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Sue Carroll, Joann Larson and Nora Yamanoha, top to bottom, participate in a yoga session Wednesday at Kona Yoga. - Michael Darden | West Hawaii Today
Balancing act
Yoga gains popularity on the Big Island
by Jen Reeder
Special To West Hawaii Today

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 1:12 PM HST
About six years ago, Dr. Kenneth Riff started noticing a lot of aches and stiffness in his body.

"I was creaky -- I turned 50 and things weren't working as well," said Riff, executive director at North Hawaii Community Hospital's Hawaii Heart Brain Center.

He started taking yoga classes, and everything changed.

"I felt like the Tin Man after somebody found his oil can," Riff said. "Yoga clearly enhances strength, balance and flexibility, and who doesn't want that?"

Yoga, a Sanskrit word that means "to yoke" or "union," is a practice that originated in India at least 5,000 years ago. Its goal is to balance mind, body and spirit, which is achieved through hundreds of different poses, called "asanas," and controlled breathing.

For example, students may be taught to inhale as they stand up straight and raise their arms above their heads, or exhale as they twist their torsos while seated on the ground or in a chair.

Kathryn Wiese, director of Waimea's new yoga studio There's No Place Like Om, said yoga has become increasingly popular here as Westerners discover its health benefits.

"Some classes are invigorating and uplifting, designed to develop heat, or 'tapas,' in the body, while other classes feature gentle poses, designed to calm the mind and restore energy to the body," Wiese said. "Yoga is for everybody, and everyone can enjoy it."

Wiese has taught yoga in various parts of the Waimea community, including Tutu's House, the YMCA and Keck Observatory's Employee Fitness Program. She said although it seems more women than men tend to practice yoga, at least 80 percent of her students at Keck are men.

Her students at the YMCA were extremely diverse, she said.

"From weightlifters to dedicated yogis ... I saw all shapes and sizes and ages and all skin tones," she said.

Wiese's studio offers a range of yoga instruction, including special classes for pregnant women, golfers and seniors.

"I always say that you can practice yoga until you're a hundred," Wiese said.

Barbara Uechi, owner of Kona Yoga in Kailua-Kona, agreed yoga's popularity has rapidly increased in the last few decades, particularly since movie stars "like Madonna" started doing it. There weren't any yoga studios in Kona when Uechi started taking private lessons in the '80s, and she was one of the first instructors at Kealakekua's Big Island Yoga Center, which opened in 1989. Now yoga has grown so mainstream that fitness gyms offer yoga classes. To stay competitive, her studio also offers massage and acupuncture services.

She said tourists enjoy the small size of her classes -- never more than 20 students at a time -- and complain that their mainland classes have 60 to 100 students, with an instructor who wears a headset in order to be heard.

"They're just one of the crowd," she said.

Newcomers to yoga often ask Uechi if yoga is a religion, and worry that they should feel guilty about trying it. She tells them yoga is not a religion and will actually complement their beliefs by allowing them to "shut out the other noises," such as headaches or other pain, and focus on their spirituality.

"Bring peace in the body first and then they can bring peace to the rest -- mind and soul," Uechi said.

She added once people start practicing yoga regularly, they often improve their lifestyles by quitting smoking or eating less. They also become more open to alternatives to traditional health care.

Even medical doctors have become interested in yoga as an approach to treating health issues. Riff said it is useful depending on what problem needs solving.

"Will yoga cure cancer? I'm not aware of any evidence that it will. Will it help the recovery (from cancer treatment)? I don't think there's any question," Riff said.

Yoga is especially therapeutic for treating chronic pain -- particularly low back pain and sciatica -- as well as depression, Riff said. Yoga is also helpful in engaging the mind to help heal the body, he added.

"What happens in our minds affects what happens in our bodies. If you see a dead mouse, your mind makes you faint," Riff said.

By extension, he said, the brain could also affect internal vessels like coronary arteries.

"Bringing the mind to bear on the body can be astonishingly powerful in healing the body," Riff said.

Greg Wirth, an astronomer at W.M. Keck Observatory, said he practices yoga as "preventative maintenance" to keep himself healthy. He said it has helped him strengthen all parts of his body.

"A bicyclist might develop strong legs, but the upper body won't be as developed," Wirth said.

Yoga has also helped him cure some back and shoulder issues, and he has learned to "be aware" of his body in daily life.

"If I'm working outside in the yard and feel pain, I can change my position and feel better," he said.

Having to hold a yoga pose for long periods of time has also increased his focus, perseverance and confidence, he said.

"If every public school taught yoga, we'd have a lot fewer problems in this country," Wirth said.

Dr. Deen Wong, a pathologist at Kona Community Hospital, has practiced yoga for more than 20 years. He said yoga has a number of benefits, and that it is "wonderful" for mobility.

"Personally, I think it's a great practice if one can integrate it into their life, especially as they get older," Wong said.

These sorts of endorsements mean that medical yoga is the "latest growth spurt," according to Zettelyss Amora, a yoga instructor at the Mauna Lani Resort and Tutu's House, where she teaches a "restorative yoga" class for people with health issues.

"I would say there is no ailment -- physical, mental or emotional -- that yoga can't help," Amora said. "Yoga is not designed to give you a cute butt. It's designed to keep your body healthy and to treat ailments."

Amora has a great deal of experience working with people who are "medically challenged." She spent three years teaching a yoga class for people with multiple sclerosis in Colorado. She would modify poses for various levels of flexibility and mobility, since some students used wheelchairs. One particularly ill student brought a caregiver, who would join Amora in helping lower the woman to the floor for certain poses.

"The courage of these people was tremendous," Amora said.

She was also hired by an oncologist to help cancer patients who were undergoing chemotherapy. In this case, relaxation was a central component; Amora said decreasing stress allows the body to heal. It is also a key element in her restorative yoga class at Tutu's House, where students do a lot of forward and back bends "to open up the body so it can breathe."

"People look 10 years younger at the end of class -- the relaxation piece is really important," Amora said.

Julie Benkofsky-Webb, an instructor at the Big Island Yoga Center, echoed comments that yoga is beneficial not only for physical aspects but emotional and spiritual as well.

"It's definitely more than physical exercise," she said. "It affects us on multiple levels."

Often her students tell her that family members remark on how much calmer and happier they seem after practicing yoga.

"They'll say, 'My partner appreciates that I don't come home stressed from work,'" she said.

The spiritual side of yoga is helping the employees of the studio cope with the recent sudden death of its director, Marcia Carman. They are ensuring that the regularly scheduled classes continue to meet because that is what she would want, Benkofsky-Webb said.

"It's our living memorial to her to continue the teachings," she said. "I just feel it's an incredible privilege and responsibility every time I get to be in front of a group of students. Yoga has really impacted my life a great deal and I'm happy to get to share it with others."

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