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Captain finds fitness, less stress with yoga

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFPN) -- Breathing instructions are repeated in minute-long counts while people hold an asana, or posture, that resembles a row boat. Piano music plays while the noon sun bounces around the room’s mirrors, making the atmosphere almost heavenly during the class.

This is all part of Capt. William Uhl’s less-stress plan during his yoga class in the fitness center here.

“Yoga is a great stress reducer,” he said. “You can either use it for flexibility, strength or relaxation, and you can also use it in conjunction with practically any other exercise program that you do.”

Captain Uhl has been stationed here since October 2002 as an analyst for the Space and Missile Systems Center’s intelligence directorate, and is currently working with the military satellite communication team.

He has been practicing yoga for four years and is certified to teach yoga, Pilates and Power Stretch, which combines yoga and Pilates. He mixes techniques for students to get a full workout but emphasizes they should not overextend themselves and must practice safety first, particularly if they have stressed muscles in the past.

“There are certain poses I’d tell you not to do,” the captain said. “You should get a good workout, but not put yourself in jeopardy.

“Oftentimes, people will want to do every pose that I teach, but discover that something feels uncomfortable or downright painful. One benefit of yoga is that there are modifications or alternatives for every pose,” he said. “For example, many people complain about feeling lower back pain while doing a seated forward bend. I can modify that bend by having them sit on a fitness ball, or perform a standing forward bend instead. They’ll still stretch their hamstrings, but they won’t put as much stress on their lower back.

“I never put people in poses they’re not ready for. One thing I’ve learned through reading and attending fitness conferences is that the way everybody is built is different. As a teacher I have to respect that,” said Captain Uhl.

Exercise experts cite that the differences between yoga and Pilates are the postures and breathing.

“Pilates is much more focused on precise movements that strengthen the abdominal and lower-back muscles,” he said.

His critical goal for students in this class is to increase what he terms “functional strength,” meaning: Can a person go about his or her daily business of bending, twisting, walking, sitting, lying down, or driving a car and at the end of the day still feel good?

“If you work out intelligently and listen to your body you should feel pretty good, because you haven’t overdone it,” he said. “In yoga and Pilates especially, you’re not moving too sharp, nor too fast.”

Chris Lincoln has been Captain Uhl’s student for a year and believes the work is paying off for her.

“I think it’s a wonderful class. I think it’s a great way to get exercise. I’m much stronger and more physically fit,” said Ms. Lincoln, who works in the aerospace corporation library and information resources center.

“Even the balance poses, which were really difficult about four months ago, I can do them much more easily,” she said. “It’s easier on the body than high-impact aerobics.”

At the beginning of the workout, a deep-breathing warm up is done to slow down the heart rate, which Captain Uhl said helps the mind center.

“Right from the beginning we want to focus on the breath. Breathing is important because students focus on getting oxygen into the body so the body can function at maximum levels,” he said. “At the same time the lungs and diaphragm are working like a balloon.”

“Then from there I warm up the neck and shoulders. Usually I’ll start on the floor with strengthening poses, and some twisting poses that help loosen up the spine.

“You can even do yoga after a workout. That will help the muscles stay nice and stretched so you won’t have muscle spasms or aches,” he said.

While deployed at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq for a few months earlier this year, he instructed a class that combined the methods he was trained in.

“My program was yoga and Pilates mixed. I called it Combat Yoga,” he said.

Once his participants had attended a class or two, he would infuse Pilates into the workout. Captain Uhl said people discovered they were working a few inches off and found it a more challenging workout than just yoga by itself.

“A lot of people didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “They thought you’d have to be able to twist like a pretzel to begin with. Over the course of three months of teaching I had about 150 people in the class.

“Some poses were easy from the very beginning, and others were very challenging, in particular the balance poses. (Within) a couple of weeks, I watched as most of my students went from struggling with various poses to performing them with grace and beauty. Witnessing that transformation is one of the greatest benefits of teaching,” said Captain Uhl. ”

Yoga’s roots have been documented from as early as the 4th millennium B.C. One of the exercise’s basic philosophies is to awaken the union of breath, body and mind.

“My overall well-being is the best it’s ever been, even though I’ve always been in shape,” he said. “I believe that yoga has maintained my health. Yoga is something I can do for the rest of my life.”