Natural Health 101, Prevention: Yoga

Body partsThe second in Wooden Spoon Wellness’s Natural Health 101 series, this blog provides an overview of yoga. These three techniques have been shown to prevent injury or ailments when practiced correctly on a regular basis. [1] Yoga, as well as other Eastern traditional practices such as qigong, and tai chi, can all be considered ‘moving meditations’, which is to say that each modality includes a physical practice as well as a mental and spiritual practice. They each fundamentally originate from the belief that when the mind, body, and spirit are in balance, our wellbeing remains in balance. The Natural Health 101 series is intended to serve as entries to the practices or broaden your experiences if you already have an established practice. Even if you have practiced yoga, I hope you will read these articles and share your thoughts and experiences.

It is important to note that this blog provides a very broad sketch of each modality and is humbly written from my experiences and readings. Yoga has existed for thousands of years and derive from larger cultural, historical, and religious contexts. It is thus much more nuanced than I could possibly describe, though other blogs in the Natural Health 101 series will discuss other aspects of the healing traditions from which this practice emerges. In addition, the right teacher will be able to bring in comprehensive components of the practice and help you build holistic strength and immunity to prevent disease and injury. While each modality is complex, if you are open to learning, you will notice the benefits very quickly. Do not be intimidated! We all start somewhere.

Yoga: What is it?
In her article, “Yoga 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Practice, Meditation, and the Sutras,” one of my teachers, Cyndi Lee, writes: “The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj means to yoke or bind and is often interpreted as “union” or a method of discipline. The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the Yoga Sutra an estimated 2,000 years ago. The Sutra is a collection of 195 statements that serves as a philosophical guidebook for most of the yoga that is practiced today. It also outlines eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). As we explore these eight limbs, we begin by refining our behavior in the outer world, and then we focus inwardly until we reach samadhi (liberation, enlightenment). Today most people practicing yoga are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation.” [2]

I appreciate Cyndi Lee’s overview of yoga because she highlights that the classes that are most widely available, and that you are most likely to experience, focus primarily on the physical practice of yoga (asana, or, postures). Asana can be very powerful unto itself. As another of my teachers, Aman Rai, says, “Your body does not help you come into asana. Asana helps you come into your body.”

I’ve experienced this in many ways since I took my first yoga class in 1999. Proper alignment was important to my teachers and I frequently would walk out of a class into a bustling part of Manhattan feeling taller, quieter, and lighter like air, or feeling the expansiveness of my lungs and chest. In 2008, when I sustained an injury that turned my world upside down, one of the physical therapists I worked with told me that I was more body aware than any client she’d had: because of my yoga practice, I was able to quickly understand her instructions, isolate the particular body parts or muscles she needed me to work, and ask questions about proper positioning. While I don’t have evidence, I believe it helped me to recover. If nothing else, I had moments of feeling empowered which is a rare feeling when your body is not where you want it to be or where it once was. (Perhaps some of you can relate to that. :))

Despite or perhaps because of my injury, I strengthened my work on other limbs of yoga as well– through breathing exercises, personal meditation, and guided meditation. Today, my asana (posture) practice is not as intensive as it once was but pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) regularly grounds me and the niyamas (observances) have helped me to grow Wooden Spoon Wellness. Yoga has become a path toward home for me; when my mind is foggy or I feel disconnected from my body or my purpose, my yoga practice brings me back to center.

Scientific studies support many of the claims teachers such as those suggested by Lee and Rai. They show that regular yoga practice can prevent heart disease, help heal cancer and high blood pressure. It also alleviates symptoms of some chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes. Scientists have also proven that relaxation techniques developed through yoga positively affect people’s mental health by decreasing stress, insomnia, and depression. Yoga even changes genes that affect immunity according to one study and slows aging according to another study. [3]

Yoga can also help prevent everyday things. If you are feeling ‘off’ or stressed, you are frequently sick with a cold, or you need to detox, for example, yoga can help. [4] Many different yoga schools and types of practices exist and have health benefits. Here are a few broad overviews of some of the yoga classes you might come across:

  • Hatha: These classes tend to be slower, address some of the more basic poses and cultivate some of the mental focus and discipline that is part of the larger yoga tradition mentioned above. These classes are generally good for beginners.
  • Restorative: These classes are designed to relax and recover. They often involve props, such as large pillows and blocks that will be made available in the class.
  • Iyengar: This school of yoga focuses on alignment and can thus be helpful for beginners. Classes often do not follow a particular sequence as you might in other classes and there is often more starting and stopping than you would experience in a flow class. Props, such as blocks, straps, or chairs are often involved and you may be asked to work in partnership with another class participant.
  • Vinyasa: Also sometimes called ‘flow’, these classes tend to be a bit more fast-paced than hatha and generally involve a similar sequence of postures from one class to the next.
  • Ashtanga: A more regimented version of vinyasa, it often has set sequences that do not vary from class to class. Ashtanga is often considered the more gymnastic version of yoga.
  • Bikram or Hot Yoga: These classes take place in a heated room and are generally fast-paced.
  • Kundalini: These classes are generally focused on developing the spiritual self and awareness through meditation, postures, breathing exercises, and chanting.
  • Yoga Nidra: These classes are less common in the US but if you can find one, they support you in cultivating deep relaxation through breathing exercises and guided meditation, amongst other things.

