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Yoga: Get the ‘ahhh’ without the ‘uh-oh’

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You don’t have to be Gumby-flexible or Olive Oyl-skinny to savor the deep-down benefits of yoga. Almost anyone, in any shape and at any age, can do this 5,000-year-old fitness art — and impress your doctor with the results. We YOU Docs routinely bust a few simple poses ourselves to stay slim and stress-free. Like us, you can do it without “twistin’ like a pretzel” (a ’60s Elvis line from ole swivel-hips!). Just take advantage of two hot new yoga trends.

First, more and more serious science is backing up something that anyone who’s done a Sun Salutation has felt intuitively: Yoga packs impressive mind and body perks. It can ease everything from chronic pain and stiff knees to low moods and poor sleep. Second, an avalanche of new classes, DVDs and books are adapting this limb-stretching, brain-stimulating practice to suit every body — the overweight, inflexible, arthritic and downright klutzy, as well as those coping with medical conditions, from high blood pressure and osteoporosis to cancer.

As one publication put it, yoga is now an “equal opportunity pleasure.” If there isn’t a perfect-for-you yoga class in your neighborhood (yet), jump online. “Big Yoga,” “HeavyWeight Yoga” and “Yoga for the Rest of Us” — there are stacks of show-me DVDs and how-to books that can help you do yoga your way, without feeling frustrated or pushing yourself into strain-and-sprain territory. (Try the simple yoga workout in our book “YOU: Being Beautiful” and the follow-along yoga videos at www.realage.com.)

We bet you’ll want to kick off your shoes and curl up for a delicious Cat Stretch when you hear about this ancient exercise’s 21st-century health perks. They’re one reason yoga is gaining wide acceptance in mainstream medicine.

Some new benefits just turned up by researchers across the country:

Better sleep despite joint pain. Osteoarthritis keeping you up nights? A gentle, 20-minute yoga routine can help you drop off faster, sleep more deeply and spend less time tossing and turning.

Fibromyalgia relief. If you’re struggling with this ache-all-over condition, sign up for beginner yoga classes. Eight weeks of gentle poses and breathing exercises can reduce pain by 24 percent, fatigue by 30 percent and depression by 42 percent.

Find your balance after a stroke. Specially adapted yoga poses using chairs and other props can help improve people’s balance after a stroke by up to 34 percent — protecting them from painful and even life-threatening falls in the future, say Indiana scientists.

Hope and comfort during cancer treatment. Breast cancer patients who take weekly classes in “restorative” yoga (think deeply relaxing poses) feel more peaceful, less depressed and not so tired.

Happier moods. Yoga may be even better than walking for lifting low moods, because it boosts levels of a natural anxiety-easing brain chemical called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

Especially if you’re dealing with a challenging health condition, your body deserves a taste of yoga’s special feel-good vibe — a result of its ability to boost blood levels of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, three natural feel-good brain chemicals. Just do a little homework before your first session. For instance, talk with your doctor if you’ve got a chronic condition like heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, glaucoma or arthritis, and get any advice in writing so you don’t forget it and can pass it on to your instructor. You should avoid some poses, such as standing forward bends, if you’ve got severe heart problems or glaucoma. Same goes for certain twists and toe-touches if your bones are brittle; kneeling poses may be hard on stiff or achy knees; ask for modifications.

Then look for a gentle approach. Words like “restorative,” “gentle,” “beginner’s” and “Hatha” are all tip-offs that things will move slowly and use simple moves (no head stands or pretzel twists!). If you prefer a class to a DVD or book, to find a qualified teacher, try using the locater service offered at www.yogaalliance.org by the Yoga Alliance, the national certifying group for yoga teachers around the world. If you have special health needs, call ahead and explain your limits before class starts.

When you start, aim for comfort, not strain. Go slow, ask questions, listen to your body and stop immediately if you feel pain. (Don’t be one of the more than 5,000 yoga injuries that end up in emergency rooms each year.) Don’t hesitate to use any props you need: a chair, bolsters, balance blocks, blankets. A little help is a good thing, in yoga and in life.

The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, are authors of “YOU: On a Diet.” Want more? See “The Dr. Oz Show” on TV. To submit questions, go to www.RealAge.com.

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