Image: Artsy yoga class
Jim McKnight / AP
Lesley Tillotson, foreground, and other students relax at the end of a yoga session led by Rachael Nickel at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Museum in Utica.
updated 3/29/2006 7:22:45 PM ET 2006-03-30T00:22:45

It may seem like an ordinary art lecture for the visitors viewing a watercolor titled "Moon and Cumulus Cloud." But the listeners are sitting on exercise mats and wearing sweats.

It's a yoga art session, an effort to soothe the soul and tone the body in the inspirational setting of an art museum. After the art lesson on how the painter captured the effect of nocturnal light on the landscape, the visitors will get an hourlong yoga session.

"Yoga is really more than fitness," instructor Rachael Nickel explains before one of six Saturday morning classes at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. "It's a tradition that's over 5,000 years old, and it's really a spiritual tradition. So it's really a wonderful blending of art and movement."

As yoga holds strong as a popular form of exercise and relaxation, specialty classes are everywhere. More than 12 million Americans participated in yoga in 2004, up from 11 million in 2002, according to the most recent surveys by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Add artsy yoga to the ranks of power yoga, baby yoga, kickboxing yoga, chair yoga, punk rock yoga and plus-size yoga.

Anamaria Ross, an anthropology professor at Utica College in this central New York city, said she first took a yoga class for pregnant women three years ago and didn't hesitate when she heard what the art museum was offering.

"It sounded like a dream," Ross said. "There's a chance to come here regularly and hear someone talk about the art and do yoga again."

Galleries are places for quiet contemplation, making yoga the perfect companion for maintaining old members and attracting new ones, said Amy Hofland, director of the Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art in downtown Dallas. Her museum has been holding yoga classes for three years.

"We realized our niche as an oasis for calm, meditation and relaxation, so yoga seemed to be the perfect manifestation of that environment," said Hofland.

Some classes take place among the sculptures in the Indian art gallery, connecting participants with the history of yoga.

"For many people, it's a way to end a stressful workday," Hofland said. "They'll shed their suits and start the class."

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The Crow Collection also holds summer camps with yoga instruction for kids.

Ralph La Forge, a physiologist at Duke University Medical Center, said the value of a "mindful" yoga class like one in an art museum is how it enhances the ability to focus on relaxing, breathing and meditating. That helps reduce stress and improve body control.

"I would think you'd get more bang for your buck," La Forge said.

At the Utica museum, program coordinator Barb Kane organized the yoga class and also decided to participate as a way to reconnect emotionally with the artwork she's so accustomed to seeing. Nickel, the yoga instructor, uses similar exercises each week but alters the meditations to go with a theme.

The first week, for example, was about the museum's most famous work, "The Voyage of Life" by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. The four large canvases symbolically compare the changing landscapes along a river to the stages of life: childhood, youth, manhood and old age. It's prime material to dwell on during yoga poses.

"An artist goes into that ... meditative, contemplative space and manifests ideas or visions," Nickel said. "Yoga means to yoke, or to unite. So we're going inside that infinite part of ourselves and kind of getting in touch with that and just being in this space where someone has done that."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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