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Breathing Lessons 

Yoga devotees agree the ancient discipline is beneficial in a number of ways -- though no one can say just why.

About 30 years ago, Alvina Haverkamp received a diagnosis that at the time seemed to be a death sentence. She had systemic lupus, a disease in which the body's immune system attacks its own healthy organs. Chronic pain and persistent inflammations throughout the body plague lupus sufferers, and typically ravage their health over time.

After the diagnosis, the parents of Haverkamp's then-fiancé -- both doctors -- predicted she wouldn't live for long, and that if she did, she certainly wouldn't stay healthy. She recalls they advised their son to dump her.

"He didn't," Haverkamp, now 56, says. "He suggested I try yoga."

Today, Haverkamp is sitting cross-legged on the polished floor of Alvina's Yoga Studio, radiating wellness. She has a calming demeanor, a giggle that punctuates much of her speech, and long gray hair caught up in two ponytails. "If I hadn't gotten involved in yoga, I feel I'd be crippled," she says. "I feel like I'd be dead."

Western culture generally views yoga as an exercise trend that bubbled up in '60s culture and has experienced a mass resurgence of late.

It's actually a philosophy that dates back about 5,000 years to its origins in India, and only a fraction of it is defined by physical effort. Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning "to yoke" -- a union of the body, mind and spirit.

Of the discipline's eight branches, hatha encompasses the physical aspect of yoga, in which practitioners reach a meditative state through asanas, or poses. At the end of many classes, students and teacher salute one another with the Sanskrit term namaste: "I honor the divine in you."

The other branches of yoga refer to spiritual, mental or social pathways to enlightenment: karma yoga is the practice of selfless giving, mantra is consciousness through chanting or other speech, tantric is sensual awakening, bhakti is devotion to the divine, jnana is finding enlightenment through intellect, and kriya is channeling one's life energy to seek union with the divine.

It's that mystical quality of yoga that makes it something more than just a form of exercise, say practitioners -- many of whom admit they can't really explain why yoga makes them feel great from the inside out. They swear yoga has benefits that extend beyond a well-toned body, citing psychological and physical rewards. They claim yoga helps to ease headaches, arthritis and other aches and pains, helps to manage stress and cope with PMS, clear up their skin, and assist them through childbirth. Some, like Haverkamp, credit yoga with keeping serious illness and even death at bay.

Whether such benefits are the result of spiritual fulfillment, mental clarity or physical gratification -- or a combination of any or all of the three -- depends on who's talking. Yet all practitioners agree that yoga transcends the extreme contortions exhibited by supermodel Christy Turlington on a recent cover of Time magazine.

"Yoga is so much more than just the poses," says Becky Lloyd, owner of Audubon Yoga Studio. "There is a whole philosophy with the way you live among people and within the creation, within the environment. There's a lot of self-discipline involved, and a lot of strengthening of your character and your mind. Not just the physical body."

No formal studies have proved -- or, probably, can prove -- that yoga provides the range of benefits its proponents claim. But many in the medical community accept that the physical rigors and focused breathing central to yoga help release pent-up stress.

Dr. Denese Shervington, a psychiatrist and medical director for the New Orleans branch of the Louisiana Office of Mental Health, does yoga five or six times a week. She calls it a "tremendous" stress reliever, pointing out that "what a lot of people do when they're anxious or in pain is hold their breath.

"Getting more oxygen in decreases the activation in your autonomic system," she says. "That's what creates the chemicals in your body which make you have the experience of anxiety: the queasiness in your stomach, the pounding in your heart, the sweating, and for some, the headaches. So by breathing correctly, that really helps to decrease that."

Haverkamp says the breathing skills she's developed helps her deal with the pain that can accompany lupus. But another thing that focused breathing accomplishes, she says, is to simply help quiet one's mind.

"It's impossible to figure out anything when your mind is racing. Yoga gives you a clear space," she says. "It's the same thing with pain. It comes to a point where you mentally can't deal with it anymore ... sometimes if you can just trick yourself into not thinking about pain anymore, it can go away. And it's the same with your problems. If you stop thinking about them, you can sometimes come up with the answer."

