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   from the issue of October 18, 2007

Swanson discovers new strength in yoga experience


Weight lifting has forever shaped Todd Swanson's life, but yoga has helped him straighten it out.


Working on free weight squats 18 years ago, Swanson - group leader with the Analytical Methods Laboratory and research assistant professor in chemical engineering - lifted the bar, but failed to concentrate on proper form.

"The motion was not as smooth as it should have been," Swanson said. "It had this nice little effect of hammering my vertebrae all the way down to the bottom."

He initially thought the pain was a pulled muscle. However, when Swanson started to lose feeling in his right leg, he went to a specialist.

The diagnosis - a stress fracture in the fifth lumbar vertebra, the one that rests atop the pelvic girdle.

"It's one of those injuries that stays with you for your entire life," Swanson said. "You risk aggravating it with any movement."

Rehabilitation helped, but Swanson still suffered through major pain two or three times a year, missing spans of work each time. He lived with the injury until discovering a fix on a yoga mat four years ago.

"I talked to a neighbor who was into yoga and became interested in it," Swanson said. "I thought it sounded like a good way to strengthen my back, like something I really should give a try."

A Campus Recreation member, Swanson attended a free yoga class at the beginning of the winter 2005 semester. The session did not result in back pain and Swanson was intrigued by a new challenge.

"There was this simple, standard pose where you sit on your heels and you try to get the top of your feet flat on the floor," Swanson said. "It was so difficult that I thought I was going to scream. I had no idea that I had become so inflexible."

Attending yoga classes on a regular basis - practicing at home and planning on three sessions each week if his work schedule allows - Swanson has moved on to yoga poses that would have been impossible four years ago.

"There are times when you are doing yoga on a daily basis and you think nothing is changing," Swanson said. "Then, there will be a point where I'll be sitting in a pose and think, 'Wait a minute, I can't do this.'"

The workouts have benefited Swanson by increasing flexibility, decreasing clumsiness and strengthening his "core" - the abdominal and back muscles. And (knock on wood), Swanson has missed work due to back pain only a few times since he started yoga.

"I'm much more flexible and stronger than I was before," Swanson said. "I have a 16-month-old son at home and if I didn't start doing yoga, I think picking him up would have been really risky business."

The yoga discipline, which includes meditative qualities and specialized breathing techniques - also help Swanson better handle job-related stress.

"I'm not a historian, but the point of yoga initially was to use all these poses to try to focus your mind," Swanson said. "Yoga is designed to help keep you in the present moment. And, a lot of it is breathing, which can help you work out stress."

Swanson uses the workouts to divide his day.

"The class I'm in is in the middle of the day," Swanson said. "I come back to the office and I'm refreshed and ready to go again."

He has some hope of teaching a yoga course in the future, dubbing it, "yoga for the terminally inflexible."

"That's where I was when I started," Swanson said. "If yoga can help someone like me then it can help anyone. Yoga can take you to places you never imagined possible."



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