The many benefits of yoga

By Pie Sweeting

In a year such as 2020, which is particularly stressful, using yoga to relax can be particulary beneficial. - Photo: Janine Martins

When you think of coronavirus winners you may think of Netflix, Amazon, Zoom, home-cooking, cycling, the environment and Clorox.

Well, another champion is yoga.

Stuck within the confines of our homes during lockdown, many of us turned to online yoga videos to move our bodies. Of course, there are many forms of exercise you can do online nowadays: Pilates, aerobics, dance, HIIT, and even boxing. So, why has yoga risen to the top? And what’s so great about it, anyway?

What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient form of exercise that emerged in India around 5,000 years ago. The original intention of yoga was a spiritual practice to train the body and the mind to cultivate self-awareness.

The postures – or, asanas, as they are known – make up just one part of the eight limbs of yoga. These are practices for well-being that help us to live fuller and healthier lives.

The first two limbs act as guides for living in balance with the external world – yamas – and internal world – niyamas. Examples of yamas are non-violence and moderation, and niyamas include contentment and self-discipline.

Heidi Stafford, yoga teacher in Grand Cayman, explained, “The idea is that when we apply these yamas and niyamas to our lives on a daily basis, we can cultivate a sense of ‘calm in the eye of the storm’ that is life. Whatever we observe in the world around us is also observable within, so the practice really becomes a matter of understanding ourselves more and more deeply.

“We start to drop superficial concerns to focus on what’s really important to us, and what really fulfils us.”

Amid the flurry of 2020, yoga brings a welcome sense of calm and reflection that we could all do with. But, if the idea of introspection and mindfulness puts you off, you still shouldn’t write off yoga.

“Ultimately, yoga is what you make of it,” said Stafford. “There will be those who use yoga as a purely physical medicine, to help tone, strengthen and open the body. There are others who look for more spiritual aspects and practise more meditation, or pranayama, to achieve that… and then there are so many who are just going one step at a time.

“The eight limbs are a guide, but the only way to truly understand is to practise for oneself and experience it directly.”

Health benefits
Part of what brought yoga into the Western mainstream is its many health benefits. As well as offering greater flexibility, strength and balance, studies have found yoga reduces stress, relieves anxiety, reduces depression, eases chronic pain, cuts the risk of heart disease, promotes sleep quality, promotes weight loss and relieves migraines.

Regular yoga practice could also be beneficial in combatting COVID-19. Researchers from The Journal of Behavioural Medicine found yoga boosts the immune system and lowers inflammation by reducing stress hormones.

Another study has found that pranayama, or yogic breathing, significantly improves vital lung capacity.

In fact, breath control is a fundamental part of yoga and pranayama is the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga.

“‘Prana’ translates to ‘breath’ and also ‘life-force energy’,” Stafford said. “We already know that without breath, there is no life, but this limb goes a step further in acknowledging how potent the practice of directing our life-force energy really can be.”

There are a few styles of yogic breathing and they achieve different results.

Sama-Vritti is where the inhalation and exhalation are the same length.

“This breath slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, mitigates stress and anxiety and generally relaxes the nervous system,” Stafford said.

Dragon’s Breath, or Breath of Fire, is a more energising technique.

“It offers an espresso shot of energy to the body and brain,” she added.

Kumbhaka Pranayama, or Breath Retention, is the practice of holding the breath and is beneficial for developing concentration and improving lung capacity. Stafford has noticed it helps her with free-diving and other physically challenging exercise.

Where to begin?
With all the different types of yoga on offer, choosing a class can be quite overwhelming.
Stafford recommends beginners start at a slower pace to pick up the shapes of the poses and begin to “learn the language” of yoga.

Vinyasa or Flow, Restorative, Yin and Hot yoga are all great places to start.

Vinyasa yoga is a series of poses that flow together ‘on the breath’.

Restorative is where relaxing, supported poses are held for several minutes (could be 3-20, depending on the shape) and is not about achieving any stretch, but rather focusses on balancing the nervous system which makes it a particularly effective practice for people feeling stressed.

Yin yoga involves simple, passive poses. Any yang or active yoga pose can be translated to Yin, but there is a question of safety, as Yin can be very intense on the joints if practised without proper guidance and support or with too much intensity/force. Each posture is also held for several minutes in Yin to allow time to access the connective tissue.

Hot yoga, as the name would suggest, is practised in a very warm, humid studio – about 36-38 degrees C, with 45% humidity – which increases circulation, flexibility and strength.

For athletes with overworked muscles, Yin yoga is great to stretch fascia and Hot yoga to stretch muscles. In fact, the English and Australian rugby teams are known to regularly practise Hot yoga to speed up their post-match recovery and guard against injury.

Poses like this headstand should not be attempted without first consulting with a doctor and paying attention to your body’s capabilities and limitations. – Photo: Graziela Portela

Yoga at home
Those looking to start at home should explore Yoga with Adriene, Shona Vertue and Tara Stiles on YouTube.

It is important to find a reputable teacher online or in person who can guide you, in order to avoid injury. Attempting a headstand with no experience or support can be a dangerous endeavour.

Stafford said it all boils down to body-awareness.

“The best way to avoid injury is to really develop the sense of deep-listening to the body. There are warning signs when we overdo it, and if we listen, we can hear them.”

Your environment matters too. Plan for a fall and move things out of the way.

And, ultimately, these poses can take a fair amount of time to master.

“Do the prep,” Stafford advised. “Figure out the necessary steps towards the goal posture that will help you build strength and coordination, and practise the prep steps over and over again for days, weeks and even months before attempting something like a headstand.

“Double-check all reasons not to do it: the contraindications, your doctor and, again, the space you have for the posture.”

Learning and accomplishing yoga poses teaches determination and endurance and makes you push through your comfort zone. A breakthrough of holding a pose for even a few seconds is amazing for improving self-esteem.

Apply the lessons to your life to heal and you will be stronger, wiser and more connected.

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