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Dani McGuire leads a yoga class.

Yoga a full body-mind workout

For years, I’ve promised myself I would sign up for a yoga class and never did. I wasn’t sure whether it would be a real workout.

I spend the few hours I have for working out each week doing cardio or lifting weights. So it’s hard to imagine how slow, methodical motions and stretches could help me stay in shape.

But I recently heard about a free yoga class and decided to give it a try. About 10 minutes in, I was sweating. Yoga is more difficult than you might think.

Dani McGuire, the founder of Pranayoga School who is also a trainer there, said that’s because it forces you to hold your body in positions that use your own weight to tone and strengthen your muscles. She also said it’s common for newcomers like me to underestimate the physical challenges of yoga because, depending on what type you do, it’s not necessarily a fast-paced cardio exercise.

But the cool thing about yoga (when it’s practiced holistically) is that it actually strengthens your mind at the same time it strengthens your body, which can help you tackle other fitness goals and even personal goals.

McGuire said we commonly attribute failed goals to a lack of willpower, but it’s actually about a weak concentration muscle that can be strengthened by assuming a yoga position and holding it, even for just a few breaths. That’s because yoga helps bring you to a state of focus McGuire calls “one-pointedness.”

As mystical as it sounds, “one-pointedness” actually isn’t difficult to grasp or attain. You’ve probably already experienced it.

“Anything you do creative, like painting your nails, knitting, reading a book or even watching a good movie, will draw you into that state,” McGuire said.

She describes it as a “state of flow” where we narrow our focus to be totally aware of the moment, and from my first experience with yoga, that sounds accurate. It’s about quieting your mind and turning your focus inward to concentrate on moving your body and breathing on cue.

Some people refer to this inward focus as meditation, but McGuire prefers the term concentration because meditation is actually a whole different state of mind, like sleeping.

“To say that we’re meditating while were doing yoga really isn’t true,” McGuire said. “Yoga strengthens our concentration. It helps us be more conscious and focused when we’re on our mats.”

But yoga doesn’t just give you the illusion of peace; it actually changes your brain activity.

A five-year study by a Harvard psychiatrist, John Denninger, found that the mind-body techniques in yoga can switch on and off some genes linked to stress and immune function to help ward off worry and disease.

“There is a true biological effect,” Denninger told Bloomberg.com in a November interview.

His study tracks 210 healthy individuals with high levels of chronic stress who do 20 minutes of yoga or a separate meditation exercise each day.

At the end of each week, the participants are tested in several ways, including a neuro-imaging test to study their psychological changes, Bloomberg.com said.

Preliminary findings found that only one session of yoga was enough to enhance certain positive genes and reduce negative genes linked to inflammatory response and stress.

And these results are not unusual. A high school in New Haven, Conn., is even requiring some incoming freshmen to participate in yoga three times a week to reduce stress hormones so they can stay calm and focus on their studies.

McGuire said yoga helps fight stress because when we put ourselves in a difficult pose and hold it, we improve our ability to put ourselves in stressful situations and maintain composure.

“It strengthens our ability to allow life to come at us, and to stay strong and not go into that stress response,” McGuire said.

It helps us multi-taskers stay sane even when we’re running a hectic schedule. So if you feel too busy to give yoga a try, you might actually be someone who needs it most.

Kara Hackett is social media writer for The Journal Gazette. To see more of her work throughout the week and participate in the conversation, go to www.journalgazette.net/coffeebreak, where this column first appeared.

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