NEW YORK — Lisa Donofrio says she's found the perfect way to balance her mind and body in her high-stress job.
Each day, the delicate blonde rolls out a rubber mat, engages what's called her "ujjayi breath," and slips into a "down dog." For the next hour, sometimes two, she focuses on her breathing and aligning her body in a series of often contorted-looking positions named after a variety of animals from cat to cow to crow.
She says her yoga practice, which she began two years ago, produces a powerful sense of contentment.
"To me, there's no mystery as to why people keep doing it once they've tried it," says Dr. Donofrio, a physician on the clinical faculty at Yale.
In the past five years, yoga has blossomed from a new-age pastime to an all-American power fad. More than 18 million people from Hollywood starlets to corporate titans, from suburban mothers to steelworkers, now practice the 5,000-year-old art, according to recent surveys. It's estimated that more than a million more start each year.
Theories abound for why there's been this sudden burst of interest. They range from a glut of baby boomers looking for alternatives to jogging and bench-pressing, to a need to ground oneself in an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world, to a sense of saturation with the money-oriented culture of the 1990s.
"People [say] they can actually experience a greater sense of well-being and health while being reminded of the goodness of spirit that pervades all people," says John Friend, a longtime teacher and developer of the Anasara yoga technique from Houston.
Centered first in San Francisco in the 1960s with a few thousand hippie-practitioners, yoga spread first to New York and Los Angeles and now across the country's heartland.
It's taught in gyms in suburban malls and private studios in Beverly Hills and on New York's Upper East Side. Major corporations like Nike, Citibank, and IBM provide on-site yoga classes to employees.
Several airlines now offer "how-to" guides for people to practice in their seats during flights. You can even take live yoga classes on the Internet.
Even some school districts have begun yoga instruction. But in a few cases, parents have objected, concerned that its spiritual orientation could conflict with a separation of church and state.
Despite those objections, it continues to spread. "It's become very chic, very in vogue. You can run around in cute little yoga togs and look really groovy," says Dayna Macy of Yoga Journal, the country's most widely read yoga magazine. "But the practice has been around for 5,000 years for a reason: It's an endlessly interesting and endlessly deep discipline, depending on what you want to get out of it."
If your goal is tighter ab muscles, you can do boat poses, which consist of balancing on your sit bones with your legs and torso in the air, making a "V shape." If you're looking for a happier, more "enlightened life," yoga can provide that too, claims Ms. Macy. It's that dual nature a kind of "two, two mints in one" that she believes is another reason yoga has become so prevalent.
Yoga Journal's circulation is a testament to this prevalence. In 1990, the magazine had 50,000 readers. In 1998, it was up to 90,000.
Since then, the magazine's circulation has tripled to more than 300,000 regular subscribers. If you include newsstand sales, it's up to almost half a million readers.
As it's grown in popularity, it's become demystified and more mainstream. For example, Nixa De Bellis started practicing yoga 17 years ago in church basements and school classrooms where they had push the furniture into a corner to make room for their mats. There was lots of chanting and incense. Now she teaches in an upscale Upper East Side yoga studio and in private corporate conference rooms.
"It's much more accessible now," she says. "What scared people earlier was the chanting that tended to turn people off. People used to mock it. But perhaps they're also yearning for something more spiritual, because there are things in our world that make them want to go in that direction."
Then there's Tom Salshutz, who owns a steel wholesaling company. Five years ago, he had no intention of looking for a more "spiritual" way of life. He was a runner and weight lifter, and friends say he looked like an action-figure hero. But his back was bothering him.
On a lark he went to a yoga class with his girlfriend. Although he immediately took to it, he never quite felt comfortable in the incense-laced lofts where most yoga was taught in downtown New York. So two years ago, he and a partner decided to open their own studio uptown.
"When we opened New York Yoga, we wanted it to be a much more mainstream experience," he says. "We wanted to have a place that was very clean and inviting to people, so they could just walk in off the street and come in and feel comfortable."
It's been so successful that they're opening another studio a few blocks away in December.
Whatever the cause of the recent burst of interest in yoga, Lisa Donofrio believes it will continue to grow.
"Once you start to really get it, it becomes like your whole life," she says. "From that one hour of practice you start to bring those principles of being mindful and kind and feeling oneness into the other 23 hours of your day."