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Let’s start with the cold hard facts about America’s health: According to National Academy of Sports Medicine, approximately 33% of the adult population is obese and 16% of teenagers are overweight. Our country too is filled with people who suffer from more chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes and cancer. We have knee issues, back issues, tight hips, and tight hamstrings. To top it all off we’re stressed, depressed and struggling with anxiety. In short: we’re a mess.

How did this happen? Well, perhaps we should look to the shoes that support the arches of our feet when we walk, the carseats that support our spine during our long commutes, those ergonomic desk chairs we sit in for eight or more hours a day, and the drive-thru pharmacies we visit to alleviate our chronic conditions. Our world has advanced to the point where the luxuries of high speed internet, mobile devices, and convenience meals are doing tons more harm than good. Sure, we have more time and will live longer but will do so with aches, pains and chronic diseases. Good thing we’ve got those drive-thru pharmacies, right?

In 2007 I was fast approaching 300 pounds. I recall the day that I picked up a pair of 40×32 pants at the department store. Khakis to boot! Even more clearly I can recall the that the day my wife called me at work to update me on her doctor’s visit and the thyroid cancer diagnosis she had received. Her words brought with them a stinging clarity. She and I, a couple who had fallen in love as teenagers and became parents at a young age, had been living our lives and influencing the lives of our children completely wrong. We were slowly killing ourselves and each other with junk food and a sedentary lifestyle.

I was overweight, suffering from low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and had bad knees to boot. My wife had to go through surgery and radiation treatment. All of this might’ve been preventable had we made better choices earlier. Her cancer became the catalyst for change in our lives.

Now I am a yoga instructor, 90+ pounds lighter, and wanting nothing more than to help people better their lives through a practice that has changed my life for the better. Yet there is a mountain of misconceptions about yoga that people have, not the least of which are what it is and what it is not.

In my time as a yoga instructor and studio owner I have encountered people who are reluctant to try it out either because they believe flexibility is a prerequisite, that it isn’t really a workout, or that it will somehow be used as a means to convert someone’s religious beliefs. I can assure you, here and now, that none of these are true.

Flexibility is not required! So many feel that they must be flexible, be fit, or have a certain type of body to practice yoga. For that I blame the saturation of magazine covers featuring dancers-turned-yoga-models who are contorted — even if beautifully so — into advanced poses that are intimidating even to myself. Nonetheless, those images, though sometimes setting unreasonable expectations, should serve as motivation rather than discouragement. Know, however, that most yoga classes, including those that I present to people, are designed to move you through challenging but completely accessible movements and postures. A typical practice can also be adapted to suit your needs on any given day.

Yoga is a workout! Men will avoid yoga because “it’s not a real workout.” Yoga combines body weight training, mobility training, cardio and flexibility training to give you a complete, full body/full mind workout. In my classes I teach everyone from grandmothers to NFL players and each is challenged, sweaty and made the better for the yoga practice. Few leave my classes ever feeling that they didn’t get a good workout or feel that they didn’t accomplish something.

Yoga is not a religion! True, there are yoga classes that infuse a dose of spirituality into the practice. To become certified to teach yoga we are educated in ancient Indian texts, the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. But these are taught so we might respect a lineage not so that we can convert people to a certain set of beliefs. Most yoga classes encourage little more than a belief in your own better self and work to connect you to yourself, often times helping you work through your limiting beliefs (like the belief that you’re not flexible or fit enough to do yoga). Beyond that you bring your own set of beliefs (or lack thereof) and work to develop a deeper understanding of yourself, your body and your mind. You leave each class with your faith intact but your mind made easier and body made healthier.

Yoga has been shown to do some amazing things for both body and mind as well. During a typical yoga class students are moved through a series of physical postures that increase physical strength, joint mobility, muscle and tissue flexibility, increase heart strength, lung capacity, bone density and much more. We focus on breath, which works to calm the nervous system and bring our mind to a place of presence, decreasing stress, anxiety and depression, some of our worst afflictions. Unlike most exercise programs we warm up at the beginning and then cool down before moving to a final resting posture and brief meditation, sometimes guided, sometimes not, but always intended to relax.

This combination of movements, body weight exercises, and held postures take our body and mind on a journey that improves overall fitness and mental wellbeing makes for yoga’s enduring presence in the world and increasing popularity in the West with over 20 million already practicing and an estimated 40 million curious. That this ancient practice can undo the damage being done by our modern sedentary lifestyle should be enough to interest everyone. So, let me invite you to investigate yoga further.

We have a health epidemic in this country. There is a cure. It requires nothing more than to step out of your comfort zone, find a yoga class, and make a commitment to yourself. Immediately, you’ll notice you’re sleeping better, your stress is decreasing and your strength will increase. Incrementally, in the days, weeks, months and years of a regular yoga practice the benefits will increase. All it takes to improve your mental and physical wellbeing can be found on a mat, spending less than 5% of your day practicing yoga.

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Alex Hamby is the owner and an instructor at Yoga Club DFW, located at 1431 N. Highway 67, Suite 200, Cedar Hill, Texas 75104. He became a yoga instructor after it changed his life and is now seeking to help others in making positive changes through this beneficial and empowering practice. 

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