Here’s a recent article I wrote for FRA Today magazine. Enjoy!
Practice Yoga and Reap the Benefits
By Christine Lehmann, M.A., N.T.P.
Have you ever watched a cat arch its back for several seconds? Now you know how flexible its spine is, so it’s not surprising that some yoga poses, or asanas are named after animals like the cat, cobra or downward dog.
Increasing flexibility is just one benefit of yoga. An estimated 37 million Americans are practicing yoga to improve fitness, stress relief, wellness, vitality, mental clarity, healing, peace of mind and spiritual growth, according to the Yoga Alliance.
The good news is you don’t have to be flexible to benefit from yoga. Registered Yoga Teacher Phyllis Haney, J.D., MBA, E-RYT 500, took her first yoga class in the 1990s. “I was probably the least flexible person in my class. I’ve never been athletic or into sports as a child. One reason I loved yoga was it was something I could do with my body that felt great and was good for me,” said Haney. Now in her 50s, Haney added, “The great thing about yoga is you can adapt many of the poses and movements to your body, situation and health condition.”
Yoga is a good fit for people with musculoskeletal injuries or conditions and also complements physical therapy. “For example, someone with scoliosis, which is an abnormal curve of the spine, can adapt the poses to open up the more closed side of the ribs and bring the ribs closer together on the more open side,” according to Haney. A sedentary lifestyle and poor posture can contribute to hip and lower back issues. “You can use different poses to open the hips, which are connected to the hamstrings, and stretch those muscles when they are tight with the downward dog pose, for example,” said Haney.
Haney also focuses on strengthening core muscles in her classes, which helps with back issues. Most of the poses in yoga that strongly engage the abdominals are some variation of leg lifts. “You can lie on the floor and lift your legs toward the ceiling and slowly lower them or take a seated pose and lift your legs to a 45-degree angle, which is a classic boat pose. Another core conditioning pose is the Plank, which is done face down and lifting your trunk with your hands and feet and then holding the pose. Another option is to balance on your hands and knees and lift one leg and the opposite arm and then do the reverse. These poses will use your abdominal muscles to stabilize the body, because otherwise you would fall over,” said Haney.
History of Yoga
Yoga, which comes from the Sanskrit root, “yuj” (meaning to unite or yoke), was developed 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for well-being that integrates physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components. Ancient yoga was much more philosophical than modern yoga practiced in the West, which has been largely stripped of its spiritual origins. The philosophical positions of Classical Yoga were based upon ancient spiritual Indian texts called the Vedas, which are 7,000 to 9,000 years old. Among Yoga’s many source texts, the two best known are the Yoga Sutras composed around 100 A.D. and the Bhagavad Gita in 500 A.D. Both explain the nature of and obstacles to higher awareness and fulfillment, as well as a variety of methods for attaining those goals, according to the Yoga Alliance.
Classical Yoga developed when Patanjali composed the Yoga Sutras. He believed that each individual is composed of physical matter and spirit and that yoga would restore the spirit to its absolute reality by uniting the two. “Classical Yoga is very similar to the idea of Nirvana in Buddhism. That is when you do unite with your spirit and become your highest self, you no longer suffer,” said Haney.
In contrast to the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yogis believed you could get this liberation in your physical body. You didn’t have to wait until you pass away. You can meditate and follow these other practices. It could happen in your lifetime. Haney described Hatha Yoga, “as a set of physical movements, which are used to control and balance the energy in your body.” While Hatha Yoga is the most basic yoga practiced worldwide, other styles of yoga have emerged. Vin- yasa Yoga is known for movements that flow into each other and are matched to breathing like the Sun Salutation. Ashtanga Yoga also matches to your breathing but is much more vigorous and athletic. Iyengar Yoga is known for more attention to alignment and holding poses for a long time.
While most Westerners practice just the physical poses, there are many more elements to Hatha Yoga that Hindus and Buddhists practice including proper diet and cleansing practices, or Pranayama, which is breathing, concentration and meditation. “The ultimate goal is still the same as it was with classical yoga, to unite with the spirit,” said Haney.
Most yoga physical postures involve deep breathing and some type of mental concentration or meditation. “The way I like to think of it is relaxation,” said Haney. By slowing down and deepening the breath, the body’s parasympathetic system, or relaxation response, is activated. Changing a breathing pattern can significantly affect the body’s experience and response to stress. Research has shown that the breathing aspect of yoga can decrease a practitioner’s heart rate and blood pressure.
Haney has helped clients with asthma or allergies use the breathing practices to alleviate their symptoms. “A lot of people with asthma may not be exhaling fully and are constantly hyper ventilating. I help clients lengthen that exhalation. That actually is a good habit to adopt because if you don’t exhale completely, you just don’t have room to take a nice deep inhalation,” said Haney.
Proper breathing can also strengthen the abdominal muscles. “When you inhale deeply, it draws the abdominal muscles in before you exhale forcefully. Just learning the breathing practices of yoga will benefit you regardless of your ability to move. Yoga also helps people develop an awareness of their body and breath. You may notice during the day that you’re holding your breath or hunching your shoulders. You can use your practice to correct that.” said Haney.
Balance and Osteoporosis
In addition to core work, Haney uses yoga poses to improve balance, which is particularly important in helping to prevent falls as people age. Your balance is not going to improve unless you really work on it. Research indicates that falls are related to osteoporosis and both men and women are subject to it. In individuals 55 and older, 50 percent of hip fractures contribute either to death or to nursing home admissions.
“It’s well-known that physical activity such as weight-bearing and strenuous exercise will help keep osteoporosis and its precursor, osteopenia, at bay. But too much strenuous weight-bearing exercise can have serious disadvantages, including injuries and osteoarthritis,” according to Loren Fishman, M.D., and co-author of the book “ Yoga for Osteoporosis:The Complete Guide.” Instead, Fishman recommends yoga, which is a much gentler form of weight-bear- ing exercise. “Yoga pits one muscle group against another to generate forces far greater than gravity. Yoga is isometric exercise and also weight bearing. Both of these types of activity have been proven to improve bone strength,” said Fishman.
Haney starts her classes typically with the Sun Salutation pose to warm up the spine. “It’s a sequence of movements that move the spine forward and backward. During our practice, we want to move our spine in all the directions, which is forward, back, sideways and twisting,” said Haney. She also likes to do the Child’s Pose at the beginning of her practice and often in her classes. Some people describe Child’s Pose as lying in the fetal position. “It gives you a moment where you’re not distracted. You can’t see anything around you, and it is also just physically a good way to check in with how your lower back and hips are feeling. I also like the Downward Dog pose because it stretches the whole backside of your body, especially your hamstrings and calves.”
I like to end my classes with a long guided relaxation. That’s very important as it really allows your body to integrate with what you’ve been doing to it, in a positive way. At the end, it is imperative to just relax and allow your body to totally release. “To me, it’s not a yoga class if you don’t have relaxation at the end,” added Haney.
Phyllis Haney’s Website, www.smilewithyoga.com
Yoga Alliance, www.yogaalliance.org/Learn/About_Yoga/Yoga_Research
The National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm#hed8
Yoga U Online, www.yogauonline.com/yogau-wellness-blog/ yoga-and-wellness-news