September is National Yoga Month. What are the benefits of practicing yoga on a regular basis? If you answered relaxation and stress relief, you are correct. But yoga is so much more than that.
I started practicing yoga more than 30 years ago. The benefits were so varied and profound that in 2001, I decided to become certified to teach yoga so I could share these benefits with others.
Most people already know that yoga is a great way to relax and reduce stress. Did you know that yoga originated thousands of years ago as a preparation for meditation practice? The ancient yogis realized that, in order to meditate for great lengths of time, they first had to learn to be still.
Whether you practice yoga for its spiritual or its physical benefits, anyone who practices regularly will experience a difference both on and off the mat.
There are a number of yoga styles, but all of them combine a sustained posture with deep breathing. People who are stressed tend to take shallow breaths, which taxes the body, whereas deeper, more intentional breathing is nourishing. Taking in more oxygen both relaxes and energizes you. Oxygen nourishes and heals because it helps to remove toxins from the blood.
Each of the yoga poses aims to gently stretch muscles to order to increase flexibility and strength. We always do this in a mindful way, meaning we keep our focus on how our bodies feel in each of the poses, making sure we can feel the stretch but not enough that it hurts. That "just enough" place is different for each person, so I encourage my students to stay aware of how they feel throughout a class, so they don't do too much.
Continually practicing these stretching and strengthening poses over time will bring noticeable improvements, no matter what condition you are in when you start.
This practice of remaining aware in the present moment extends beyond the classroom. Doing yoga has improved my ability to remain focused on a task. It helps me to feel grounded and centered in the rest of my life, beyond class. I see things differently, and I feel more connected. This is a mental health benefit.
Yoga also has many benefits for physical health. I notice that I am more aware in general of how my body is moving during the other tasks and activities in my life. I notice my posture and my body mechanics more. In general, I am more aware of my physical presence in the world.
Dr. Natalie Nevins, a member of the American Osteopathic Association, often recommends that her patients practice yoga as a healthy prevention strategy. "I focus a lot of my efforts on preventive medicine and practices, and in the body's ability to heal itself," she says. "Yoga is a great tool for staying healthy because it is based on similar principles." She cites its advantages for reducing chronic pain, for lowering blood pressure, and for improved sleeping. To this she adds improved respiration and metabolism, more energy and vitality, weight reduction, and cardio and circulatory health.
In an article titled, "Yoga - Benefits Beyond the Mat," Harvard Medical School researchers cite surveys showing that people who practice yoga are not only more aware of their bodies, they are also more accepting of them. The article states that, "For these reasons, yoga has become an integral part in the treatment of eating disorders and programs that promote positive body image and self-esteem."
The Harvard article also notes that several studies have found yoga can lower blood pressure, improve lipid (cholesterol) levels, lower blood sugar, improve cardiac rehabilitation, reduce the pain of arthritis, improve mood, decrease depression, and even help people survive cancer.
Yoga may not be for everyone, but the vast majority of people can benefit from it in many ways.
Starting in September, I will be teaching three yoga classes each week at the Grace Cottage Community Wellness Center in Townshend. My Tuesday 4:30 to 6 p.m. class is intermediate level. My Wednesday 1 to 2 p.m. chair yoga class is very gentle for beginners. I tailor my Friday 3:30 to 5 p.m. class to whatever level is best for those attending on a particular day.
I invite you to drop in on a class, or join a series, to see if yoga is appropriate for you. Call 802-365-3649 to sign up!
Crystal Mansfield, OTR/L, CYI, is the Grace Cottage Hospital Director of Rehabilitation and Wellness. She is a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University. Her special interests include wellness/prevention and hand therapy. Crystal is also a certified yoga instructor who teaches at the Grace Cottage
Community Wellness Center.