Jogi Bhagat doesn't care if you bend into willowy, pretzel-like perfection. He'd rather you relieve pent-up stress or ease nagging back pain than execute a textbook downward dog.
On a recent weekday afternoon, about 30 people, mostly gray-haired women, file into a room at the Lamar Senior Activity Center for his Gentle Yoga for Happy Living class. They unroll blue, purple or green rubbery yoga mats and sit quietly, as Bhagat kneels before them. Soft Indian music plays in the background.
They have come here, some on their doctor's advice, to ease symptoms of arthritis or asthma, or to dampen anxiety. Like Bhagat, they believe that yoga has medicinal benefits.
Bhagat welcomes the group and then begins the 75-minute session with breathing exercises.
"Observe the state of your mind and focus," he says. "Notice how your body is feeling."
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The breathing leads into a series of gentle stretches and poses. The students raise their arms high like exuberant preachers. They roll on their backs like overturned turtles and then lie on the floor and extend their arms and legs like Superman.
"Feeling shaky is OK," Bhagat tells them at one point, as some of the students struggle to rise onto their toes. "Every time you feel shaky, it's time to smile."
He suggests ways of making each posture more — or less — challenging. "You have to be respectful to your body," he says.
He devotes a few minutes to a laughing drill, which he calls freeing and then invites the class members to lie on their backs in the traditional yoga corpse pose. For the next 10 minutes, he walks the students through a grocery list of body parts, instructing them to relax each one, from toes to eyelash. Then he sings a mantra, rings a delicate bell and thanks everyone for joining him.
Bhagat, 56, a native of India who studied extensively there and is registered with the Yoga Alliance, says yoga can help people cope with common ailments. Forceful exhalations called "breath of fire" can improve asthma, he says. Deep inhalations and humming to make each exhalation last longer benefit the heart. Just taking the time to slow down and clear the mind can drive away stress.
More and more often, mainstream medicine is backing up what Bhagat says.
While Dr. Mark Burnett, a neurosurgeon and executive medical director at the NeuroTexas Institute at St. David's HealthCare, isn't convinced that a yoga move that puts pressure on the pancreas will lessen symptoms of diabetes, for example, he does agree that yoga has great health benefits.
"Absolutely," he says. "Yoga has really moved into the medical mainstream. It's not alternative medicine, it's complementary medicine."
Medical studies have long shown that yoga can increase flexibility and strengthen core muscles. Burnett says he refers his spinal patients to yoga classes because it also can reduce pain. Because pain and depression often are linked, exercise is also a great remedy for depression.
"It's more than just the psychological benefits you get," Burnett says. "It's demonstrable on pain scale scores — studies show significant improvements."
One medical study published this year in the European Spine Journal showed improved spinal health among longtime yoga practitioners when compared with nonpractitioners. Burnett says more studies are needed, but "there is at least the suggestion that some of these age changes in the spine can be affected by long-term yoga therapy."
Burnett says yoga allows cardiac patients to get their hearts pumping without overdoing it. And an hour of yoga can help restore the body's balance after a day of hunching over a computer keyboard.
"Yoga gives people that sense of listening to their body, of being conscious of where their bodies are in space," Burnett says.
He'd like to see the creation of a collaborative program with local yoga studios in which students could learn the science behind how their bodies work as they practice yoga.
Anecdotally, at least, the students in Bhagat's class are benefiting in myriad ways.
Mary Noe, 87, says she can reach into overhead cabinets more easily since she started doing yoga four years ago. "I was slowing down a lot and knew I had to do some sort of exercise," she says. She's convinced it's also helped ease her asthma. "I didn't realize I wasn't breathing well in the past."
Another student, Jan Dawes, 64, says yoga helped her cope with a three-week hospital stay and a long home recovery after surgery.
"That deep breathing, getting quiet and centered, it helps you deal with whatever happens," Dawes says. "If well-being is the Internet, then yoga is the Internet service provider. It just kind of hooks me up."
Others in the class credit yoga for improving their balance, restoring their ability to turn around from the front car seat to reach something in the back and more. Michael Holden, who has Parkinson's disease, says yoga has soothed his soul. "His classes have also afforded me a perspective on fear, security and peace, which has sustained my spirit as well," he says.
In this exercise class, perfect health isn't required. Neither is perfect form.
"If you can breathe and smile, you can do yoga," Bhagat says.
Find more information about Jogi Bhagat at www.medicinal yoga.com . Bhagat's Gentle Yoga for Happy Living class is offered from 1:55 p.m. to 3:10 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays at the Lamar Senior Activity Center, 2874 Shoal Crest Ave. Cost is $50 per six-week session ($35 for new students) or $85 for two sessions. Drop-ins are $12. Bhagat also teaches at Dittmar Recreation Center, Parker Lane United Methodist Church and Brown Heatly Building.
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