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Yoga: A mind and body resolution for the new year

Gail O’Leary led her class through a one-hour vinyasa session at the Norton Parks and Recreation Center.

George Rizer for The Boston Globe

Gail O’Leary led her class through a one-hour vinyasa session at the Norton Parks and Recreation Center.

NORTON — It’s that time of year again, when well-meaning people ask whether you’ve made a New Year’s resolution. Much as I hate to admit it, the clichéd idea of getting back to the gym after a whirlwind of celebrating usually makes my list.

The warm glow of family hearths fades quickly under those fluorescent lights, so this year, I’m thinking about yoga. The stretching and breathing go easy on the spirit while challenging the body as much or as little as you need.

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I tried yoga for the first time not long ago. Before that, I had taken Pilates for a couple of years, but I didn’t know a lot about yoga. I decided to give it a try at the Norton Parks and Recreation Center.  

The class was billed as vinyasa yoga. Before I went, I did a little reading. If, as I did, you read from multiple sources, you may feel as if there are as many styles of yoga as there are instructors.

Women’s Health magazine lists 14 different styles on its website. Other sources, such as Yoga Journal, name even more. Some are proprietary methods developed by particular teachers, while others are general terms.

Dayna Macy, an editor at Yoga Journal, said hatha yoga has become an umbrella term for physical yoga practice that focuses on postures and breathing. Hatha yoga includes many sub-types — ashtanga, “hot” yoga, Iyengar, and vinyasa, just to name a few. Traditional yoga also includes mental and spiritual discipline, but classes for fitness tend to focus on the physical, with elements of meditation and reflection.

Gail O’Leary of Norton teaches vinyasa yoga at the recreation center. Her class links breath with movement in a flowing, moderately paced series of postures.

‘Whatever was bothering me when I came in, doesn’t really bother me as much.’ Kim Alves, on practicing yoga

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A longtime fitness instructor, O’Leary got into yoga partly as a way to cope with the physical wear and tear of years of high-impact fitness. She tried yoga with a friend, and was hooked. “My body was telling me it was good,” she said. Before long, she was taking a certification course.

The class meets in a converted house owned by the town. The room is small, but it has glass doors overlooking the woods behind the house. The cost is $10 per class for drop-ins, or $9.50 if you sign up for an eight-week session.

Here, Debbie Garrone, foreground, and Vicki Kane stretch in the downward facing dog position.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

Here, Debbie Garrone, foreground, and Vicki Kane stretch in the downward facing dog position.

O’Leary welcomed the group of about a dozen women and led us through the series of poses she calls the vinyasa flow, including downward-facing dog (hands and feet on the floor, bent at the hips, knees straight, in an A-frame shape), upward-facing dog (body stretched the opposite way, hips near the floor), plank (a push-up like pose, arms straight), and chaturanga (similar, with arms bent).

We did some standing poses that really got the blood flowing. The class is geared for intermediate yoga practitioners, and O’Leary said she made it easier because I was new.

Similar to the Pilates I’ve taken, she interspersed some muscle-relaxing stretches throughout the routine, and we closed with a soothing relaxation exercise.

Before and after the class, I got a chance to talk to some of the regulars.

“Of all the things I do in terms of fitness, yoga was the component that was missing,” said Mansfield resident Hazel Angland, 46, who has been taking the class for six months. She does running and spinning, but loves the flexibility and increased range of motion she gets from yoga.

She’s also quick to point out — modestly — that some of the other women can do more difficult poses than she, things we didn’t try that morning, like a head stand and gravity-defying “side crow.”

The women said they enjoy the camaraderie, in class and out. Now that they’ve gotten to know one another, they get together occasionally for wine and appetizers.

Instructor Gail O'Leary, right, finished the rigorous workout with a temple massage on Debbie Garrone.

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

Instructor Gail O'Leary, right, finished the rigorous workout with a temple massage on Debbie Garrone.

Still, the class is the main attraction. Jordana Weiner, 40, of Mansfield and Kim Alves, 39, of Norton said they always feel better when they leave. Not only does the physical workout feel great, but Alves said it helps her let go of stress. “It helps me forget anything that’s going on,” she said. “Whatever was bothering me when I came in, doesn’t really bother me as much.”

Although yoga’s growth in popularity slowed during the recession, it never lost ground. Macy, of Yoga Journal, said about 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, up from 15.8 million in 2008. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association pegged the number at 22.1 million for 2011, or 7.7 percent of the US population age 6 and older.

Yoga and Pilates studios, not including classes at gyms, will generate an estimated $6.9 billion in revenue this year, according to the market research company IBISWorld. A wider look by Yoga Journal at spending on classes, clothing, and equipment shows the total industry is even larger — about $10.3 billion this year, Macy said. And yoga is a global phenomenon, popular not just in India, where it has a long history, and the United States, but also in China, Europe, Australia, and Russia, she said.

Most people start taking yoga because they want to be more flexible, but come away with other benefits, too, she said. Whether practitioners are young or middle-aged, and whether they want a spiritual experience or only a physical one, yoga welcomes all, with many different forms and levels of difficulty.

“In a nutshell, I think my practice of yoga makes me deeply grateful for the body I have,” said Macy, who has been practicing for 20 years. Some forms of yoga that are popular today don’t appeal to her at all, she said, but there’s room for many styles.

“It’s a big tent,” she said.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.
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