I don’t know where it comes from — whether from the sweat, the heat, the incredible surge of power as I thrust upward into a deep and lusty downward dog, sits bones kissing the sky. But, in this moment I am transported to another world. Faced with challenge and discomfort, I find myself letting go, falling, giving over, opening, feeling. I feel myself loving — myself.
I came to yoga after hearing countless friends elucidate on a wide range of health improvements they swear were due to this ancient physical and spiritual practice alone. In my work as a doula and a writer, I often experience lower back pain and general overall fatigue, so after trying to work the kinks out at the gym or on a running track well into my 40s, I decided several months ago to listen to my friends and sign up for a yoga class.
I’ll be honest, I was skeptical. I am well-versed in human anatomy and just couldn’t see how bending my body into the shape of a pretzel would actually reduce back pain, improve my heart health or bring all kinds of other positive health results I’d heard about. I couldn’t help wonder about the urban myth aspect here. Still, enough comments like these gave me pause:
“Yoga literally changed my life,” Seattle speech pathologist Laura Snow recently told me. “There was a point where it was hard for me to move without pain and I know that doing yoga is what made that difference.” Snow had suffered back pain that literally left her immobile at times.
Turns out, solid research backs up what my friends have been telling me for all these years.
“Yoga practice impacts everything,” says Denise Benitez, owner of Seattle Yoga Arts. “There are so many studies on yoga, so much validating research on the health benefits, it’s hard to refute that this is true.”
“Yoga is so rich that you can’t pigeonhole it into one thing,” adds Terri Dyer, owner of Home Yoga, based in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood. “People come to yoga for many different reasons. Some come to deal with stress and anxiety, some come strictly for exercise, some come to work on healing an injury, some come as they are attracted to the spiritual aspects. And the beautiful thing about yoga is that the practice can encompass all or just some of those things, depending on what the individual is looking for.”
report released in the January 2010 issue of the International Journal
of Medical Engineering and Informatics illustrates at least one way yoga
heart disease, for example.
The research team found that the men who practiced yoga had stronger parasympathetic nervous systems and thus had stronger autonomic control over their heart rates. The upshot is that they had better control over stress levels and thus healthier hearts overall.
“Yoga reduces stress,” says Anne Phyfe Palmer, founder of 8 Limbs Yoga in Seattle. “Stress negatively impacts your health. The positions and breathing we do in yoga trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. It literally takes you out of the part of your nervous system that puts your body on high alert.
“We are in survival mode most of the time, even though we have very little danger compared to our ancestors,” adds Palmer. “Yoga provides critical balance.”
Benitez offers another explanation for yoga’s impact on heart health: “Recent studies have shown how yoga reduces your risk of heart attack and stroke. When your body is stiff, your arteries are stiff, and stretching your muscles stretches your arteries, allowing a freer flow of blood through the vessel walls.”
Help for an Aching Back
I am standing heel-to-heel, toe-to-toe, at the top of my mat, hands raised above my head, stretching ever upward, reaching for sky as if I could actually touch it. The instructor suggests that we let our heads fall backward, our arms following along as if glued to the head, heart lifted upward, in a standing backward bend. I am there, training my eyes on the back wall. But, ouch.
I feel a sharp tweak in my back. I am about to round down out of the position, wondering how this could possibly by good for the back, when the instructor circles by and whispers, “pelvis pulled under, push your hips forward, put all your strength in your legs.” Within seconds, my back opens up and I feel a peace and a strength filling my spine. My eyes creep farther and farther down the wall in back of me as my arch deepens in the pose. . .
One of the most recent studies on the health benefits of yoga, released last fall in the journal Spine, found that use of Iyengar Yoga was more effective in relieving chronic lower back pain than relying on medication-heavy Western medicine alone.
Researchers, led by Dr. Kimberly Williams, identified 90 patients with chronic lower back pain and randomly assigned them to two groups. Half of the patients participated in 24 weeks of biweekly yoga classes designed to reduce lower back pain along with their regular Western medicine regimen. The others continued to rely only on a regimen of Western medicine for relief, including medication.
In comparing the groups, Williams and her colleagues found the yogis experienced improved mobility, reductions in back pain intensity and reduced reliance on pain medication. The yoga students also reported less depression than the control group at both 12 and 24 weeks of practice.
An earlier study, conducted by researchers at Group Health Cooperative’s Center for Health Studies in Seattle and published in the December 20, 2006 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, garnered similar results.
Snow says she is not surprised by the research on yoga and back pain. Doctors discovered that she had several compressed disks in her spine several years ago and eventually treated her with cortisone shots in the affected disks. The treatment was expected to work for up to three years. It’s now been five.
“I absolutely attribute that to practicing yoga,” Snow says. “There is no question, the stretching, strengthening and body awareness has helped me avoid or at least put off further treatment.” Snow recently gave birth to twins after being on bed rest for an entire month and says her back is already feeling out of whack. “My instructor is going to be all over me,” she says. “I can’t wait to get back. You really have to stay with it to reap the continued benefits.”
