“True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life. Yoga is not to be performed; yoga is to be lived. Yoga doesn’t care about what you have been; yoga cares about the person you are becoming. Yoga is designed for a vast and profound purpose, and for it to be truly called yoga, its essence must be embodied.” — Aadil Palkhivala
Seventeen years ago I had a conversation with my alternative medical doctor about tangible evidence that would be recognized by the medical community that alternative treatments and preventative measures actually do work. He said, “It is coming. I believe we will see it in our lifetime.” Unfortunately the doctor died unexpectedly a few short months after making that comment. However, I am beginning to see it come to pass. Last year I participated in an “evidence based” Tai Chi class to help prevent falls in seniors. I am reading increasing numbers of controlled medical studies that tend to support the effectiveness of alternative medical treatments and lifestyle practices.
While researching this series I have run across studies that suggest that in addition to the stretching that most people associate with yoga, there may also be heart health benefits to the practice. I am including links to summaries and literature reviews of some of these at the bottom of this post if you want to check these out. What they are finding in a nutshell is that:
- The deep breathing and mental focus of yoga practice can help reduce stress and thereby reducing the accompanying physical effects of stress such as narrowing of arteries and elevated blood pressure.
- Yoga may help lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels, as well as heart rate.
- Yoga may help some people stop smoking which is a major risk factor for heart disease.
- Yoga combines physical activity, breathing, and meditation, which have each been shown to positively affect cardiovascular risk factors.
Yoga however does not count toward the recommended amount of “moderate to vigorous exercise” for heart health. There are studies that are examining this, so we will see where they lead. I do both, practicing yoga as well as walking up and down the hills in my neighborhood.
Yoga is included in the Ornish program to reverse heart disease. It will be interesting to follow as medical science finally “discovers” what yogis have known all along.
Growing up I was always told to “stand up straight.” Like most teenagers I had a tendency to slouch. But as an adult of short stature I stood up straight to get every inch out of my height. Or so I thought.
That is until the first physically obvious benefit of yoga for me appeared. I could tell I was standing straighter and taller. Bob even commented on my posture.
In a world where we spend so much time driving, sitting at a computer, slumped over our cell phones and other devices we need a counterpose to life. Instead of sinking downward and forward we need something that will move us upward and back.
Backbends will help with this, but one often overlooked pose for posture is Tadasana (tah-DAHS-uh-nuh) or Mountain Pose. If you think Mountain Pose is just standing there and a waste of time, think again. It is an active pose that is the foundation of all standing poses. Take the time to learn proper alignment in Mountain Pose and alignment in all other standing poses will be easier. In addition to improving posture, this pose can decrease back pain and help focus and calm the mind.
A good yoga practice has many benefits, including better posture. Mom would be so proud.
Breathing is something we tend to take for granted. But when we stop and realize life begins when breathing begins and life ends when breathing ends we begin to understand the importance of breath.
Breathing is an important part of yoga. In fact it is the fourth limb of yoga Pranayama consists of breathing exercises to control the breath and clear obstacles which free the flow of breath and prana or life energy.
A regular pranayama practice can work on the physical level to use and strengthen the “whole range of our respiratory organs” by breathing into the belly, side ribs and chest. We can also counter the fight or flight response by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system through our breath.
On a physical level pranayama techniques help us use and strengthen the full range of our respiratory organs. We can explore the lower, middle and upper parts of the breath and learn to regulate our inhalation, retention and exhalation of breath.
While our emotions do change our breathing patterns, we can also learn to change our breath patterns to calm or energize ourselves. This can begin with just stopping to be consciously aware of our breath. It can really be a simple as stopping, reminding ourselves to breathe and taking a few deep, conscious breaths to calm down anger, fear or other emotions which may arise in difficult situations.
Breathing is an integral part of our yoga practice as we pair our movements with our breath. We also focus on our breath as a form of mindfulness practice. There are also specific breath practices which have their own benefits. I will only list few here. For more information on pranayama be sure to check our the resources below.
- Complete Belly Breath
- Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) to feel calmer.` `
- Ocean’s Breath (Ujjayi pronounced oo-jai) to soothe and settle the mind.
