Yoga – Is it for Me?

Neilly A. Buckalew Acupuncturist Post Falls, ID

The word yoga for many brings to mind a young woman or man in a seemingly impossible gymnastic posture. The postures, called asana in Sanskrit, that have become popular today are a small facet of commercialized modern yoga, and do not reflect the full practices and potential benefits of yoga available to all ages and abilities. What is missing from and important to this picture are the simple practices of breath work, the power of meditation and visualization, and the transformative power of positive thinking and living. Positive living is emphasized in certain disciplines of yoga where behavioral practices such as selfless service for the benefit of others are the key practice, not asana. What we have found through scientific and medical research is that the practices of yoga - including volunteering - do indeed create measurable changes in our physical, emotional, and mental health - and it is not just the more vigorous physical forms of yoga that provide benefits. 

Though yoga can be viewed as a matrix of traditions rooted in ancient India that span 3000-4000 years, at its core, yoga is about awareness of thought, mood, and behaviors and how our mind influences our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world around us. Key practices such as breathing, meditation, and posture are intended to help us gain this awareness, and transform negative thoughts and bad habits into more positive behaviors, achieving an integrated and balanced self. The root word of yoga, yuj, can be translated to “unite or integrate.” In modern terms, this overall process might be described as stress reduction as well as self-realization. It is well documented in scientific medical research that inducing a relaxation response yields a number of health benefits, including improved mood, decreased stress and anxiety, decreased blood pressure, diminished pain experience, etc. 

What are the benefits of yoga and who can benefit from yoga? 

Breathing (pranyama) 

A key element of yoga involves breathing practices, collectively called “pranayama.” There are a large number of yogic breath control practices ranging from subtle meditative breathing to more active and dynamic breathing patterns. The simple act of controlled inhale and exhale (a type of ratio breathing as described in the table below), approximately 6 breaths per minute (this would be a 5 second inhale and 5 second exhale), yields a number of positive health benefits, notably lowering blood pressure the same as a blood pressure medication. Hypertension is the number one controllable risk factor for stroke prevention. The simple act of daily breathing practice for 10-12 minutes, achieving the goal of 6 breaths a minute, is a potentially powerful tool for stroke prevention and overall well being. Breath control also calms the mind and reduces stress. Consistent daily practice can retrain the nervous system and the mind to be less reactive to stressful situations. 

Pranayama: A few examples of yogic controlled breathing practices 

Breath Awareness 

Emphasis is on observation and subtleties of the breath and then learning to shape the breath to be smooth, even, and silent. One first learns to feel the touch of the breath beginning at the nares. The student is further directed to note the temperature of the air and trace the path and sensations of the entire breath cycle as one inhales and exhales and how it affects one’s mind and body, as well as how the mind and body effect the breath.  

Ratio breathing 

Breathing to certain counts or to the timing of a chant. The breath cycle for ratio breathing has four parts: inhale, retention of the inhale, exhale, and suspension of the exhale. Various ratios of these four parts of the breath cycle are used; the simplest ratio is equal counts of just inhale and exhale. 

Krama 

Dividing the breath into parts either on the inhale (Anuloma Krama) or exhale (Viloma Krama) to give directional flow. For instance, in a 2-part inhale, one would inhale first into the thorax, just below mid-sternum, then inhale fully. 

Bhramari 

A breathing practice where a soft humming sound is produced during exhalation, like the sound of a bumble-bee. 

Sitali 

Creating the sensation of cooling the breath by breathing through a curled tongue that is fully extended. 

Kapalibhati 

Passive inhalation with active exhalation that focuses on lower abdominal contraction with exhalation.  

Bastrika 

Active inhalation and exhalation with controlled contraction of the abdomen on exhalation.  

Meditation (dhynana) 

Meditation (Dhyana) is the oldest known yogic practice. The practices of mediation are wide in range, but generally involve a focused effort to self-regulate the mind and emotions in some way – it is not necessarily achieving a blank slate, of which is difficult. Meditation can be as simple as concentrating on a point of light to create focus or repetition of a meaningful phrase. Commonly, in yogic practices, pranayama is meant to prepare one for meditation, to help create focus. Like pranayama, meditation produces a significant drop in respiration rate and is associated with lowering blood pressure. Breath work plus meditation can be an effective stress reducer and, as above, re-set the nervous system to be less reactive when stress unpredictably occurs. But the key is a daily and consistent practice, even just for 10 minutes. 

