Yoga can rejuvenate a stale exercise program

Easier on the body than aerobics, weights

If your current exercise and strength training programs are growing a little stale, and you’d like to add some variety to class offerings, a series of yoga classes might just do the trick.

Yoga, the Indian discipline characterized by stretching and breathing exercises, is in many ways better for employees than more traditional workouts, claims Linda La Palermo, owner of Syd Simons DaySpa in Oak Brook, IL, which offers services in nutrition, preventing aging, and managing stress.

"One of the main benefits is that yoga is not as harsh to the body as, say, aerobic workouts, which, over the long term can be detrimental to muscles or joints," says La Palermo. "For somebody looking to do bodybuilding or to get really fit, aerobics or strength training may be more effective. But from the standpoint of pure wellness, an hour of yoga can give the same cardiovascular benefits — you can work up a sweat and feel your heart pounding."

"There’s a very deep mind-body relaxation response that Yoga produces in [response to] stress," adds Joan Cantwell, MA, BSN, manager of health services at Quaker Oats Co. in Chicago. "Our company has tried all the ‘old’ programs that address stress management, but this really does it."

Feel better — inside and out

Cantwell, who participates in her own company’s lunch-hour yoga classes, sees many wellness benefits. "It gives you a lot of vitality for the rest of the day," she says. "And because of its slow, very mindful movements, it helps improve my focus and awareness of what to do the rest of the day."

There are some real physical benefits as well, she adds. "We know [the breathing exercises] improve circulation. Breathing through the diaphragm stimulates a deep stress-reduction response," she notes. "You have to be breathing correctly in these positions."

La Palermo insists that people who practice yoga regularly actually look different. "If you look at people who have been doing it a long time they never look their age — because of the stretching and breathing. Oxygenation is very good for regenerating cells," she explains. "These people generally have a clarity about the face, not a lot of skin problems, and their eyes are usually very white and bright."

Appropriate for all ages

Yoga also offers significant short-term benefits, La Palermo stresses. "Yoga teaches you how to breathe, and in doing that you are bringing more oxygen to the brain and the organs. So after doing it for just one week, you can feel a difference internally because of the oxygen flow," she says. "Most people breathe from the chest; yoga teaches you to breathe from the pit of your stomach. Some people find it makes their minds clearer."

Because of the extensive stretching involved in yoga, the muscles and joints don’t have that "achy" feeling you get from other exercise, she says. "It makes your spine much more supple; some people even feel taller," says La Palermo. "It absolutely helps people with sedentary jobs."

Finally, yoga can be practiced by almost any employee. "It’s appropriate for absolutely all ages and physical abilities," says Cantwell. "It’s very protective because you’re not required to move beyond your physical limits. Props or towels can be used to make specific positions less demanding."

La Palermo agrees. "Even if you’ve had a recent injury, a minimal amount of yoga can be done," she says. "Also, it’s not a competition — it’s something somebody does at their own pace, based on their body’s own ability to stretch."

Easy, inexpensive to start

The best way to introduce yoga into your program, La Palermo advises, is with one or two introductory "Lunch & Learn" classes. They’re easy to do and require a minimal investment. "Normally, a class lasts about an hour, and the cost can be anywhere from $5 to $15 per person," she says.

At Quaker Oats, employees pay for their own classes but get a discounted rate of about $7.50 a class. "We initially offered some free classes for people to see if they liked it," recalls Cantwell.

Her formal program started in early November 1996, following a September "awareness" lunch and learn. "There was a real good turnout, and people seemed interested," says Cantwell. "We sent out a survey and felt there was enough interest to have a class."

A complement to aerobics

The classes meet twice a week, from 12:30 to 1:30 in Quaker’s on-site fitness center’s aerobics room. "The classes have been small (typically about four or five employees) but very committed," says Cantwell. (For tips on how to find a yoga instructor, see story, above.)

Why provide a class for such a limited audience? "We want to satisfy our customers," says Cantwell. "And it’s a real nice complement to aerobics and strength training."

She says interest continues to grow slowly but notes that you can’t market yoga like other programs. "It’s really an experience-based program," she explains. "It has to be learned because it’s hard to advertise. People who have joined have done so because others have gotten them to try it."

[Editor’s Note: For more information on yoga and yoga resources, please contact: Linda La Palermo, Syd Simons DaySpa, 2208 Midwest Road, Oak Brook, IL 60521. Telephone: (630) 472-9900.]