- Energizing Breath (Bhastrika) for of energy and to invigorate your mind.
This has been just to get you thinking about the importance of breath and breath practice. I have not even begun to scratch the surface of pranayma. For more information please check out the links below.
I put this down a way on the list because flexibility is not the ultimate goal of yoga. However if you practice yoga you will become more flexible — not only physically but mentally and spiritually as well.
When I began to practice again in my 50’s after a very long absence I was horrified by how stiff my body had become. After a couple of attempts at starting a yoga practice again I gave up, feeling depressed, humiliated and like a total failure.
When we moved to the lake I decided I was going to try again, this time at home via the internet. So I cleared out space in the middle of my living room and got out the laptop. Finding classes and teachers I could work with were another matter. I started out trying 1 hour “beginner” yoga classes and went what seemed like backward from there. I just didn’t have the stamina or the flexibility for a full hour class. Classes for “seniors” were generally chair yoga and I didn’t think I was ready for that yet. One day I found a class labeled for the “sick and aged” that moved at a slower pace and included a few basic postures. It lasted for 15 minutes. It took me a few weeks to be able to get through the entire class, but I did. Then I found a few other “complete beginner” classes. I was able to make it through 30 minute classes and then an hour.
When I became bored I started looking for more difficult classes and found Dr. Melissa West who does not teach high pressure yoga at all. She realizes that not all bodies will be able to do all postures. Some of us just aren’t made that way, but we don’t have to stop yoga completely. We can learn variations that will work for our own bodies and do what we can. She also gives teachings to go with the theme she sets for each class.
I don’t think I will ever be able put my foot over my head and grab it with both hands. But I don’t have to. I can now do postures I never dreamed I would be able to do in the beginning. I have also learned to “go with the flow” and not get so upset when things don’t always go my way. I am learning to live with people who are much different than me.
Overall I am much more flexible than when I started. If I had let the lack of flexibility continue to be a stumbling block for me I would have never learned that yoga is not about being a contortionist. It is about being a student.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word which means, “to yoke”, “to join” or “union.” This is why it is so important that we not take the physical poses and practice them alone, out of context as a form of physical exercise.
The balance that comes from the practice of yoga does not happen overnight. It takes time. There are so many things in our lives that can throw us out of balance. A consistent yoga practice based on the 8 limbs of yoga can help us find our way back to our true selves.
The balance that comes from the joining or union of body mind and spirit has been showing up in several ways for me. During the third year of my current practice I have been noticing a lowering of my blood pressure and heart rate, the relaxation of muscles which had always been tense, a great reduction in the “adrenaline overload” that was once my state of being and a very gradual weight loss. I am also calmer and tend to worry less. I have not been practicing yoga specifically for any of these things, but by dedicating myself to a regular practice and taking the teachings to heart my entire system has been moving toward greater balance.
So don’t worry about the perfect tree pose. Do the best your body can and you will find yourself coming into balance in more than just the physical sense.
Most of us could use a little help living in the present moment, couldn’t we? We spend much of our time planning, re-planning, and evaluating what we have done, moving back and forth between the past and the future. We forget that life is now and this is the time to live it. This is why I have chosen mindfulness as my first benefit of yoga.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way. On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” So how does yoga help us do this?
By pairing our body movements with our breath, with our focus on our breath and body sensations arising as we practice, we train ourselves to stay present in the moment. This is not always as easy as it sounds when we are on the mat and our burning thighs, tight hamstrings and the blood rushing to our head as we are in downward facing dog are screaming for our attention. And this is of course the day the teacher decides to do long holds. But these are the perfect times to practice mindfulness, continuing to bring our attention back to the breath whenever it starts to wander.
There are teachers who combine their training in Buddhist mindfulness meditation with yoga with a special focus on mindfulness. This is of course helpful, but you can begin on your own by focusing on the breath as you move through the yoga poses.
Mindfulness is something that is learned. Yoga is one way we can learn it. So next time you go to the yoga mat leave the busyness of your day and the to-do list for later behind. Breathe. Move with breath. Focus on the breath and any body sensations that arise. It can take time for mindfulness to become a natural part of life, but start on the yoga mat and you are on your way.