THE WEEKLY - Yoga benefits overall fitness

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I have been a "gym rat" since people wore leg warmers -- not as a joke.

I started my love affair with group exercise at the age of 15 with dance aerobics needing to cross-train for swim team and water polo. In college, I moved on to step aerobics, in graduate school my passion was kickboxing, and in my young professional life, spinning. I have always loved the latest and greatest new thing to come down the pike.

Now, in my mom phase, don't get me started on how much I love Zumba and Power Pump!

For me, sweating to a 32-count soundtrack is as natural and essential as breathing. So, I was very surprised when I discovered the exercise that has evolved into my number one choice - yoga .

Believe me, I am a sucker for shiny new things like a thigh master. But, yoga not only changed my perspective on exercise, it has changed my outlook on life. A little dramatic? Absolutely!

I stumbled into a yoga workshop in 2002 because I needed continuing education credits to keep my fitness certifications current. The class was close to Walla Walla, which is rare, so I decided to go.

I figured I'd breeze into the class, do a little breathing, chant a few OMs and be outta there.

Yes, we began the class with some deep breathing -- and it felt amazing. Even as a swimmer, I never gave breathing much thought, other than thebreathing patterns for butterfly or freestyle events.

But I realize now that bringing focus to your breath can change not only your stress level in a moment of frustration, it can improve your overall health by decreasing your blood pressure over time and with practice.

Okay, so far so good. I liked the breathing but, being an A-type, I still thought it was a little easy.

Then we began our sun salutations. Basic yoga poses don't look as impressive as the fancy pretzel poses we see on the covers of "Yoga Journal." However, their outward simplicity is deceiving.

There is always a lot going on within an asana (any yoga pose). The internal and external focus can create deep physiological, not to mention mental, movement if done with strong intention. By the fifth round of sun salutations, my deltoids were fatigued and I was sweating. "Hmmmm," I thought.

I was slightly disheartened to learn that was our warm-up. Next, the instructors took us through a series of asanas strung together including the warrior poses, triangle, reverse triangle and on and on.

What struck me about these exercises was the attention to detail they required. I have bounced my way through many cardio classes but I couldn't bounce my way through this. I had to concentrate on proper physiological alignment, appropriate muscular application, and yes - breathing.

By the time the opening class to our training was over - I was a stretched out, sweaty mess. I was so pleased! But I was not prepared for what came next.

Our instructors announced that is was time for Savasana, which is Sanskrit for relaxation pose. The lights were dimmed and we were instructed to lie down on our backs. I looked around and saw everyone else obeying, so I decided I'd go along with it too.

We were taken on a guided relaxation meditation and before I knew it, a warm towel had been placed over my eyes and on my feet, and they were scented with lavender. The only thing I like more than a gym is a spa! I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

And it hit me. "This is it!" I thought. For the first time in my life, every aspect of who I was had been taken care of. My muscles had been exercised, my brain had been challenged, and my spirit had been pampered. To me, this was not a full-body workout; it was overall wellness.

Obviously, that moment nine years ago affected me profoundly. It was the first step on my yoga journey - one that I will continue until the breath leaves my body. I have finished my 200-hour yoga certification and plan to learn more, because, unlike my fascination with the latest and greatest, yoga sustains my attention with its layers.

More importantly, it made me a better overall fitness instructor, regardless of what I was teaching. You don't have to stand on a mat to receive the benefits of yoga. Yoga goes with you in whatever you do. The attention to detail within an asana translates to awareness in your everyday life. And, as a fitness instructor, I can infuse all of my classes with the same attention to breath, awareness, detail and spirit,w whether they are Power Pump or spinning.

I won't ever retire my "gym rat" status. I love the clinking of weights, the whir of the treadmill, and the pounding of the 32-count music too much. But, thanks to yoga, I bring all of my awareness to it. I would encourage anyone, at any fitness level, to include a yoga class in your life at least once a week. It not only improves your fitness - it improves your life.

Rebecca Thorpe is a group fitness and Yoga Alliance-certified instructor. She teaches classes at Whitman College and the Walla Walla YMCA.

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