Yoga can be offered in a variety of different environments- a studio, fitness center, business, local park, and even on water (to name a few). The practice of yoga is gaining in popularity each year and there is a plethora of people of all ages exploring the benefits of this ancient tradition.
I have been a student of yoga for over 20 years under the guidance of Gary Kraftsow and the American Viniyoga Institute as well as a therapeutic yoga teacher for close to 15 years. Yoga is important not only as a physical practice, but as an internal practice that improves self awareness, attention, and perception.
Yoga as a physical practice: First, what most people are doing when they take a yoga class is a variety of postures ranging from a therapeutic, adaptive approach to a rigorous, flowing practice. These postures are called asanas (ah-suh-nahs) and have multiple benefits. When practiced several times a week (if not daily), asanas help to develop flexibility, strength, balance, coordination, improve posture and generally tone your physical structure. According to tradition, there are two qualities to cultivate in each posture: stability and ease. You can think of asanas as dental floss or spinal floss designed to create circulation in the tissues, which helps to release toxins or impurities. From a viniyoga perspective, asanas are a vehicle to improve function and not necessarily about the form of the posture. What’s important is to receive benefit from the posture over achieving the perfect form. Often, that requires adaptation of the posture to meet the practitioner’s structure and condition. It is important to work with a well-trained teacher that understands the intention and function of the pose and how to adapt it based on the student’s needs.
Yoga as stress reduction: Most of us are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, causing our autonomic nervous systems (A.N.S.) to move into what Dr. Libby Weaver calls the “RED Zone” of stress (www.drlibby.com). This refers to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system in which our bodies move into fight, flight, or freeze and pump out cortisol and adrenaline. This serves a purpose when we need to move appropriately based on an actual threat to our safety, but long term Red Zone stress impairs our immune functioning. One goal of yoga is to bring us into the “Green Zone”, which is the recovery from the effects of stress. This is also known as the “Rest, Digest, and Heal” state when our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. From this place, we can begin to optimize our health and wellness. Consistent yoga practice can teach us to relax and handle our stress more effectively. The key to balancing the nervous system lies in consciously deepening the breath.
Yoga: the importance of breath: The ancients understood the role of the breath in balancing a nervous system response. Linking your breath to movement, not only provides an internal benefit to our physiology, but deeply increases attention. For example, if you are looking around in a yoga class noticing others, what they are wearing, etc., we have more of an external awareness than awareness of ourselves. We’ve all been there. The moment you take a conscious breath and link the breath to movement, you must pay attention. According to Deepak Chopra, MD, the deep breathing of yoga not only signals the nervous system to relax, but can also improve the function of the gut health and thus immunity. Don’t get discouraged if when you begin a yoga practice, you are not able to integrate the breath with the movement. This is normal. Over time, you will be able to develop respiratory fitness and integrated movement. There are many techniques in yoga involving breath, but in general deep diaphragmatic breathing or “belly breathing” will activate our vagus nerve and help down regulate the Red Zone response.
Yoga as a meditative practice: This surprises many people as they often think of yoga as being separate from meditation. On the contrary, yoga is all about attention. According to the ancient text, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the definition of yoga is sustained attention in a chosen direction. A state of yoga is when we can direct the mind completely where we want it to go, setting our “inner GPS”. Meditation has multiple health benefits including boosting immune function, but research has shown that over time, meditation can even change the structure of the brain. There are a variety of techniques and depths of meditation and we can meditate on different objects. It is very useful to have a mentor/teacher that understands our imbalances and picks the right meditation object to help bring us into balance.
Yoga as a way of life: My mentor, Chase Bossart at www.yogawellinstitute.com teaches that “Yoga is a game of conscious linking from moment to moment.” When we increase attention, we improve the quality of our life by making choices that support and serve our wellbeing. It becomes easier to choose healthier foods, relationships, and even careers that are in alignment with our highest values. We learn to become present with the people that matter most to us. What a gift!! We practice on the mat to live fully off of the mat from day to day and yes, moment to moment.
Are you in balance?
Here are 3 symptoms of a balanced person according to ancient texts:
● The mind is directable.
● The emotions are peaceful.
● The breath is long, smooth, especially exhale.
Yoga is a vast subject, one that I have spent years studying and refining. The ancient practice is making its way into modern health care systems. Dr. Villanueva of Modern Holistic Health www.modernholistichealth.com and I are involved in community outreach and education integrating our knowledge in helping empower people to take charge of their health.
Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts in which I will discuss the role of yoga therapy.
By Stacey Loop
You can read more about Stacey at www.loopoflight.com. That’s Loop of Light.