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Power Up With Yoga

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First there was power dressing, then power lunches and now, power yoga. Suddenly it's the new fitness buzzword and everyone from college students to housewives to corporate executives in metros is making a beeline for the nearest power yoga centre.

I'm neither a power dresser nor do I believe in power lunches (preferring long-drawn-out lunches with friends), but seeing the frenzy around power yoga, I decided to give it a shot. And I died, almost. By the end of the first class, every part of my body ached. Muscles I didn't know existed groaned in protest at the slightest movement. Wasn't yoga supposed to be calming and relaxing? What happened to my favourite shavasana where I would invariably go off to sleep?

If, like me, you think yoga is only meant to work on your breathing, and those convoluted poses where one stretches and twists the body into all sorts of shapes are only for yogis, then power yoga is not for you. But if you are willing to challenge your body, then 60-90 minute sessions of power yoga 2-3 times a week will help burn calories, increase stamina, improve circulation, increase the metabolism rate and lead to weight loss. And yes, as the body gets used to the exercise, it stops protesting and starts enjoying it (that's what those who have been doing it for a while say, I'm still to find out).

So what exactly is power yoga and how does it differ from regular yoga? Power yoga, which was developed by two Americans — Beryl Bender Birch and Bryan Kest — in the mid-1990s, is a derivative of Ashthanga Yoga that involves synchronising the breath with a series of postures, producing internal heat, detoxifying muscles and organs.


Power yoga, however, is mostly used to describe a vigorous, fitness-based approach to Vinyasa-style yoga where one moves from one asana to another in a sequence. It is a modified version of yoga, combining strength training, stretching and breathing. "It pushes the body into deeper poses and postures while focusing on breathing.

It helps the body multitask by connecting breathing with body movements," says Mumbai-based yoga expert Payal Gidwani, who has trained several celebrities such as Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukherji.

It also incorporates traditional elements of yoga, such as holding of a pose to improve flexibility. However, this too is done to challenge your body more. And so, instead of the typical 5 breaths, you are required to hold a pose for longer — sometimes as long as two minutes. "In power yoga typically, postures are held for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes," says Mohan Kumar, a yoga expert and founder of the Holistic Healthcare Foundation.

Since there is no fixed sequence, each instructor choreographs it differently and one power yoga class can vary widely from the other. A usual routine begins with sun salutations or the surya namaskar, which involves a series of 12 poses done in combination with breathing. "In yoga, be it any kind, it is essential to do the asanas while being connected to the breath. Inhaling and exhaling correctly while maintaining the pose is important," says Seema Sondhi, who runs a yoga studio in New Delhi.

In power yoga, the movements flow into one another and are done without pausing. "We push the students to do 10-15 per cent more than their capacity. If the first day you hold a pose for 5 breaths, the next day we make you hold it for a little while longer and so on," says Kumar.

Before I decided to take the plunge, I observed fellow students. Their movements appeared smooth, effortless and graceful, lulling me into a false sense of bravado. It's only when I did a series of sun salutations that I realised it is a strenuous exercise regime that required me to stretch every limb even as I concentrated on my breathing. 

While there is no fixed sequence, generally a power yoga class is divided into four sub-sections. First is the cardio-oriented practice that involves around 12-15 asanas such as the halasana (the plough pose) and the paschimottanasana (seated forward bend). Then there is the holding variation where 5-10 asanas such as janushirasana (head to knee pose) and ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) are held for some time to increase flexibility. The third phase involves 5-7 asanas that relax, calm and cool your body, and finally there is breathing and meditation. "The aim is to focus on different parts of the body," says Kumar. And while power yoga is for everyone, experts recommend consulting a doctor in case of ailments or a weak back or knees.

Power yoga increases lean muscle mass, decreases body fat, and tones your body. It also helps maintain good body posture, and enhances strength, stamina and flexibility by improving joint movements and increasing muscle strength. And the best part, even as you undertake the sweat-producing, muscle-building workout, you improve your focus and concentration and let go of mental stress and anxiety, improving both physical and mental strength simultaneously. It's because of this that Gidwani considers power yoga to be one of the best workouts for those looking to lose weight.

So, will I go for my next class? Absolutely. After all, what doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 04-06-2012)