What does a typical class include?
Classes generally last 45 minutes to an hour and a half and are led by a teacher who will guide you through a variety of postures and/or exercises.

Wear clothing you can easily and freely move around in and that you can sweat in. You will likely bend over a lot or invert your body so very loose clothing may ride up and expose skin. Bearing skin is very common in yoga classes so if this is something you are not comfortable with you might consider wearing more form-fitting clothing and/or long, loose clothing with tighter seams at the waist and ankles.

Yoga requires a mat. You can buy and bring your own yoga mat but most places offer standard-sized mats for free or for a small fee (typically $1). Standard-sized mats are about 72 inches feet long so if you are taller than that and you are compelled by the practice, I highly recommend investing in a longer mat.

Some classes may include props such as pillows, blocks, or straps that the teacher will make available for the duration of the class.

Things to consider when choosing a class:

  • If you have any injuries, be sure to tell your teacher before the class, even if it is a restorative class. Some poses can be difficult on your body but a good teacher will offer alternative moves for you to do.
  • Yoga can cause injury. Before EVERY class you take, it is very important to be aware of your limits. It is also important to work with a teacher or teachers who are attuned to proper alignment and can minimize the risk of injury. [5]
  • How big is the class? If you have the option and especially if you are just starting out, I recommend finding a class with fewer students where you can have more of the teacher’s attention.
  • Yoga classes are driven by the teacher’s directions so the teacher’s training and personality greatly influence your experience. There are MANY different kinds of yoga as mentioned above and even within a particular school different teachers will create very different class vibes—some classes will be very mellow and calming, the teacher will burn incense or play Indian chant music and rub your temples with scented oils, some teachers will play no music, provide basic instruction and take a hands-off approach, some will make adjustments while you are in certain poses, or play pop music—the possibilities are endless. See what you are in the mood for before you go to a class and call the studio to learn a bit what to expect if it is not available on the website. Or just go for it and see what’s up.
  • Are you comfortable having a teacher touch you to adjust your pose? Sometimes for example, a teacher may put their hands on your shoulders while you are standing or they might stand behind you and pull your hips back… If you are not comfortable being touched, be sure to speak with the teacher before the class and ask if they tend to make adjustments to students. If so, tell them to give you verbal instructions instead.

Here are some key terms that you might come across when looking at class descriptions:

  • asana (posture): Sometimes class descriptions will say that you will explore certain asanas or hold asanas for a longer period of time and thus will help cultivate discipline as well as awareness of those particular body parts.
  • prana (life force or energy): Classes that include a focus on prana generally give special attention to your breath. They may include breathing exercises (pranayama).
  • kirtan (a form of chanting): Sometimes classes include kirtan. The teacher may have a musical instrument or live musicians. The chants generally are in Sanskrit (an ancient Indian dialect) and blessings to invoke certain Hindu gods and/or the things the gods represent.

What does it generally cost?
The price of yoga classes varies greatly. Classes typically run from $10-$20. Bikram or hot yoga tends to be more expensive. Many cities have a chain called Yoga for the People which is by donation. http://yogatothepeople.com Some schools also offer “Community classes” or donation-only classes. These classes are often taught by new teachers or yoga teacher students and suggest a minimum donation of $5 or $7.

Videos and free online classes are widely available though I’d strongly recommend working with a teacher at least to start because of the risk of injury.

Yoga mats, should you choose to purchase one, range significantly in cost, anywhere from $10 to about $100. Cheaper mats will generally not last as long and may not have much grip. You can get a pretty solid mat though for about $30.

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[1]  These modalities could also be included in my “Movement Therapies” blog as they have also been shown to heal certain ailments or injuries such as lower back pain. In addition, while this blog only covers three preventative techniques, other practices such as martial arts or various forms of dance, could be added to this blog as well.

[2] Cyndi Lee. “Yoga 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Practice, Meditation, & the Sutras.” Yoga Journal, October 7, 2014.

[3] See “Evidence-Based Research, Studies on Yoga and Health.” Center for Yoga and Health. ; Dr. Dean Ornish, et al. “Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity…The Lancet Oncology. 17 September 2013; Massachusetts General Hospital press release, “Study finds relaxation response triggers genomic changes.” May 10, 2013.

[4] Dr. Marc Halpern. “What Does An Ayurvedic Yoga Therapist Do?Yogacamp, June 20, 2013.

[5] See Ananda School of Yoga and Meditation. “Can Being Too Flexible Be Harmful?” and Roger Cole. “Yoga Shouldn’t Hurt.” Yoga Journal, June 26, 2008.

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