In fact, many Seattle-area yoga studios offer classes focused predominantly on helping students build back strength and flexibility and reduce chronic back pain.
Dorothy Hiestand, director of Scoliosis Yoga with classes in east King County, discovered she had scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine, when she was 13. By the age of 38 she considered spinal fusion and Harrington rod surgery. She opted for alternative treatments instead, including many years of Iyengar yoga.
Now 63, Hiestand says she teaches because she wants to share her experience with other scoliosis patients and help them temper their pain through yoga practice designed specifically for back pain.
“It is remarkable and very hopeful that someone of my age, severity of scoliosis and degree of bone degeneration can experience an improvement of curvature, using alternative therapies,” she writes to prospective students on her Web site.
Mental Health, Stress and Weight Control
I am standing in the yoga studio, legs spread five feet wide facing forward, arms held out to the side drawing my body in both directions at the same time. Perfect tension. My mind wants to go one way or the other, wishing to tilt slightly more toward one hand or the other, or force more of the holding power into one heel or the other. But this pose is about balance, about holding things in tension, about not allowing one side to be more important than the other.
As I stand here feeling the intense pull in four directions, I am reminded that this is my mind’s approach to all things that make me uncomfortable. And when I fall into depression, as I am predisposed to do, fixing it, going one way or the other, is not necessarily the answer. Balance is. Feeling the tension is. Holding it is. And then, as we are doing right now as we swan our arms overhead and then back down to our sides and heel-toe our feet back together, letting go is. For the first time in a long time, I see a river of hope and mental freedom flowing beside me.
One of the philosophical cornerstones of most traditional forms of yoga is the concept of mindfulness; that is, a calm awareness of the workings of one’s body, feelings and conscious intent. In other words, mindfulness is the practice of constant consideration of what you are doing and feeling and why.
“When people practice yoga where this philosophy is part of the practice, they will notice more of an ability to focus, to pause, to slow down,’’ explains Palmer. “What you are doing in yoga is practicing being the observer. When people are observant, for example, they may think twice about what they are going to put into their body because they notice what their body feels and will stop to think about what it needs.”
In fact, according to a recent study led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, yogis are less likely than others to experience obesity. Why? Because people who practice yoga are often more mindful of their eating.
The center’s study on mindful eating, published last summer in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, was a follow-up to earlier research that showed yoga practice may help keep normal-weight people from developing “middle-age” spread as well as help those who are overweight slim down.
Fred Hutchinson researchers collected information from more than 300 people (80 percent of whom were women) at Seattle-area yoga studios, fitness facilities and weight-loss programs and other venues. Each participant filled out a questionnaire providing basic health information including weight, height, whether or not they practiced yoga or participated in other forms of moderate and strenuous exercise.
Data collected from the 20-plus questions allowed researchers to measure the rate of several eating behaviors among participants including: awareness of food taste, smell and presentation, “disinhibition” (eating even when feeling full), eating in response to advertising, sadness, stress or other environmental or emotional factors, and distracted consumptions — focusing on other things while eating.
Scientists found a strong association between yoga practice and mindful eating, but no association between mindful eating and other forms of physical activity, like walking. People who ate mindfully (and thus were aware of why they ate and stopped eating when full) weighed less than those who ate to stifle depression or when they were not actually hungry.
Benitez, a co-author of the center study, was not surprised by the findings. “When you practice yoga, you learn skills to stay with things that are challenging and you learn inner ways to sustain yourself,” she says. ”That means, if you open the fridge and you want a piece of cake, you may think twice about whether or not you eat that piece of cake in that moment. People who do yoga are trained in mindfulness, in what is happening in their mind and body, and that makes them much more aware of what they eat.”
Depression is another area where researchers have clearly
shown yoga is strong medicine.
“When people come to yoga, they may not even think of what they are experiencing emotionally as depression or not depression. But they quickly realize they just feel overall feel better because yoga is addressing so many aspects of their human experience,” says Palmer. “It’s addressing your overall health, aches and pains, also helping you to focus, and that focus creates more space.”
Palmer credits yoga for helping her clear a significant emotional hurdle.
“I had an eating disorder as a teen,” she says. “And yoga was a crucial part of my finishing healing. Yoga is a many-stepped program, like the 12 steps. There is an element of faith, taking inventory, being aware of ourselves and aware of others. It’s kept me very healthy and strong.”
What is it about yoga?
I cannot put my finger on it. I’ve been coming to the studio now for only 15 weeks and I can’t remember when I didn’t come. It’s like after having kids. At some point you cannot imagine your life without them. I have done many forms of intense exercise — years of traditional karate, running, biking, hiking. Never have I felt so fit, so physically strong and mentally clear. Aspects, yes. As a runner, I can remember miles and miles of lucid thinking. But this is different.
The feeling of wholeness and wellness does not go away between my yoga classes. It stays, seeping into all aspects of my life. I cannot wait to get to the next class. The stretching, the meditation, the lying in silence — Savassana. It is like spiritual movement each time for me.
