"If it hurts, then it's not yoga," says Laura Bender, as she cheerfully arranges exercise mats on the floor and reminds her students to be honest in their day's yoga practice.

No pushing, no overachieving, she reminds. Especially on this day, when the Law of Least Effort is the meditation of the hour.

"My actions achieve maximal benefit with minimal effort," is the mantra of this law, which is one of seven spiritual laws of yoga developed by Deepak Chopra, a renowned physician who has championed the field of mind-body healing.

The class laughs - and then sighs in agreement.

It's Wednesday evening at Bender's fitness studio in downtown Missoula. The weight machines are silent and so, too, are the cardio machines.

Meditative music fills the air with soothing chimes and easy rhythms as her Chopra-inspired students trickle in after the work day.

A judge, an office manager, a retiree and a marketing professional are just a few of the women who have come to class, hungry for purposeful exercise that quiets the mind, strengthens the body and nourishes the spirit.

Not all - but most - are women of a certain age.

"This is the first yoga that has worked for me," Maria Davis explains. "I've done lots of yoga in the past, but for me, this is really calming and I feel really good while I'm doing it and after I've done it."

***

Yoga in general is an excellent path to physical and mental health, Bender says, and it only makes sense that it is gaining in popularity.

With 30 years in the personal fitness industry, Bender says she's seen the exercise fads come and go - like the Jane Fonda obsession, step aerobics, and the lycra thongs of the 1980s and 1990s.

But yoga has continued to quietly spread among the masses, enduring as it has for 5,000-some years because it is more than fitness.

"Yoga helps people deal with stress, and this yoga based on Deepak Chopra is truly meditative and focuses on nourishing the body, mind and spirit," she says. "Every day there is a different spiritual law - a principle."

Bender is one of two instructors in Montana who is a Chopra Center-certified yoga instructor, which is a practice based on Chopra's seven spiritual laws of yoga.

The laws cover a spectrum of enlightened human behavior, such as Sunday's law of pure potentiality, which inspires the practice of non-judgement, and Friday's law of detachment, which encourages one to embrace uncertainty and all possibilities.

***

Like her students, Bender has found yoga to be an inspirational teacher.

"It teaches you about being present in the moment," Bender explains. "We all have stressful lives, and while you can't take stress away, this helps to walk calmly into the eye of chaos."

Yoga, she finds, is particularly appealing to people over the age of 40. There's a host of reasons for the attraction, Bender says, but often, the middle-age set, particularly the yoga boomers, share a common thread.

"I'm finding people in this age group don't want to work on the outside of their body any more - they want a more holistic experience," Bender says. "The majority of my clients recognize health and wellness, that feeling good and looking good is an inside job.

"They want to live well and recognize the mind is what moves the body," she says. "A lot of people who are really fit still have a lot of chaos in their head, even those who run marathons. But here we are taking the physical practice of yoga and infusing the seven laws; what a beautiful way to live and be in the world."

***

As Bender moves her class through the various yoga movements, encouraging and inspiring, her clients breathe deeply, often keeping their eyes closed.

Although there are mirrors, this is not a class for the vain to preen or the competitive to push the energy of the class to a frenetic edge, as is sometimes the case in group workouts.

This is about ending the work day and letting go of those obligations and constraints. It's about transitioning back to one's complete self and taking the time to honor that life.

After a long respite away from yoga, Penny Orwick says she's recommitting herself to the practice.

"I just feel better when I do it," the 53-year-old says. "I truly believe that the older you get, the more you do, the more you do.

"This helps me do that."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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