Find your niche

The unflagging popularity of yoga is understandable -- the practice offers a remarkable physical challenge and mental release, and its many forms and niches appeal to a broad range of people. The latest crop of yoga books and DVDs reflects this diversity, from instruction on stress reduction to glossy photographs featuring beautiful people striking challenging poses.


Set it on the coffee table

"Contact: The Yoga of Relationship": Coffee table tomes about yoga are rare (most books are more functional than attractive), but this slick, heavy book on partner yoga is meant to be seen. Written by Tara Lynda Guber (longtime yoga practitioner, founder of a yoga education program and wife of producer Peter Guber), it features lush black-and-white photos by photographer Norman Seeff, plus some general instruction.

Guber's yoga and Hollywood connections evidently came in handy; featured in the enormous photos are yoga stars Rod Stryker, Shiva Rea and Seane Corn, and celebs Lisa Rinna, Harry Hamlin, Daphne Zuniga and Linda Gray. They come together in elegant, often complex poses such as shooting star, flying throne and flying bug on a bridge.

The good: Even if you've never attempted so much as a simple sun salutation, seeing these gravity-defying poses may spawn a sudden need for a yoga mat and stretchy clothes. Partner yoga, a niche of the increasingly popular practice of yoga, isn't for everyone, but this book makes a strong case for it. "Unlike other forms of yoga practice," Guber writes, "the objective in Contact Yoga is ... about crossing barriers and boundaries, bold exploration, trial and error, exciting creativity, spontaneity, and invention." In its best form, she argues, it goes beyond the physical challenge to teach about trust, commitment, love and communication.

The bad: Those new to the world of yoga shouldn't pick this up expecting to learn how to partner by the time they reach the last page. The book does include guidelines for practice, plus some step-by-step illustrative photos, but most poses are advanced and should be attempted only by those with proper training and skill -- or serious injuries could result. And not all poses are named, which may be frustrating for those pining for more information.

The price: $39.95

Suitable for the office

"Yoga for Suits: 30 No-Sweat Power Poses to Do in Pinstripes": Every cubicle-trapped office worker eventually feels the unpleasant effects of sitting for hours on end. Shoulders are sore from hunching over a keyboard, legs are stiff from inactivity, necks ache from tension -- it's no wonder many corporate types suffer from chronic back conditions and other assorted ailments. The remedy, says New York-based yoga instructor Edward Vilga, is yoga, and he proves you don't have to have a sticky mat and a classroom to reap the benefits. Several yoga and yoga-based poses and stretches can be done within the confines of your office or Dilbert-like workspace, such as the spreadsheet hip opener, a seated exercise in which one leg is crossed over the thigh, and the torso bends over the desk, arms outstretched. In the more advanced, standing rat-race release, the hamstrings get a good stretch with one foot resting on a chair, one arm reaching for the toes. The downward desk is a variation of the downward-facing dog; here the hands rest on the desk as the body bends at the waist. Exercises are accompanied by a list of physical and mental benefits, as well as assorted snippets of workplace wisdom, such as: "At the end of the day, you've got to let go and trust that the investments you've made in hard work and effort will be rewarded."

The good: Vilga shows that even within the confines of a small space, it's possible to do something good for the mind and body. Considering how many days go by with the only bits of exercise being trips to the bathroom or coffee runs, it's important to remember that something -- even a midday stretch -- is better than nothing.

The bad: Those fortunate to have their own offices can close the door and indulge in a few moments of privacy while trying a briefcase bend. Those in the great wide open may feel a bit self-conscious, especially if stuck in a conservative workplace that frowns on such activity. Also, many of the poses may be tough to achieve in a skirt and pantyhose.

The price: $14.95

Just watch, you'll de-stress

"Yoga for Stress": Almost any yoga practice can help relieve stress, but certain poses and stretches are especially good for relaxation. This DVD from Yoga Journal is divided into five segments: Stress prevention and stress relief (each 35 minutes), an eight-minute breathing practice, a six-minute guided relaxation and an eight-minute guided meditation. All segments feature host and narrator Dr. Baxter Bell, a family practice physician who works in Petaluma, Calif., and Oakland. In the two long segments, he guides viewers through a series of poses and stretches that target the usual stress zones, such as the neck, shoulders, lower back, hips and legs. As Bell demonstrates, two women offer modifications. Props such as blocks, straps, blankets and bolsters are used throughout the video.

Poses such as mountain, locust, warrior II and bridge are easy enough for beginners to try, especially when modified, but also will work for those more experienced. Bell's narration explains in detail how to achieve each pose and stretch, and includes tips for breathing and for keeping the practice mindful.

The good: Zoning in on stress hot spots goes a long way toward unkinking backs, loosening up hip flexors and soothing tight shoulders. Bell encourages viewers to hold many poses for about 30 seconds while focusing attention on breathing and relaxing specific body parts, which can enhance stress relief. Segments have a good flow and work the entire body, including the core.

The bad: The tone of Bell's sonorous voice and his continuous narration get a little monotonous after a while, and if you're not concentrating on correct form and breathing, dozing off during a floor pose is a possibility.

The price: $19.95

For advanced practitioners

"Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals": Mastering poses such as cobra and eagle are essential to a good yoga practice, but for some that's not enough. Pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, can help make the most of poses, encourage concentration, relieve stress and deepen meditation. It's a practice unto itself, hence the need for a book such as this one by Richard Rosen, one of the founders of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland and a contributing editor to Yoga Journal magazine.

As its title suggests, this is not a book for novices (that would be Rosen's previous book, "The Yoga of Breath: A Step-by-Step Guide to Pranayama"). Being versed in basic knowledge of yogic breathing is essential before tackling this guide. Poses and corresponding breathing techniques are described in depth, along with benefits, ways to take them a few steps further and variations. Digital pranayama -- using the fingers to close off the nostrils -- is also covered.

The good: Those looking to take their pranayama practice to the next level will probably enjoy the comprehensive nature of this book, but be forewarned that this is for serious practitioners only. Rosen does an admirable job of outlining, in painstaking detail, each pose and how to achieve it. The accompanying CD is useful when trying to attain a complicated position makes reading difficult.

The bad: The book could have used more illustrations, considering how complex some of these poses and breathing exercises are. Also, readers might need a basic knowledge of anatomy since Rosen occasionally throws out terms such as femur and scapulae.

The price: $21.95

-- Jeannine Stein

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