Telomeres are genetic codes protecting DNA, and the enzyme telomerase produces this code. Both are considered DNA markers of stress and premature aging when decreased. A meditative practice called Kirtan Kriya has demonstrated both reduced depressive symptoms and increased telomerase activity, indicating potential prevention of premature aging and chronic disease. Our own research has demonstrated that with consistent meditative practice of Kirtan Kriya, the mind becomes more focused when one practices controlled breathing. In fact, research has shown that the cardiovascular benefits of controlled breathing described above can also be achieved through repetition of phrases.  

We have also found that meditation profoundly and positively affects brain structure and function even in first time meditators. Meditation in simple terms increases brain size, in particular the front parts that are important in regulating our emotions, pain, and mood. In older adults (generally defined as those older than 65) with established neurodegenerative disease such as dementia, positive effects of meditation include improved attention, memory, and mental flexibility with the greatest effects found in the most meditation-naïve participants. In addition, meditation practices are associated with decreased anxiety, increased creativity, improved cognitive function under stressful conditions, improved decision making ability, and overall improved quality of life. That sounds good for all of us, no matter our age or responsibilities! 

 

This meditation is meant to be practiced daily for 10-12 minutes at the same time of the day in a comfortable position.  You can close your eyes, and begin by taking a moment to tune into your breath, noticing how the breath feels as it enters the nose and travels into the body on the inhale, and then, how the breath feels as it leaves the body and through the nose on the exhale. 

The meditation is accompanied by hand movements shown above.  

The sound repetition is started in a normal voice, then soft voice, then repeated in the mind silently, and then returning to soft repetitions, and, finally, a normal voice.  Each of these is done for about 2 minutes. 

On Sa touch the index finger to your thumb; on Ta touch the middle finger to your thumb; on Na touch the ring finger to your thumb; on Ma touch the little finger to your thumb. Apply light pressure every time you touch your fingers. Continue touching the fingers in sequence throughout the exercise, even during the silent part. 

When you complete the last repetition in a normal voice, allow yourself some time to notice how you feel and allow the breath to return to normal. 

Positive visualization and living 

Visualization and positive thinking are important elements of yoga and can be considered an extension of meditation. Positive thinking (and being able to transform negative thinking), in part, reflects underlying assumptions of yogic philosophy--that change is possible, one can transform their life, and the mind is a powerful motivating force. Remember the old adage, “mind over matter”? Science has shown there is much truth to this. We know that fear literally stops the mind from initiating motor movement. So, that “I can’t get off the couch” feeling is the physiologic consequence of negative thinking. The older adult who is afraid of falling has a higher risk of falling. The person who says, “I am disabled by my pain” will not be able to perform their activities of daily living. These negative thoughts stop the mind from moving the body, even in those who are physically capable. However, positive thinking and visualization have been shown to reverse this inertia. Visualization is commonly used by athletes and has been shown to improve recovery from strokes and reduce falls in older adults. Breath work can prepare the mind for meditation, and these together can prepare the mind for positive visualization. Thinking positively can then translate to living positively, but these do take practice. Practice is always the key to any newly learned skill. 

Yoga is for everyone of all ages and abilities 

The impossible pretzel postures of yoga may discourage one from trying it, but the core practices of yoga – breath work, meditation, and visualization – are for all ages and abilities. A skilled and experienced yoga teacher will be able to adapt a practice to your needs. The most important thing for you as a consumer is to do your research and consider your teacher’s training styles, and the years of experience they have. More specialized teachers are available who know how to work with those with special needs, such as older adults, pregnant mothers, children with disabilities, people with traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injuries, etc.  Take the time to understand what your chosen yoga class is about, and if it is for you. Try more than one class to see what is out there, and find a yoga mentor you can trust. Talk with the teachers so that they can be aware of your needs and so that you can truly benefit from your yoga practice and transform your life.