Wednesday, May 21, 2008

NIH says namaste to yoga enthusiasts this week

Institute hosting first public yoga-fest to study, teach exercise

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Novice yogis try a seated stretch during a yoga session at the National Institutes of Health as part of Yoga Week on the Bethesda campus. NIH will host classes and lectures that are free and open to the public.
Cancer expert Dr. Jeffrey White struck a tree pose Monday afternoon — on stage in front of his coworkers.

White was among the 250 to 300 who gathered at the National Institutes of Health that morning and afternoon to learn yoga, during the agency’s inaugural Yoga Week. The event runs through Friday, is open to the public and includes free yoga lessons and lectures such as ‘‘Yoga as a Corporate Stress Management Tool.”

A crowd of yoga newbies and seasoned yogis flocked to Monday’s event, one of the week’s highlights. It was a hands-on, legs-up, arms-tangled lesson on doing yoga in the office.

‘‘Yoga is not just the dance and the poses,” said Rachel Permuth-Levine of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute as she led the auditorium in breathing and stretching exercises. ‘‘Yoga is really about quieting the mind.”

Permuth-Levine dreamed up Yoga Week as a way to bring yoga to NIH employees and neighbors. With free public events, she hoped to make yoga accessible to more people.

Embarrassed laughs rose from the crowd as the lesson ramped up difficulty from a flopped-over ‘‘rag doll” pose to the torso-twisting tree-in-the-wind pose.

Permuth-Levine suggested that even simple breathing and neck rolls could ‘‘bring some equanimity” to a stressful workday.

The session left NIH employee Crystal Brobst-Wormell feeling ‘‘relaxed but energized ... centered.”

It was Brobst-Wormell’s first try at yoga — the desk and office yoga seemed most pertinent to her lifestyle, and she hoped to bring it home to her kids.

Rachel-Ray Cleveland, a contractor at the National Library of Medicine, called it ‘‘wonderfully refreshing.”

Cleveland is a yoga practitioner and said stretching exercises take away her knee joint pain.

Some believe the health benefits of yoga are self-evident. But research on yoga is in early phases, White said. Current NIH yoga studies range in subjects from urban youth to arthritis.

Alleviated fatigue from breast cancer treatments and improved sleep quality are benefits borne out by scientific research.

‘‘Yoga is certainly a practice of self-acceptance,” Permuth-Levine said, explaining that research shows body image, flexibility and gender are major factors in whether people pursue yoga.

Another major factor is whether a person believes yoga has any usefulness — which, it turns out, is a topic debated by scientists.

‘‘There’s still some question of what’s the value of stretching?” White said. ‘‘Some people would think it’s self-evident ... It’s important to be mindful of the risk-benefit ratio.”

Patients should consult with their doctor before starting a yoga regimen and should be guided by a knowledgeable instructor, White said.

If you go

Wednesday: Lecture on the science of yoga. Yoga session.

Thursday: Lectures on yoga for lower back pain, yoga research history, ‘‘safe and healthy” facial care, yoga⁄meditation for stress. Free yoga class.

Friday: Lectures on yoga for workplace stress, Earth-friendly body care. Guided meditation session.

Pre-registration and fees are required for some events. Visit nccam.nih.gov⁄health⁄yoga for more information.