Her studio projects Zen-like simplicity: blond wood floors, mirrored walls, steel beams crisscrossing the ceiling. About a dozen students sit or lie on foam mats on the floor. The majority of us -- about three-fourths -- are women, which is typical for yoga practice in the United States, although practitioners report the gender ratio seems to be leveling out. Reedy flute music wafts over the room, which is swathed in a dim light.

This is my first yoga class. Though I consider myself a fit person, I'm aware that fitness does not necessarily equal talent at yoga. My experience is limited to heart-pounding activities: rollerblading, kickboxing, swimming; and I don't stretch nearly as much as I should. My muscles are not flexible, which makes me nervous. I imagine myself clumsy and stiff among the other students, a penguin in a field of swans.

In yoga, I've been told, one must concentrate only on oneself, but I sneak glances at other students before class. Many are loosening up with basic stretches, and I follow suit.

Across the floor is Heidi Morales, Haverkamp's longtime student. She is extending her willowy body in controlled contortions that I cannot imagine doing. ("I'm in better shape now in my 30s than I was in my 20s," Heidi tells me later, and I believe her.) I remember Haverkamp's admonitions about being "egoless" and try to focus back on my body and its comparative non-stretchiness.

We start with pranayama, or deep controlled breathing, and then Haverkamp leads the class through several asanas, or poses. Some are relatively easy for me, others require exertion, and one or two are clearly out of the question. Deceptively easy-looking asanas are sometimes difficult to execute, and it's humbling. Even though I'm supposed to be egoless, I am heartened to see other students aren't exactly floating effortlessly into their poses either. I can hear some of them grunting.

Cracks and pops resound throughout the room from assorted joints and vertebrae, including mine. Haverkamp has everyone stand for a series of stretches designed to align the back and neck. By the time she carols "There! Now you all have perfect posture," I am lightheaded, almost giddy, and my body feels buoyant. She leads us through a series of foot-stretching techniques that leave me panting from the combination of pleasure and pain. We finish with a meditation.

After the class, I feel supple and filled with energy, though I'm not sure whether this is from a placebo effect of expecting to feel good after yoga, or the actual, physiological effect of the yoga stretches on my body. I wonder how much it matters.

Some proponents believe that regular yoga maintains the body's healthy balance. They say yoga asanas stimulate internal organs, release toxins and increase blood flow to the body's various systems. This "inner workout," they claim, is what helps combat disease, pain and other physical ailments.

Dr. Shervington explains it this way: "The stretches are very deep, and they're not just focused on the musculature. You stretch the entire body so when you do certain poses ... you're massaging those organs in the lower abdominal cavity: the liver, the kidneys, the adrenals.

"When you do certain stretches in your neck, you're activating the thyroid gland and also the thymus gland -- that has an important role in the auto-immune system."

Instructor Becky Lloyd uses yoga to stave off periods of depression, and does yoga poses whenever she feels a migraine coming on. "Eighty-five percent of the time I can beat a migraine by doing a specific sequence [of poses]," she says. "It's really great to be able to control it like that."

Lloyd teaches a form of hatha yoga known as iyengar, which uses props to help get the body into correct poses. "Anybody, any age, any walk of life can do yoga and benefit from it."

Eugenia Billes would agree with that. She began taking yoga last year, at age 80, to combat the ailments that sometimes come with aging. "I wish I had taken it earlier, I really do," Billes says. "I was having a problem with balance, and I feel it is much better since I've been taking yoga.

"It helps your attitude, your outlook on things," she says. "It's a stretching of the body that you don't realize you need. You need to open up the chest, and you can breathe better. And you can improve the way you hold yourself, and all these kinds of things help to advance your health."

Other women say yoga helped them through pregnancy and beyond. Stephanie Greiner, a health educator and wellness coordinator from Metairie, did yoga up until the birth of her son Garrett, now almost 2.

"When you're pregnant, you have all this weight on the front of your body and there's a lot of stress in your shoulders and back," she says. "Yoga helps to open up your shoulders, open up your back, and create a lot more space inside. So I didn't feel so cramped inside."

The birth was a five-hour labor, she reports. "I have to give some of the credit to yoga."

Carla Timmons of Algiers also did yoga throughout her first pregnancy, but not her second. "The difference was amazing," she says now. "My first pregnancy was perfect, I never had a bad moment, and I only gained 19 pounds -- by the second week after the birth I could fit into my own clothes. And during the second one, I gained a lot of weight. When my second baby was 6 months old, I was so out of shape from my pregnancy. I finally had to do something, and I was brought back to yoga. I've been a serious student ever since."

