X-treme: A flexible friend

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The Independent Culture
I've tried barefoot waterskiing, mountain bikes, rock climbing, karate and wakeboarding. I've scuba dived, flown a plane and even thrown myself off various contraptions - all in pursuit of the perfect adrenalin rush.

The worst effects have been sore limbs, minor lacerations and an occasionally dented ego, but these aches and pains pale into insignificance compared to the morning after my first yoga class. Previously unknown muscles complained loudly as if a giant had been twisting my limbs into various unnatural positions while I slept.

To most people, yoga conjures up images of meditation and relaxation. While these certainly feature strongly, in my experience "relaxation" only arrives after considerable puffing and blowing. Yoga is an ancient discipline concerned with developing a holistic, healthy and harmonious lifestyle. The word "yoga" is generally translated as "union", and its practice provides a balance between body, mind and spirit.

The most widely practised form of yoga in the West is Hatha, which helps muscles relax while releasing built-in tension. Classes usually concentrate on four areas: suppleness, strength, stamina and concentration. Some are low impact, others very demanding, so there's a level for every ability.

I didn't know what to expect when I arrived for my first yoga session at London's New Body's Gym, but I reasoned that increased suppleness might help prevent various niggling injuries in the future.

Some 90 per cent of the class was female (women outnumber men three-to- one in the UK), but my instructor was male and very welcoming.

"Is this your first yoga class?" he asked.

"Yes", I replied. "My girlfriend dragged me along."

He smiled sympathetically before beginning the class. I wasn't worried; for someone who prides themself on being fit, an hour of yoga shouldn't be too taxing, right?

We begin with a "Salute to the Sun": legs together, arms stretched upwards, palms touching. "Inhale," says the instructor. "Now exhale," he continues, stretching down to touch his toes. I can't quite reach mine, but the exercise isn't too strenuous.

The next position begins in a standing position, with legs approximately a metre apart. The right foot turns outwards by 90 while the knee bends. Next you rest the right arm on the right leg before reaching with your left arm over your head and diagonally upwards. This makes a straight diagonal down the side of the body and along the outstretched left leg. Much of the upper-body weight is resting on the right knee, but a much deeper stretch can be felt along the back and left arm.

The instructor goes around the class correcting postures: "Straighten your arms and really reach across with your hand." As we hold the position, various parts of my body begin to tremble from the effort, and my brow perspires a little more until we are allowed to relax.

Supple people may have an initial advantage, but stamina and strength are also required to execute and hold positions.

One of my later attempts at a more advanced position started off as a miserable failure. Regardless of my considerable efforts, my limbs literally refused to bend to my will. The instructor came across to offer some advice. He slowly helped me into the stretch, and suggested that I regulate my breathing. "Take deeper, slower breaths instead of puffing and blowing," he suggested.

I can't quite explain why, but his advice worked. When I closed my eyes and measured my breathing, I found that I could stretch a little bit further, then a little further...

Many of yoga's more advanced postures are named after various animals, like the "frog'' or "turtle". After watching a demonstration, I can say that they did not resemble any animal that I've ever seen, but were, nevertheless, very impressive.

Most people will never reach the levels of dexterity exhibited by numerous Indian gurus, but practising yoga certainly focuses your mind and body. And a flexible, healthy body is less likely to break down while playing other sports - since my first class, I have met several extreme-sports addicts who swear by the discipline.

After the aches stopped, my body felt more relaxed than ever. A few lessons on, I was reaching parts other sports couldn't touch.

For more information, contact the UK's recognised governing body, the British Wheel of Yoga (01529 306851, wheelyoga@aol. com.uk). They stock a range of excellent information leaflets and can provide a list of affiliated teachers in your region