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Yoga aids both physical and spiritual growth

It's 6 a.m. Monday, and a dozen yogis in stretchy pants pile into a dimly-lit room, set their mats down on the cold floor and strip their feet of socks and shoes. Jenny Liddiard, a petite, blonde yoga instructor, softly asks the students to stand and begin to control their breathing. Though it's early in the morning, yogis continue to trickle into the increasingly stuffy room until mats cover the floor.

As yoga classes become more crowded, studios are emerging by the handful and classes are multiplying in energetic gym environments. Practicing yoga has always been physically demanding, but mainstream fitness has taken yoga by the reins and evolved it into a challenging complement to an exercise routine.

However, yogis and yoga instructors hope the hour-long routines translate to life-long improvement outside of the fitness realm.

In 2008, "Yoga in America" reported that more than 15.8 million Americans practice yoga regularly and 18.3 million are interested in the ancient routine. Nearly every gym offers yoga classes and dozens of yoga studios are sprinkled throughout Utah; yoga is a fitness option for any schedule.

"In the last couple years, my class numbers have quadrupled, with more than 50 people coming to my classes," said Liddiard, a yoga instructor at Sweaty Chix Fitness and BYU. "There are so many exercise fads cropping up out there, but the really cool thing about yoga is it's classic and it's been around a long time. It's on the rise, but I don't think it will become a fad."

Peaceful, serene yoga practice seems to be a remedy for a fast-paced society ruled by the ticking of a clock. As American culture continues to thrive in a competitive, dog-eat-dog atmosphere, poses like downward-dog are becoming essential not only for better flexibility and breathing, but for improved mental health, as well.

"I love being flexible and being able to just relax," said Alison Jones, a Provo resident who has practiced yoga for more than three years. "I know that movement of the body is really important, not only for flexibility but for everything in life, like education and your general attitude during the day."

While most beginners step on to the yoga mat wanting to establish a sense of balance through the different movements, few consider the spiritual benefits it may have.

Precursing the organization of Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, yoga has been an active practice among many cultures for thousands of years. However, oftentimes misconceptions circulate around yoga, labeling it as a practice of religion rather than a regime to enhance spirituality.

"People hesitate to practice yoga because they think it's a religion, and that can bring up all sorts of prejudices," said Syl Carson, founder of Bodhi Yoga in Provo. "Yoga, the word itself, means to yoke. If I'm feeling a sense of spirituality as I clean my house, that’s yoga. … Yoga is not a religion, but it has spiritual aspects to it."

Many people are drawn to yoga for its calming and healing effects for various mental and physical problems, but the healing comes from a deeper source that seeps into every aspect of a yogi's life.

"The side effects you get along the way are the reasons most people get involved with yoga," said Sri Hanuman Das, a yoga instructor at the Hare Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork with more than 38 years of experience. "Maybe they have health issues or use yoga for rehabilitation, or just want to have more peace in their lives. These are all just side effects of the medicine."

While yoga has evolved into a mainstream fitness routine, traditional yogis are impressed by its rapid popularity spurt within the last few decades. Many yogis may not necessarily practice with the intent to increase the spiritual connection between themselves and their superior being, but the spiritual connection is inevitable.

"The deeper meaning behind (yoga) is to reconnect with our source," said Das. "Regardless of what religion you practice, anyone who worships a supreme God can tie into this philosophy and use yoga as a way to help reconnect with God."

Whether or not yogis intend to reconnect with their God, there's something about the breathing and moving that makes reconnecting with oneself inescapable.

As Liddiard continues to teach her 6 a.m. class and practice yoga on her own time, she is constantly learning about herself and hopes to teach her students to do the same.

"I've learned physically how to listen to my own body," Liddiard said. "(Yoga) is quiet and I can search within my own mind and thoughts and totally get away from being negative and self-judging. It's teaching me to, 'Who cares!' and to be happy with who I am right now."

Caitlin Orton is a student at Brigham Young University studying journalism.