"I am just in awe of what yoga can do for you spiritually, mentally and physically," Timmons says. "I'm a lawyer by training. I am very fact-oriented, and I would never have believed anyone who would tell me it really changes you emotionally and it helps you have a different outlook. I never would have believed that until it start happening to me."

Some contend yoga's psychological discipline helps them train their bodies and minds to respond to day-to-day matters in healthy ways.

People who claim to be naturally scattered report that yoga has helped them bring more discipline to other aspects of their lives. Those who say they have rigid personalities maintain that yoga allows them to relax.

"I'm a very Type A personality, a controlling person," Timmons admits, "and it helps me take a step back and be more open to other ideas and what else may be out there."

Others cite the psychological boost of regularly devoting a period of time entirely to oneself, blocking out the world even for a little while. "It gives you the space where you're completely clear and away from your problems," says Haverkamp.

The psychological benefits can go even deeper. It was yoga, Haverkamp says, that helped her recall several painful memories years ago, while she was suffering from a lupus flare-up. "I remembered stuff that I had repressed," she says. "All the yoga I had done broke down my resistance, and caused me to remember things that I believe really made me sick."

It's common belief among yoga proponents that the practice allows people to tap into their psychic wells. They say it's not unusual for students to experience a spontaneous burst of emotion during class.

"I've seen people break down and cry during yoga," says Melanie Fawer, a New Orleans-area native now living in Los Angeles, who teaches a rigorous branch of hatha yoga known as ashtanga. "Whatever is going on during their life is going to come out during the practice, and that is healing. You can only repress something for so long."

Fawer, who is leading an ashtanga workshop in New Orleans this month, acknowledges that the physical benefits of yoga may be purely an offshoot of its psychological components. "I'm not a doctor. I can't say how it works," Fawer acknowledges.

"Whether it's unconscious or conscious, it makes you aware of the connection between the body and mind, and you really can't have one without the other. A lot of people will go so far as to say that all physical ailments are caused by a physiological component," she says.

Most people are attracted to one component of yoga, but soon discover the other aspects of it -- and they become hooked, practitioners say. As Haverkamp puts it: "It tricks people into finding more than just the physical."

Fawer, who counts Dr. Denese Shervington among her students, began taking yoga because she was interested in its spiritual characteristics. The type of yoga in which she specializes, ashtanga, combines all eight branches of yoga. In ashtanga, one flows through the asanas in a demanding physical meditation that provides a serious workout.

"I didn't get into ashtanga thinking I was going to get into great shape," Fawer says. "I had always liked Eastern philosophy, and ... it just happens to be something that gets you really fit."

As part of Fawer's studies, she has traveled to India three times to study with yoga masters. The mystical quality, she says, boils down to one thing: meditative breathing, which Fawer believes connects the physical body with the psychological mind with the spiritual being.

"Yoga without breathing is just stretching," she says. "You can stretch for years, and you can't end up doing the things you can do in yoga. It's amazing."

Her student, Dr. Shervington, says even her training as a doctor can't help her pinpoint why yoga seems to provide such a wide variety of benefits to those who practice it.

"I can't explain it scientifically. I don't know what the science is," Shervington says. "But you begin to experience more of a sense of, I'd say, spiritual bliss. Yoga, to me, is one of the best vehicles for becoming connected with yourself and, ultimately, with something larger than yourself."

click to enlarge Practitioners claim yoga helps to ease headaches, arthritis and other aches and pains, helps to manage stress and cope with PMS, clear up their skin, and assist them through childbirth. Others credit yoga with keeping death at bay. - TRACIE MORRIS
  • Tracie Morris
  • Practitioners claim yoga helps to ease headaches, arthritis and other aches and pains, helps to manage stress and cope with PMS, clear up their skin, and assist them through childbirth. Others credit yoga with keeping death at bay.
click to enlarge 'Yoga without breathing is just stretching,' says Melanie Fawer, a New Orleans native who got involved with the practice because of her interest in Eastern philosophy. - MELANIE FAWER
  • Melanie Fawer
  • 'Yoga without breathing is just stretching,' says Melanie Fawer, a New Orleans native who got involved with the practice because of her interest in Eastern philosophy.
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