What is power yoga?
Power yoga is essentially yoga with brawn. It's the American interpretation of ashtanga yoga, a discipline that combines stretching, strength training, and meditative breathing. But power yoga takes ashtanga one step further. Many of the poses (also called postures or their Sanskrit name, asanas) resemble basic calisthenics -- push-ups and handstands, toe touches and side bends -- but the key to power yoga's sweat-producing, muscle-building power is the pace. Instead of pausing between poses as you would in traditional yoga, each move flows into the next, making it an intense aerobic workout.
Is the breathing important?
One element of power yoga that distinguishes it from other forms of the practice is a breathing technique known as ujjayi. The deliberate whoosh, whoosh, whoosh breathing -- jokingly referred to as Darth Vader breathing -- is an integral part of the poses. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, adding a meditative component to the workout and leaving you with a transforming sense of calm that lingers long after you've rolled up your exercise mat.
What kind of workout does power yoga deliver?
Compared to, say, hoisting a barbell above your head, power yoga feels more intense, because you're exercising several major muscle groups simultaneously while also stretching the opposing muscles. In just five minutes you'll be sweating like a steam pipe, and in a matter of two months you'll notice a marked improvement in both strength and flexibility. Keep it up, and you'll look as buff as a well-conditioned swimmer: sleek, toned, and well proportioned from head to toe.
Won't I strain myself if I'm not very limber?
You could, so it's important to take it slow for a while. Let the instructor know you're a beginner and probably not as flexible as longtime students. If you progress gradually, yoga can actually help you avoid injury. After a lifetime of sports and chores that work certain muscle groups more than others, most people develop some significant strength imbalances in opposing muscle groups -- imbalances that can trigger everything from sore knees to a bad back. By bringing these opposing muscle groups back into balance, power yoga can help you overcome long-standing aches and pains.
How do I get started?
Power yoga has become very popular -- Madonna is an enthusiast -- and many health clubs have added classes to their weekly schedules. If yours hasn't yet, try calling a yoga center in your area (check the yellow pages under "yoga instruction"). Costs vary widely, but expect to pay about $8 to $15 for an hour-long class. You don't need any special equipment, but do wear either loose-fitting clothing or Spandex -- and be prepared to sweat.
Ease into power yoga gradually. Tell your instructor if you're a first-timer (most power yoga poses can be altered to accommodate beginners), and never stretch to the point of pain. Since power yoga involves a lot of twisting and weight-bearing moves, you should be especially cautious if you have a history of neck, shoulder, or knee injuries.
David Sharp. Power Yoga. Health July/August 1996: 89-93.