Let the buckets of sweat pour.
There are countless reasons people to turn to yoga. And just as many explanations from both Eastern and Western philosophy and medicine perspectives as to why consistent practice leads to improved health outcomes for many practitioners.
Key among them is finding a teacher who resonates with you and is skilled in helping you listen to your body and adjust poses and stretches to enhance rather than hinder wellness, strength and flexibility.
Deborah Baumfeld has been practicing yoga since she was 16.
“The change that’s affected my life most prominently is that since I’ve been working with a teacher who’s very tuned into physiology, I’ve been able to learn how to avoid the migraines that have plagued me my whole life,” says Baumfeld, who attends classes at 8 Limbs Yoga’s Phinney Ridge studio. “She helps me figure out how to modify poses that might act as triggers, or avoid some altogether, and at the same time work on other poses that strengthen and relax areas that are prone to trigger migraines for me outside of class. The opportunity to spend some time every week or even every month just being tuned into my breath and my body has helped me develop a more nuanced ability to respond to its needs.”
Baumfeld works for Microsoft and is the mother of two young children. She says regular practice reminds her of the importance of small things in a chaotic world. Simple things that enhance health — like deep breathing.
“Yoga for me has always been a great space to kind of clear the decks, mentally,” she says. “Even when I’m feeling cranky or tired, I never regret the time I spend at yoga because without fail I emerge feeling more clear and settled. I can use the opportunity to just breathe deeply, which it’s surprisingly easy to forget to do on a regular basis. Sometimes I joke with my mom that I pay $15 a week to breathe.”
Both Baumfeld and Seattle resident Cheri Gail, a nurse practitioner, say that yoga was particularly helpful to them in preparation for childbirth. Both said it improved their ability to handle stress and anxiety, use breathing to relax and mentally let go of discomfort — all critical to a healthy birth.
“I feel calmer and less anxious just by doing some of the breathing exercises,” says Gail. “And I notice if I am having a stressful morning with my first-grader (I sometimes go to yoga after dropping him off at school or just before picking him up). It helps me to relax and move forward with my day in a positive way.”
Yoga’s spiritual foundations are also key to improving health outcomes, stresses Dyer. “Yoga works so well because the practice takes you inside and the healing power comes from within. Everything we need is inside us. One just needs to learn how to listen. Meditation is an essential element, in my opinion, of the yoga practice. The movement part of the practice is like a meditation in motion.”
As a new practitioner, I am still grappling with how deep breathing when holding intense postures achieves the results it achieves, even while I am experiencing several of the benefits I’ve already mentioned. But that comprehension — understanding why yoga works — is hard for many people in the West, explains Benitez.
“I think it’s a little bit mysterious and a little inaccessible to our Western mind,” she says. “Yoga is similar to the idea in Chinese medicine which is built around the idea of meridians. There is a whole subtle anatomy in yoga practice that is not automatically understood in Western medicine. It’s about energy.”
“Equally important, this subtle body is accessed and addressed in an environment that supports it, an environment that is intentional and where you can set your intentions for your practice,” she adds.
“It’s different from just going to the gym. You will see people working on the treadmill, but there is no intention,” says Benitez.
“I started the physical practice of Hatha Yoga in 1998 and from the first day of that beginners class I felt like I was home,” explains Dyer. “I had been a gym junkie for years, but since that first class I haven’t been back. I discovered that at the gym there was a disconnect because I would be on the treadmill or one of the machines and be watching what Scully and Mulder were doing on The X-Files. Now I have found a connection with me and I’ve become so much more aware and accepting of what is going on in my life. The practice has done wonders for my physical body and my emotional one.”
Intention is not competition — and if there is one piece of advice yoga students and instructors agree on, it is to park your competitive nature at the door if you want to get the full benefits, physical or otherwise, from yoga practice.
“I was pretty serious for 4 or 5 years,” says Ruth Sechena, a physician who lives in Seattle. “I love the moves and poses, but one can get lost in the “pursuit of the pose” and transfer the process into competitive yoga.
“I used to sit in class looking at how perfect the instructor’s form appeared and tried to plaster my body into that image,” Sechena says. “I didn’t understand that the perfect pose is a state that is reached once the practitioner has understood and felt why the body resists and has found a way to achieve that state in a totally easy, effortless and relaxed manner.”
In other words, you reach that state when you let go of having to be a perfect yoga practitioner.
I am sitting on my mat and can’t help looking around at the other students in the room, their lithe bodies and perfect forward bends. We haven’t even started class and I am already willing myself to do better.
And that’s when the instructor walks in, sits quietly at the front of the class and begins. Soon we are in downward dog and this is when she invites us to turn our heads left and right, to observe those around us and then to forget about them. They are not there.
“This class is for you alone. This practice is for you alone,” she tells us. “Now that you’ve nodded to your neighbors, you know they are here, let them disappear and move into mindfulness – your mind, your body.”
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