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In the Heat of the Stretch
Why Yoga Is Easier in the Summer
By Lauren Murphy   Fox News
NEW YORK — It is the first biting-cold day of winter, and I am stiff as a board as I arrive in yoga class for the first time in two weeks.

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William Tolan/Fox News
Downward-Facing Dog is an inverted pose

I fold forward from my waist in a Sun Salutation, feel the tug on my hamstrings and wonder if I'll ever be flexible again.

Jump ahead to June. I am a rubber band. When my teacher says "Allow the body to soften and open" as we stretch, I can. It's not that I've been coming to class more often, either — I've been just as erratic as I was in January.

But it's hot outside. And with yoga, it's easier to get hot inside when it's hot outside.

"It's a good summer activity because the way yoga really works is by creating internal heat. When there's external heat, it makes the process that much quicker and easier," explains Emily Barton, a teacher at Yoga Zone, a Manhattan yoga center.

"Although yoga includes physical stretches, they are largely employed to help you discipline and stretch the mind," Emily says. "But it is a really good workout."

Indeed. Especially in the summer, yoga makes me drip with sweat and leaves my muscles slightly tender — sometimes quite sore when I've pushed too hard.

Stretching the Mind and Muscles

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William Tolan/Fox News
The author in Full Lunge, assisted by Emily

Many people may picture a yoga class as a place where people sit in strange postures and chant in Sanskrit. But we are constantly in motion, moving through a series of poses, or asanas, coordinating our breathing with the moves.

In those gulps of air lies the key to this unique form of exercise.

Here is how we move with the breath: On all fours in cat pose, arching our backs, we inhale. Exhaling, we round our backs upward in a horseshoe shape. We inhale back to an arch and exhale as we move into a posture called Downward Facing Dog, digging our feet and palms of our hands into the ground and pushing our hips toward the sky. We hold that pose and breathe.

The coordination of breath with movement warms me up. My heart rate rises but I don't get winded. It's a feeling of simultaneous tensing and relaxing.

This is a delicate achievement to master: both firmly holding the pose and gently letting go of tension.

I find it easier to stretch my body as I exhale. "[Breathing] helps to oxygenate blood and improves flexibility and tone in muscles," Emily says.

The Yoga Bod

Madonna, that Material Girl-cum-yogi, cites yoga as the reason she has such a beautiful physique at 40.

It depends on how often you practice and what kind of yoga you do, but yoga can do a body good. Here are some different styles of yoga.

"If you are overweight, yoga helps to stimulate metabolism and tone the muscles," Emily says thoughtfully, when I ask if yoga is a way to slim down. "So with proper diet, it can help you lose weight."

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William Tolan/Fox News
In Upward Facing Dog, it helps to get a little shoulder adjustment from the instructor

It certainly helps tone the body. I haven't touched a weight in years, and my arms are more defined. More than anything else, the four years of yoga has me feeling calmer and standing taller.

Heat: A Double-Edged Blessing

During the warmer weather, it's important to keep in mind that the heat not only makes it easier to move your body, but can also make your brain think it's OK to push a little harder than usual — and moving too far into poses can hurt you.

"Because muscles and ligaments are more pliable," Emily tells me, "you can injure yourself by moving past the point where it feels good." Common injuries involve the hamstrings, the groin and, if you twist your upper body too much, the shoulders.

Emily suggests being disciplined about your schedule and, of course, to keep breathing. When you are in tough positions, "Isolate those places in your body that are your most difficult spots, sending breath there and gently opening them up," she suggests.

Year-Round Discipline

You're not going to get far in your dead-of-winter practice, my instructor told the class on that bitter-cold day in January. The most you can do in the cold is maintain whatever flexibility you've gained during the warmer months.

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William Tolan/Fox News
Shoulder Stand, one of the inverted poses

The goal is to practice regularly and keep the muscles stretched so you don't slide backward. "When summer comes" — and here his face broke into a smile — "that's when you'll really make be able to go further in your practice."

Injuries as Teachers

In one recent class, I was sweaty and frustrated by a pose that requires the back to twist like a corkscrew when Emily spoke.

"There are some of us who by nature want to go too far and try too hard, and there are those of us who are more timid and always do less than we're capable of doing. Before anything else, it's best to determine which of those categories you fall into and work from there."

Yes, it is becoming more mainstream. But yoga is still radically different from the run-til-you-pant, lift-til-you're-ripped activities that still dominate the field of fitness.

"Yoga teaches self-awareness," Emily says. "And injury can cause self-awareness because it shows you where you were being militant or overeager with your body."