Yoga may be gaining adherents, but it hasn't shed some of its '60s baggage. You know the popular themes: it's flaky, nothing much happens, instructors are about as trustworthy as an Auto Mile salesman. Alice Christensen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Yoga Association, has heard all of these snide comments and more in her 47 years of teaching. Author of a forthcoming book assessing the integrity of modern yoga practices ("Yoga of the Heart," due out from Rodale Press in Spring '98), Christensen encourages her students to be skeptical. "Too many people," she says unflinchingly, "get burned because they don't do their homework."
Since there is no nationally recognized standard for certification of yoga teachers, Christensen suggests that you take in a class. Here's what to look for:
Find out if the teacher studies regularly with a master instructor.
With yoga, you never stop learning — teachers who say they've completed their study are suspect.
Is breathing technique emphasized?
If it isn't, you'll get limber but you won't get the more subtle benefits that come with meditation.
Does the instructor have a strong working knowledge of major muscle groups and body systems?
If not, prepare to see a doctor — you'll probably get injured.
Are questions of safety addressed with each posture, especially the weight-bearing standing asanas (postures)?
Don't ever hold a stretch if you feel pain in a joint. Conversely, it's probably okay if the discomfort is in the "belly of the muscle."
Yoga works by simultaneously stretching and contracting opposing muscles, then reversing the process.
In well-designed sequences, postures should be followed by counterpostures so that opposing muscle groups (quads and hamstrings, for example) become equally flexible.
Coordinates: The American Yoga Association publishes free guidelines on how to find a yoga teacher, 941-953-5859.
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.