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Why I Love Yoga

It's great for you — and reduces stress.

yoga class

— Jetta /Walter Hodges/Blend Images/Corbis

I remember the days when most people associated yoga with limber gurus in white robes who could wrap their heels behind their ears. Today, everyone is doing it, including pop stars, athletes and schoolkids.

Research suggests yoga has health benefits for people with arthritis, asthma, heart disease and lower back pain, among other conditions. Athletes today use many yoga stretches and positions in rehab programs and physical therapy. Beyond all the physical benefits is another big bonus: Yoga can sharpen your mental game and relieves stress — which are the main reasons I love it.

To do yoga right, you have to focus your attention inward and quiet your mind. Yoga encourages long, deep breaths that slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and ease feelings of anxiety. The word "yoga" means "to join," and yoga breathing is a way to link the mind to the way the body works. The whole activity — the stretching, balancing and breathing — makes the stress and strain of the day melt away and really brings me back to myself emotionally and spiritually.

I know what you're thinking: Isn't she AARP's Health and Fitness Ambassador? Why all this talk of emotions and spirituality? Well, in my experience, there's no way to separate physical from emotional well-being.

Yoga is taught everywhere — in gyms, health clubs, YMCAs and private yoga studios, and on television. Good instructors will show you how to progress at your own pace. A yoga class or session goes by quickly because you're switching constantly from one position to another. Yoga not only offers variety but is also an athletic challenge. When you hold positions, you also build strength.

Plus, it's perfect for people of all ages. Don't worry about whether or not you're flexible enough to try the positions in the first place. Maybe you can't bend backward far enough so that your head brushes the floor, but everybody has sufficient flexibility to do some yoga. And if you stick with it, someday you might be able to twist into human pretzel positions. I'm not there yet, by the way.

Once you get the hang of yoga, instead of going to a class or doing it in your living room, take a deep breath and walk outside to your backyard, a park or the beach. Find a comfortable flat spot, spread out your yoga mat and sit in silence for a moment attuning yourself to your surroundings. Doing yoga outdoors broadens the benefits to include connecting to a natural environment in a mindful, spiritual way. And connecting to your environment — protecting the fresh air and clean water — is another aspect of a life in balance.

But that's another topic, for another time. Right now, let's just enjoy what yoga has to offer — mind and body wholeness for life.

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