By Amanda N. Wegner
When Sharla walked into her first yoga class, she brought her own pillow … a bright red pillow, shaped like a stop sign.
Age, weight and inactivity had left her with stiff, tender knees, making kneeling a painful venture, and the pillow provided extra cushioning when it was time to hit the floor. But after just a few months, the pillow disappeared.
“I never thought I’d be able to be on my knees without my pillow,” she said after her instructor asked what had happened to her signature prop. “This yoga stuff really works.”
The beauty of yoga is that it provides many physical and psychological benefits, and researchers are constantly revealing new evidence to support the practice. “People have reported all kinds of benefits from yoga, including lower blood pressure, getting off certain medications, getting stronger, less pain,” says Susan Lancaster, owner of Essential Yoga & Wellness Center in Elkhorn. “There are so many, many benefits … we could talk about it all day!”
In addition to increased strength, flexibility and endurance; improved posture; and better breathing and reduced stress; research has found that yoga:
- Gives immunity a boost
A recent study from the University of Oslo in Norway found that practicing yoga can boost immunity at the cellular level. In fact, the researchers believe these changes occur when you’re still on the mat!
- Reduces migraines
After three months of yoga practice, researchers found that migraine sufferers had fewer and less painful migraines. Migraines are often caused by a combination of mental and physical stress; yoga can help ease muscle imbalances, foster better body alignment and reduce stress.
- Improves awareness and willpower
A regular yoga practice helps cultivate mindfulness, strengthens the mind-body connection and helps people become more aware of how different situations (or foods, people, etc.) affect their bodies. This stronger awareness and ability to refocus can help people make better choices. Yoga can also boost the power to say “no.” In fact, according to Sindy Leibbrand, a fitness coordinator and yoga instructor at the fitness center at Grand Geneva Resort and Spa in Lake Geneva, a study by neurosurgeons revealed that yoga helped improve willpower by increasing the part of the brain associated with it.
“The thing I find most interesting, and is surprising to many, is what yoga does to the brain,” says Leibbrand. “We might not be able to focus the whole time, but yoga teaches us how to bring focus back, and the skill of refocusing applies to so many aspects of our lives.”
She also says there’s a feeling of belonging in yoga classes that isn’t always found in other types of classes. “I think a big rea son that people keep coming back and make yoga part of their fitness routine is that there is a sense of community in a yoga class,” says Leibbrand. “Students bond, as they move as one, breathe as one. Yoga is not competitive, and that sense of community is not often found in other fitness classes, especially those that are more hard-core.”
FIND YOUR PLACE
The biggest, most pervasive misconception about yoga is that you need to be physically flexible to do it. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. “In fact, it doesn’t matter if your flexibility improves,” says Leibbrand. “What matters is that you’re working through the body, working at your own limits and never, ever being violent with yourself. I really encourage students to listen to their bodies. Never try to push too deep and don’t worry about flexibility. It will come.”
Another misconception is that you’ll be doing crazy things in a yoga class, like standing on your head. Not necessarily. “At the beginning, people thought yoga was very strange,” says Cherie Krey, director of The Yoga Place in Lake Geneva, who’s been teaching for about 35 years. “They’d see pictures of swamis in loincloths, people standing on their heads. But the truth is, there is a kind of yoga out there for everyone.”
For instance, beginning yoga (often called Essential Yoga and based on a gentle style of yoga known as hatha yoga) may offer a session of chair-based yoga for active-aging students. The Yoga Place offers Iyengar yoga classes, based on the teachings of guru BKS Iyengar, which focus on proper alignment. And Grand Geneva offers a fusion class, BodyFlow, which combines yoga with other popular fitness methods, including Pilates, qigong and Tai Chi. There’s also restorative yoga, vinyasa yoga, ashtanga yoga, Bikram or “hot” yoga, gentle yoga … the list goes on and on!
Lancaster encourages people to do their research and call ahead to studios to find the best fit for them. “When people call here, I always tell them to try every single teacher and class we have,” she says. “It’s important to me that people know that we are all here to help them, and if it doesn’t feel right, physically or emotionally, there are other classes to try.”
Feeling comfortable with the instructor is important as well. “There has to be that connection with the teacher,” says Lancaster. “If you don’t have that, you won’t get the best from that class or instructor. That’s why there are so many different yoga studios; we want people to find their yoga home.”
“Yoga holds the key to health at every level: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual,” says Krey. “If you want to be healthy, yoga has proven itself to be a viable pathway.”
Do this easy, relaxing routine at your desk, sitting in the stands at your child’s soccer game or after you read this article to reduce tension and stress!
Place hands on belly and inhale, filling the lungs, allowing the navel to press away from the spine and the hands to draw apart. Softly and fully exhale. Keep inhale and exhale even at first, then begin to lengthen the exhale.
EASY SEATED TWIST
Sitting tall on a firm chair, stack your shoulders over your hips, and gently draw your navel back toward your spine. Inhale, and as you exhale, twist right, grabbing the arm or back of the chair, or place your left hand on the outside of the right thigh. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths, then switch.
Seated or standing, inhale to lift arms overhead, then sweep the left arm under the right as you exhale. Give yourself a bear hug or slide elbows together and lift forearms to vertical, bringing backs of hand or palms together. Keeping the spine tall, lift the elbows away from floor, feeling a stretch in the upper back and between the shoulders. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths, then switch.
From standing, place your hands-on table, counter or back of a chair. As you walk back from the chair, lower your upper body toward the floor, arms extended. Softly bend the knees as needed and gently tilt the tailbone upward, feeling a stretch through the arms, back and backs of legs. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths to release tension through the whole back side of the body.