Not so long ago, John Scheibe had never set foot in a yoga class. The 62-year-old figured it probably wasn’t worth his time. Scheibe, a biology professor in Cape Girardeau, Mo., had lifted weights for decades, and just didn’t see how these yoga classes full of people chanting and contorting their bodies into odd poses could work his muscles like biceps curls and chest flys.
“As a weight lifter, you look at it and say, ‘These people aren’t working very hard, and nothing is really happening,’” he says. “It’s just a bunch of people saying, ‘Om.’”
Still, Scheibe started to realize that despite all his weight training, his body was becoming less flexible and more stiff and sore by the year. He decided to try yoga in an attempt to stay limber. After just a few weeks, he found it easier to move around, and he had formed a whole new opinion on yoga.
“Man, oh man,” he says. “It can be a vigorous physical workout.”
Scheibe isn’t the only recent convert to yoga—a practice that dates back thousands of years. In big cities and small towns, yoga classes are more packed than ever before.
A 2012 study by Yoga Journal found that more than 20 million Americans practice yoga—a 29% increase from 2008.
Yoga students and instructors say people are dropping their preconceived notions about yoga being a mostly spiritual or even religious experience, and waking up the fact it can be a great way to build strength and release stress, all while working up a sweat.
Benefits You Can See and Feel
Yoga grew out of Hindu traditions, picking up additions and modifications as it moved to the Western world. But the focus of the practice has always been on connecting the body and mind through meditation and movement. Those who practice yoga roll out their mats for different reasons. Some are simply feeling stiff and looking for a way to stretch their muscles, while others were sent by a doctor in an attempt to gain better balance and flexibility. Others are athletes looking to boost their performance in their central sports.
Lauren Jones, who runs The Source: Yoga ’n’ More yoga studio in Cape Girardeau, Mo., says she’s inspired by the physical results she sees in students, who often tell her they come to sleep better and find themselves able to bend and move more easily during day-to-day tasks.
“One of the guys who is about 64 now, when he came in a couple years ago, he could barely bend over,” Jones says. “Now I’ve got him touching his toes and doing splits.”
As yoga students progress, they often discover it’s not just moving around that gets easier.
Jones says she got into yoga more than a decade ago in part because she was looking for a way to cope with her father’s cancer diagnosis. She was surprised when she found that the time she spent working through poses in a yoga class—thinking about breathing and movements—helped her focus and manage stress.
“Even if there’s a physical component that somebody may come in for at first, they’ll end up becoming more mindful and less stressed,” Jones says. “And, it can boost the immune system. Less stress means you’re not as susceptible to getting ill, so it’s sort of a cascade effect.”
Thirty-year-old Bryanna Wareing is a regular at Jones’ classes, and often attends with her mother. She had been a regular exerciser for years, but was tired of the gym routine, so she decided to give yoga a try.
Wareing says she quickly discovered that yoga combines the best of two worlds for a busy young mother—a great workout, plus some solo time to relax and unwind. Attending yoga classes helped her tone up after giving birth, and pulled her out of postpartum depression.
“I like mentally challenging workouts, and yoga offers that to me,” she says. “It’s a really good fit for me—the challenge, the relaxation and the stress relief.”
Come One, Come All
Yoga isn’t just for young, super-fit athletes. In fact, Jennifer Hurst, who runs Pink Elephant Yoga in Bardstown, Ky., says that perception is far from reality.
“We have everyone from small kids coming in with their moms, all the way up to the oldest student I have, who is 78 years old,” she says. “It’s all different bodies in there—different shapes, different sizes.”
Instructors can tailor their classes to fit a wide variety of mobility levels. Students who start out with limited flexibility can do modified poses with the help of a rolled-up blanket, bolster or chair. Like with any new exercise, a person must make sure it is physically safe for them to jump in. So check with your doctor if you’re unsure. But yoga is about progression, and you can start slowly.
“I want them to know I’m not a doctor. I’m just a yoga teacher,” Hurst says. “I check with them first, and then we gently move forward.”
And, while learning all the new terms and movements that come with yoga can be fun, Hurst says yoga newbies shouldn’t stress about being an expert to get started. All that’s needed, she says, is an open mind.
“If you really want to get into yoga, you don’t have to know any of that,” she says. “Yoga is a natural, organic movement.”