Discovering yoga

I discovered yoga for myself almost 15 years ago. My introduction was a brief demonstration by a work colleague. She went into a deep squat, feet flat to the floor, and said, “This is great for stretching and releasing the lower back.” Something about her flexibility and her telling me how she enjoyed her weekly practice stuck with me.

Hatha yoga, which emphasizes doing yoga poses (asana), breathing exercises and meditation, is what most Americans practice. Hatha yoga has been around for about a thousand years. However, yoga based in ancient Indian philosophy has been around for over 4,000 years and emphasizes meditative practices that focus on realizing one’s inner nature, a core of peace and composure.

Hatha yoga styles include Anusara, Ashtanga, Baptiste Power Vinyasa, Bikram, Forrest, Integral, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Kripalu, Kundalini, OM Yoga, Viniyoga and many others. Yoga Journal’s 2008 “Yoga in America” survey found that 15.8 million adults practiced yoga. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, 1.5 million children had practiced yoga in the previous year.

Several months after my colleague’s demonstration of yoga, I found myself in an Iyengar yoga class. In a typical Iyengar yoga class one explores the proper alignment of a few poses and often uses props such as blocks, belts and bolsters to achieve ease in the body while doing poses. I find it interesting that although I am quiet flexible, using the props helps me gently move through discomfort (never pain) into a pose of more ease. In the beginning, I was amazed that the Corpse Pose (Savasana) was one of the most challenging for me. Lying flat on my back and eyes closed, my lower back wanted to spring off the mat, and my mind was busy thinking instead of relaxing. I also remember how sweaty my palms would get holding the pose of Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukta Svanasana), and they would start to slip. My teacher always knew how to assist me to be more comfortable in a pose by providing an adjustment, a brief suggestion or offering a prop. “Press your palms and fingers more strongly into the mat, lift your sit-bones higher” and I would find my strength again and feel steadier.

Over the years, I have gained from my yoga practice a greater awareness of my body, improved strength and flexibility, and a calmness of mind. Now I ease into Savasana without tension, and my mind stops chattering almost immediately. I have found that doing hatha yoga prepares my mind and body for seated meditation.

On my yoga journey, I also enrolled in an intensive hatha yoga teacher certification program at the Himalayan Institute in Pennsylvania, and I have been teaching occasional yoga classes ever since. I have also practiced various styles of yoga with different teachers and have enjoyed all of those experiences.

Recently I tried Bikram yoga (hot yoga). The room is heated to a toasty 105 degrees. The teacher guides you through a sequence of poses for 90 minutes. Students hold each pose for several minutes allowing for concentration and exploration. As the sweat poured out of my pores, I felt like I was releasing more and more physical and mental tension. I used the cooling breath practice (sitali) to feel cooler, and we had frequent breaks to drink water. The teacher also encouraged us to rest as needed.

Doing hatha yoga is not about muscling through and pushing the body to experience pain or extreme discomfort. It is about practicing yoga safely, given your unique abilities and in consultation with your health care provider. It is about using your breath to find ease in poses. It is about cultivating a mindset that allows contentment (santosha) with where you are right now. It is about a non-harming (ahimsa) attitude toward yourself. Therefore, when you step on your yoga mat, it is a place to be kind to yourself, to express gratitude for your body’s abilities as they are right now, and to enjoy the many health benefits of mindfully breathing and moving your body.

Current research suggests that yoga can help relieve low-back pain, neck pain, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It can boost mood, reduce stress, reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and improve overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility. In 2008, editor in chief of Yoga Journal said “Yoga as medicine represents the next great yoga wave. In the next few years, we will be seeing a lot more yoga in health care settings and more yoga recommended by the medical community as new research shows that yoga is a valuable therapeutic tool for many health conditions.”

If you are considering practicing yoga, keep these points in mind:

  • Do not use yoga to replace medical care or postpone seeing a health care provider.
  • If you have a medical condition or are pregnant, talk to your health care provider before starting yoga.
  • Find out about the training and experience of any yoga teacher you are considering.
  • Select an instructor who knows how to help you modify poses based on your abilities.
  • Ask about the physical demands of the yoga style you are considering.
  • Tell your yoga teacher about medical issues you have.
  • Carefully think about the style of yoga you want to explore. Not all styles of yoga are appropriate for you.
  • Tell all your health care providers about your practice of yoga to give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health.

Most importantly, find a yoga class and try it. Christiana Care Health System’s Parent Education department offers an ongoing prenatal yoga class. The Helen F. Graham Cancer Center Mind, Body and Spirit Wellness Program offers yoga classes for cancer patients and their families.

The Christiana Care community health libraries have books and DVDs that can help you get started. Here is a brief selection:

  • “A Child’s way to yoga : introducing children to yoga through movement and music” (DVD)
  • “Gentle yoga for back pain”
  • “Gentle yoga for multiple sclerosis : a safe and easy approach to better health and well-being through yoga”
  • “Qi flow yoga : presence through movement” (DVD)
  • “Rodney Yee’s yoga for beginners” (DVD)
  • “Viniyogatherapy for anxiety” (DVD)
  • “Yin yoga : presence through movement” (DVD)
  • “Yoga : mastering the basics” (DVD)
  • “Yoga for pain relief : simple practices to calm your mind and heal your chronic pain”

Call 302-623-4580, 302-733-1122 or 302-428-2201 for more information about availability and how to check out items from the community health libraries.

Some online resources: