and tries to breathe, first through the right nostril, then the left. He stretches out to reach the floor, then arches backward in the sun salutation posture.
His flexibility is not bad for age 49. What's better is that he has been able to cut his arthritis medication to half his recommended dose.
"Without yoga, I'd be in bad shape," says Mr. Kar of Oakton. "I have had arthritis for 20 years, but I have excellent flexibility. The yoga really helps."
Mr. Kar, who has been studying at Vienna Woods Yoga Studio for about five years, is among the 6 million people in the United States practicing the 5,000-year-old art that combines breathing, postures and meditation.
In Sanskrit, the word "yoga" means union. Yoga teachers guide their students to unite mind and body - to get in touch with emotions as they concentrate on postures that stretch away the tensions of daily life, says Georg Feuerstein, founder of the Yoga Research Center in Lower Lake, Calif., and author of more than two dozen books on the subject.
If practiced correctly and consistently, yoga can lead to a toned body, enlightened spirit and better overall health, he says.
"I think yoga has seen a resurgence in popularity because baby boomers are at the age where the body starts falling apart," Mr. Feuerstein says. "Yoga is a very gentle but potent system to prevent the body from doing that."
Indeed, yoga has received notice lately from mainstream and alternative health professionals.
Dr. Dean Ornish, the author of several best-selling books on avoiding and reversing heart disease, says yoga relaxation techniques (combined with a low-fat, varied diet) can lower blood pressure, regulate heartbeat and inhibit gastric acid secretion.
"Yoga techniques - stretching, deep relaxation, breathing and visualization techniques - are powerful tools, not only for stress management, but also for helping us to learn to open our hearts to our feelings and to inner peace," Dr. Ornish writes in his book "Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease."
Dr. James Gordon, founder of the District's Center for Mind-Body Medicine, says yoga can help alleviate other health conditions, too.
"Yoga is helpful for osteoarthritis and in alleviating carpal tunnel syndrome," he says, citing a 1999 Journal of the American Medical Association article that showed reduction in pain, improvements in flexibility and movement in 25 carpal tunnel syndrome sufferers who practiced yoga.
"Yoga can aid asthma," Dr. Gordon says. "The deep breathing aids relaxation, and yoga loosens up the muscles in the neck and chest and gives you greater lung capacity. It gives you flexibility in ways that aerobic exercise, such as running, does not. It increases circulation to the joints. Your muscles get better oxygen and function better, which carries over into other activities. There have also been studies in India, which have not been replicated here, that show yoga can reduce blood pressure and blood sugar."
Yoga is a kind of catch-all phrase for the practice that developed in India thousands of years ago. Today, there are eight main types of yoga: Bhakti , the yoga of devotion, which offers thoughts about the divine being in its practice; Guru yoga, in which the teacher is the main focus of the spiritual enlightenment; Hatha yoga, which focuses on the body to reach spiritual goals; Jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom, which questions natural phenomenon; Karma yoga, which seeks to positively influence one's destiny; Mantra yoga, which uses sound to harmonize the body; Raja yoga, or classical yoga that emphasizes meditation on an eight-step spiritual path; and Tantra yoga, the yoga of continuity.
What all branches have in common is the awareness of the body and how it works, and conscious breathing to achieve relaxation.…