Yoga is everywhere these days. Celebrities, like Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James, swear by it. And so do about 16 million other Americans. It has spread throughout the nation and is thriving from state to state in even the smallest towns. Today, this ancient practice is reaching beyond the fitness centers and yoga studios to schools, park districts, nursing homes and cancer resource centers. Indeed, a recent Yoga Journal study found that the number of Americans practicing yoga increased by almost 30 percent in the past four years.
Angie Shiely of Batavia has discovered the healing power of yoga. She started attending classes at the Batavia Park District in 2007 to help ease the symptoms of her multiple sclerosis (MS). And Kathy Freedlund, her yoga instructor and director of fitness at the park district, has helped her continue to walk.
“I credit Kathy for keeping me on my feet,” Shiely said, adding that the classes have relieved the stiffness, numbness and tingling that often go along with the disease, and have improved her strength, balance and flexibility.
“It’s also made me keep a positive frame of mind,” she said.
A mind-body discipline that combines stretching exercises, controlled breathing and relaxation, yoga experts tout physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits. Physically, yoga is known for improving balance, flexibility, range of motion and strength. Mentally, it is said to relieve depression, anxiety and stress “by gently releasing tension from the large muscle groups, flushing all parts of the body and brain with fresh blood, oxygen and other nutrients,” according to the American Yoga Association.
Studies have shown that yoga also can reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, such as arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and multiple sclerosis, and alleviate thier symptoms.
It “has been very popular on the East and West coasts for almost 20 years now, and is finally becoming mainstream in the Midwest and more importantly, in suburban Chicago,” said Lisa Bertke, founder and director at Prana Yoga Center in Geneva. When she opened her studio 11 years ago, she offered five classes per week. Today, with yoga’s soaring popularity, she offers 35, with 12 nationally-accredited master-level instructors.
“Yoga is enormously popular, because it delivers what nothing else can: total health, ” Bertke said,
“Quite frankly, every person who commits to a regular yoga practice will see positive changes in their lives,” said Bertke. “Yoga is proven to help improve performance for the athlete or the mental capacities of the student.
Yoga instructor Pam O'Brien has been helping people reach their performance goals and deal with physical and emotional stressors for many years. According to O’Brien, yoga is more than acrobatics. It’s a lifestyle transformation.
But it was not until recently that O'Brien said she has felt the healing power of yoga for herself, having faced a series of life challenges that left her in need of emotional support. Her brother committed suicide five years ago. Her mom died the next year. She helped her husband as he was treated for cancer, and now they are in the process of divorcing. And her dog just died.
“Yoga brings you a sense of peace you don’t get with other forms of exercise,” she said. “It’s got a spiritual component and it has saved me so many times. It’s my safety net.”
“The beauty of yoga is that it can be adapted for all ages.” said O’Brien. She has taught children aged 15-months to six years at Mansio Mens’ Montessori in Geneva, elementary and high school students in the Geneva School District and senior citizens at Michaelson Health Center in Batavia.
Now at her own studio, Greenleaf Yoga Studio in St. Charles, men have recently started attending classes, making up about 20 percent of her classes. There, O’Brien offers a weekly class designed for people with back problems and just released a “Back Care Yoga” DVD so people can do it in their homes.
The connection began when O'Brien, who underwent spinal fusion surgery seven years ago, found yoga instrumental in her healing. She cited a study by the University of Wisconsin that showed the meditation that is part of yoga improves the immune system and alleviates pain by boosting the body’s feel-good endorphins.
“The physical strength you gain from yoga translates into confidence in your everyday life,” she said.