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As Boomers Age, Yoga Contorts Into Newfound Popularity

ASSOCIATED PRESS

While his colleagues have lunch, Paul P. Perkins does what he calls “pretzel benders.”

The technology development specialist at Public Service Electric & Gas Co. takes a yoga class sponsored by the utility at its corporate headquarters in Newark, N.J.

His new interest in yoga--he has been at it about two months--is part of a trend that’s seeing the ancient Indian techniques practiced increasingly in health clubs, studios and schools. People are turning to yoga to relieve stress, add flexibility and even do what the yogis invented yoga for--meditate.

“I was looking to shed stress,” Perkins said. “My job is hectic. Four or five hours a day on the phone and a lot of time face to face, and a lot of deadlines.”

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Yoga comes through for him, Perkins said. “Much to my surprise, an hour of yoga lasted a day and a half for just relaxing you,” he said. “It feels like I’m starting fresh in the morning again.”

Yoga is a corporate benefit under PSE&G;'s wellness program. Elaine Hansen and Arlene O’Malley teach in a third-floor former junior executives’ dining room. Their instruction is based on hatha yoga principles, focusing on flexibility, stretching, breathing and meditation.

“Some were telling me they use the breathing lessons in class in work situations,” Hansen said. She recalled one participant saying, “The last time I wanted to strangle someone, I remembered to breathe--and I haven’t killed anyone since taking yoga.”

But participants also pick up strength and lower their blood pressure, Hansen said. And despite what some people think, proper form does not require participants to twist themselves into pretzels, said fellow instructor Arlene O’Malley. “It’s not a position of being flexible,” O’Malley said. “It’s about gaining flexibility--and a lot of other things.”

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Flexibility, however, is important to aging baby boomers, who flock to health clubs to try yoga, said Cathy Masterson McNeil, a spokeswoman for the health club trade group IHRSA in Boston.

“It is kinder to the body than anything with an impact,” McNeil said. “It involves stretching, which older bodies need. And there’s an element of nostalgia, because yoga was also big in the ‘70s.”

Yoga has been growing rapidly in clubs, McNeil said. Forty percent of IHRSA’s 4,000 clubs offer yoga, “and five years ago, we didn’t even ask the question,” she said. Extrapolating to include clubs that are not IHRSA members, she estimated that about 5,000 health clubs across the nation offer yoga.

Yoga also appeals to people who are interested in meditative spirituality--"the whole mind-body thing,” McNeil said. But others are simply interested in the body. Clubs are combining yoga with more traditional club activities, coming up with such things as yoga-aerobics, she said.

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