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For strength and flexibility: yoga

Ann Maruksen's husband, Rod Walli, practices a forward bend. Photo submitted

For more than five years, I've been hosting a yoga group in Cromwell. We meet Mondays at 11 a.m. at the Pavilion and spend an hour stretching, bending, twisting and creating space in our joints. Over the years, probably three dozen women, men and children have participated, ages 6 or 7 to 90.

I found yoga many years ago, in my late 30s. A young mother and busy teacher, I was feeling compacted and bent over. On a Sierras pack trip, I complained about my back after the first day of climbing over 3,000 feet. My friend Louise asked me to lie down on a flat rock about 4 feet off the ground and place my waist on its edge. While she sat on my legs, I bent my head, shoulders and torso down from the waist until they were vertical. And wow! What an elixir!

I then began going to yoga classes when I could — once a week at most. I liked best the Iyengar approach — poses held for seven or so good breaths. Forward bends, triangle pose, tree pose, backbends, spinal twists. And always ending with 5-10 minutes of relaxation, lying on a sticky mat, with a yoga instructor talking us focusing on the breath and ways of releasing tension in every nook and cranny of the body.

Louise invited me to join her at a women's yoga retreat at Harbin Springs, Calif., run by her favorite teacher, Angela Farmer. I loved Angela's approach and must have joined at least five of these retreats over the years. And everywhere I subsequently lived — Chicago, New Jersey, Minneapolis — I sought out good yoga teachers. I bought and read yoga books. I love to reflect that I learned everything I now share from listening in classes — all oral tradition.

Yoga helps us open out to the world with confidence. I used to hunch my shoulders all of the time. Yoga teaches us to find our strength internally, in muscle and bone. Soft on the outside, strong internal structure. We stretch to create balance in the body.

Most of us have overdeveloped trapezius muscles, the external ones that run over the back of the neck and shoulders to move the head and shoulder blade. Yoga expands the chest muscles and strengthens the deeper intercostal muscles that work between the ribs. Stretching them creates space in the spine between the vertebrae, good for avoiding back problems.

Yoga is not a performance sport. At its best, it is an adventure in self-discovery. Everyone is encouraged to work at their own pace and to deepen awareness of their unique physical structure, strengths and weaknesses. I know there are poses that I can't do. Once I could do backbends and forearm balances, but no longer. I can still do handstands, headstands and shoulder stands. Restorative yoga — poses that use props like bolsters, blocks and blankets — is recommended for those days when one is low energy or recovering from an illness or a death in the family.

When I'm travelling, I miss yoga. It's hard to get a mat into my petite suitcase. But I find inconspicuous spaces where I can stretch. When I emerge from a long airplane flight, I unfold by going to the rear of the baggage claim area for a triangle or warrior pose and a forward bend.

Yoga is for all ages, shapes, sizes and genders. Once at a national yoga conference in St. Paul, I observed a woman demonstrating how she works with people in nursing homes who are confined to chairs. It was brilliant!

Many men do yoga. A few years ago, the Coleraine hockey team began to win games when their coach hired a woman to bring yoga into their practice sessions. Some of my best teachers have been men.

There are many kinds of yoga.

Bikram yoga works in a hot room (105 degrees and 40 percent humidity).

Vinyasa, sometimes called flow yoga, is more dance-like and burns more calories.

Iyengar, which is the variant I practice, stresses alignment, muscle strengthening and opening the joints, particularly good for people with back issues. I once asked an Iyengar teacher her opinion of varieties.

"Any kind of yoga is a good thing," she replied.

More than five years ago, my husband, Rod Walli, returned from the Men's Rites of Passage retreat at the Audubon Center. He emerged from the car with his arms wide open and said, "And I want to do yoga with you!" Ever since, most days before lunch, we spend an hour on the lovely maple floor he built years ago, practicing together.

Writer Ann Markusen is a Carlton County freelance writer, columnist and retired economist and professor emerita at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She lives in Red Clover Township near Cromwell with her husband, Rod Walli.