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Yoga growing in popularity with all ages and body types

Yoga, the original mind-body workout that was once thought of as some sort of weird eastern mystical thing, has gone mainstream. It’s everywhere and is appealing to a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons.

Instructors in Jackson and on the Coast are pleased with yoga’s growing popularity but also sound a word of caution as it moves into fitness centers and gyms. The level of training that instructors have is important.

Debi Lewis of Flowood had a studio for 16 years and has taught yoga 20 years. “It has become more popular, but health clubs can do it more economically. That’s forcing studios to close,” she said. “For that reason, you may get a teacher at a gym with only a few days of training.”

She recommends checking to see that an instructor has “RYT” after his or her name. Those initials stand for registered yoga therapist and mean the instructor is registered with the Yoga Alliance, an organization that sets up national credentials for yoga teachers.

“People should also know there are different types of yoga,” this certified teacher says. “Yoga is a physical process and power yoga is very intense; not best for beginners.”

As with any physical process, there are risks involved with yoga. Lewis says that’s why a certified teacher is important. Arching the back, for example, can cause an injury. She once injured her neck by doing a headstand.

“The more you do it, the better. It’s becoming popular because it works,” she said. “People are getting over their fear of it. It calms you, makes you more flexible, increases strength and improves muscles.”

Lewis, who says she’s recovering from closing her studio, teaches a slower blend of yoga in a safe way and feels 10 to 15 people make an ideal class. She is now teaching at Fitness Depot, Baptist Health Care and privately at Jackson Sports Medicine.

Magnus Eklund has been practicing yoga since 1993 and teaching since 1996. The Gulfport man was teaching and playing a lot of tennis and began yoga because of low back pain. He teaches classic, traditional yoga at his 24th Avenue studio that he says is doing well.

“We hold poses a little longer and focus on breathing,” he said. “We go faster in some classes but mostly go slower. You won’t hurt yourself if you do that. Anyone can do yoga. It’s for all bodies and ages.”

In his classes there are people with back problems and knee replacements and even someone with a rod in his ankle. “It’s really catching on. It’s rare that someone doesn’t get a benefit from it,” he said. “I think people are tired of beating themselves up. With yoga they can get results without their bodies breaking down.”

Eklund cautions patience for yoga beginners, saying it’s a mental process too and may take a few months to see results.

“It’s not a fad. It’s not step aerobics,” he said. “People will become calmer. We don’t tell them that, but it happens as they concentrate.”

He says yoga is presently not as big in his native Sweden as it is in the U.S. but it’s growing in popularity.

Rebecca Laney-Meers of Clinton recently closed her yoga center because she’s moving into the medical side of yoga. A practitioner for 15 years, she has certification as a professional yoga therapist and teaches through St. Dominic Hospital’s outpatient rehabilitation program. She has gone through levels of certification to receive this designation.

“That’s a major step for yoga and my hat is off to St. Dominic,” she said. “They are offering it as a step from outpatient rehabilitation to fitness. Yoga increases strength in a medical setting. It’s too big a step for a person to move from rehabilitation to a gym.”

She says this kind of yoga is a gentle way of moving to help healing and is like physical therapy. It is done in a safe, yet challenging setting with people on similar levels.

“People can tell if they’re ready to move into a fitness setting,” Raney-Meers said. “It’s natural and helps us accept our bodies. Everyone is realizing that yoga can be both gentle therapy and fitness instruction.”

She said classes are offered to the general public and there will be more classes available when the St. Dominic’s Medical Spa opens in the fall. Currently being built on Lakeland Drive adjacent to the hospital, the spa will offer many therapeutic services under one roof. Raney-Meers said certain patients qualify for medical insurance reimbursement with yoga.

“A person wanting to begin yoga should determine if the class is therapeutic or fitness,” she said. “If the instructor does not know the difference, the person should run like the wind.”

Acclaimed Mississippi writer and part-time Ocean Springs resident Ellen Gilchrist is so enthralled with yoga that she took her instructor along to a recent writing symposium at Tulane University in New Orleans. The instructor, Moira Anderson Miller of Ocean Springs, led two 45-minute yoga sessions for participants of the workshop that had a theme of sound mind and sound body for the writing life.

“Ellen is a walking advertisement for yoga and staying fit,” Miller said. “She’s such a dynamo. I couldn’t believe she recently had her 70th birthday.”

A teacher at Driftwood Yoga and World Gym, Miller believes that yoga helps with mental focus and better sleep and balances hormones. She started yoga after the birth of her second child to help alleviate neck pain.

Clothing, mats and accessories for yoga are popping up everywhere, but Magnus Eklund warns that quality is important. “You can get equipment most anywhere now but the mat is for cushioning and so the feet and hands will stick to it when holding the poses,” he said. “With cheaper mats, you won’t get the same amount of cushioning and your hands and feet may slip.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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