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Four Best Places to Get Your Asana in Shape 

Type-A Westerners now flock to the age-old tradition of yoga, which means "union" in Sanskrit. For better or worse, the 5,000-year-old system is currently in vogue with on-the-go multitaskers looking to de-stress, get in shape, and flirt with nirvana. A practice that provides guidelines on how to live a meaningful life, yoga touches on ethical conduct, meditation, nutrition, and sexual practice. But not surprisingly, Americans are most interested in its physical benefits. A low-maintenance workout that requires little more than a mat, patience, and an open mind, yoga has been touted as a cure-all that promises everything from increased flexibility to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. There are almost as many shalas (studios) as there are styles of yoga in the Bay Area; we've chosen four of the best.

Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco

2404 27th Ave. (at Taraval), 753-0909,

Developed by legendary guru B.K.S. Iyengar, this yoga style concentrates on the precise physical alignment of the body. Various props -- blocks, blankets, straps, and walls -- are used to help ease less flexible students into some of the more challenging positions. A more introspective practice that requires practitioners to move deeper into asanas (poses) for longer periods of time, Iyengar is one of the best forms for beginners. The oldest training center in the country, the Iyengar Yoga Institute offers at least 40 classes a week in all levels and a renowned two-year teacher training program. Weekend seminars address mind and body, with Sanskrit classes and anatomy-based courses.

Funky Door Yoga

1334 Polk (at Bush), 673-8659; and 1749 Waller (at Stanyan), 668-2227;

Bikram yoga, also known as "hot" yoga, is a series of 26 asanas, repeated twice, performed in a room heated to more than 100 degrees. The increased heat purportedly helps muscles stretch and warm up and encourages the body to release toxins. Bikram Choudhury created the vigorous practice, which is designed to stretch muscles and joints in a specific order. Bikram is an intense workout and not for everyone, particularly the germ-phobic. Studio floors may become covered with sweat, so be sure to drink plenty of water and bring your own towel and mat. Hip, lively centers decorated with colorful illustrations, these studios attract younger crowds fond of the flexible class schedules, introductory specials ($10 for 10 days), and open membership (one fee grants access to all locations). The rooms are large, open, and airy -- a must for the extreme heat.

Seventh Heaven Yoga Center

2820 Seventh St. (at Grayson), Berkeley,

(510) 665-4300,

Ashtanga is yoga's most physically challenging form -- and its most fashionable -- attracting such high-profile celebrities as Madonna, Sting, and Gwyneth Paltrow. A fixed series of strenuous asanas linked by breath and movement, ashtanga begins with two variations of the sun salutation followed by a series of standing, sitting, and finishing postures. Developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, ashtanga's gravity-defying poses require an iron will -- most classes are just shy of two hours -- and iron muscles. While Seventh Heaven teaches classes in many styles of yoga, its four-week introduction to ashtanga covers the essentials, including ujaayi breathing techniques and the use of bandhas (energy locks).

Integral Yoga Institute

770 Dolores (at 17th Street), 821-1117,

Integral yoga is spiritual in nature. A holistic approach to the practice, it promotes a lifestyle that extends beyond the time spent in class. Practice begins with a short chant, followed by asanas, deep relaxation, breathing practices, and meditation. Founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda in 1970, the ashram (institute) is a spiritual -- not a fitness -- center. Ideal for those interested in studying yoga in all of its branches, Integral offers noncompetitive classes with none of the attitude you'll find at trendier spots. A residency program and a variety of services, including puja (worship services), cooking classes, and stress-management workshops, make this studio a local institution.


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