Yoga for Health, Life, and Healing
By Carla Atherton Director of The Healthy Family Formula
Let us make health easy once again.
Health is a complicated dance, yet, at the same time, is simple, with a select few necessary steps. It involves your physical body, your mental/emotional environment, your spirit, and the connections between all three of these aspects as well as to the people and world around you.
This dance between these aspects of what we will call your “self” is complex and involved, but if you give your whole self the right steps, you do not need to concern yourself with the complexities, the chemical and electrical processes that just happen within your body as you work, sleep, play, and move. Yes, there is focus and work involved, but it is not as hard as you may think. There is, in fact, a practice that can address all of the aspects of your health, that can be practiced by everyone in your family, and that is yoga.
And I, without a doubt, can say that yoga saved my life. Why do I say that?
What Is Yoga?
There are many traditions practiced by ancient cultures all over the world that emphasize good health. They involve a focused, consistent (often daily) practice that involves physical activity with mindful elements that involve the mental and emotional states of the practitioner (you!), as well as the spirit. Today, you will still see these cultures and practices alive and well all over the world: just think of the widespread practice of tai chi and qui gong in Asian countries and yoga in India.
These ancient practices have been tried and tested to be an integral part of overall good health, and there is a dire need to re-learn these practices in parts of the world where they have been forgotten or have been devalued and placed behind progress, speed, and instant gratification.
In the west, although there are pockets of communities that still employ relaxation and mindfulness practices, the whole way of life, overall, is sped up, which has created an environment where health takes a backseat to stressful daily physical, mental, and social interactions. When living in such a state, your body and mind take a beating with little time to repair.
Many think of yoga as a trendy exercise technique or an unattainable set of movements to make you into a pretzel or a Zen monk. Yoga is all and none of these things, as the practice cannot be pigeonholed into one empty category or another.
Yoga is an ancient form of movement and exercise that has an overwhelming number of health benefits ranging from emotional balance to physical stamina. It is a set of asanas (or poses) that are designed to give your body and mind a good workout. There are many forms of yoga; therefore, there is a style of practice that can match most anyone according to their needs, body type, preference, ability, mood, and skill level.
Yoga Is Physical
Yoga strengthens your body, helps you to move more freely and to be lighter on your feet. It actually massages your organs, brings fresh oxygen to your brain and other body parts, gets your lymph system flowing, stimulates your immune system, strengthens your thyroid, works on muscles and myofascial tissue, lubricates your joints, stimulates brain development and repair, strengthens and stretches muscles, builds bone density, and depending on the intensity, yoga gets your heart pumping and helps you to have a good, detoxifying sweat.
Yoga Is Mental/Emotional
Through yoga, you can get an intense workout, yet feel refreshed and centered and calm when finished a practice. Yoga teaches you to observe strong emotions like resistance and anger and allows you to sit with those emotions and to move them out through your body.
Yoga is a mindful moving meditation that brings awareness to your body and mental state so that you can focus on discovering the sources of your health challenges while reducing both your physical and emotional stress. When focusing on your body, all else falls away, including unnecessary stress and a hyper-focus on things that you worry about but don’t ultimately matter.
Yoga teaches acceptance. It teaches you to be where you are at in any given moment and that, even if things are uncomfortable at times, they are what they are. Yoga teaches you to observe and to learn.
Yoga teaches you that everything is temporary and not to get too attached to pleasure or too upset with discomfort or pain, as these things will pass. Then it prepares you for the next challenge that you will take on in your life. It teaches you how to “bring it!” when you need to find inner and outer strength.
Yoga Nourishes the Spirit Through Union
Yoga is a union of all bodily systems and aspects of what we call the “self,” but also union with other people, with your community, with your natural world. Yoga teaches you to listen and to observe, to slow down and discover, so you can rest, repair, heal, and maintain a healthy body and mind.
Satsang (where truth-seeking people are brought together in yogic practice) can bring the positive energy of people together, encouraging and strengthening each other. It can help you to feel more powerful and centered within yourself and therefore more connected to the world and people around you.
Yoga, through its focus and stillness, can help you to connect to what it means to be alive, to what your life means, and to what really matters. It can reduce the angst and anxiety you can feel in those moments when nothing makes sense in your life or you are unsure. Yoga can help you to look inward for the answers, it can bring you back to the task of living a more vibrant, fulfilling life. And isn’t that just the epitome of good health?!
Therapeutic Benefits of Yoga
Let’s get back to a more practical look at the practice of yoga. In the holistic, functional model of health, it is essential that you see your body as a system of parts that work together and are united. Every part has its job, but each one affects the other. Yoga recognizes the union of these systems, and the practice of yoga works on all of them at once.
Stress is the catalyst for ill health. In fact, it is the stress you experience, whether it be emotional or physical, that creates every single malfunction or disease process.
Good health is heavily dependent upon reducing stress and making sure to get ample hydration, nutrition, oxygen, movement, sleep, rest, and repair, and to rid your body of the things that can potentially harm you such as infection, viruses, bacteria, and chemical burden through proper immune system function and detoxification.
Practicing yoga can address all of the above through movement, but yoga also addresses stress and detoxification through breathwork, as well. Your lungs are organs of detoxification. They filter and expel. Your lungs also do the job of bringing oxygen into your body, which is needed for every physical process necessary to sustain life (you don’t breathe, you die), and the rate at which you bring in that oxygen and expel the carbon dioxide is controlled by the breath. The breath can instigate a cascade of stress hormones when we are panting through our mouths in distress or the hormones that make us more centered and settled when we are taking controlled breaths through our nostrils.
Yogic breathwork has been shown to increase the oxygenation of all of the bodily tissues, including the brain, while reducing stress, decreasing anxiety, improving mood and physical stamina and producing an overall feeling of calm and balance.
Breathwork is meditative as it requires a focus on the breath, itself, and meditation has been shown to be a powerful healing practice by making profound changes to the very structure of the brain.
Risk Factors to Your Health
In a nutshell, the potential for you to become ill, to develop symptoms, or worse, to move into a state of chronic illness, is only partly due to your genetic potential (about 10%). The rest of your potential to develop health problems comes down to factors largely controlled by diet and lifestyle.
Yoga is one part of living a lifestyle that reduces these risks. It can actually help you to improve on other factors such as good nutrition in that it forces you to slow down and pay attention to everything you do, including what you put into your body.
Yoga also reduces the risk factors of illness that can include lack of mental and physical activity, vascular problems (oxygen and bloodflow), inflammation, and immobility. As mentioned above, it moves out toxins through the lungs (through yogic breathwork) and the skin (sweating) while mobilizing the digestive system to eliminate properly. Yoga is a very powerful method of disease prevention and maintenance of good health.
What Can Yoga Heal?
Let’s say that you have a health challenge that you are looking to overcome. Because yoga works on so many levels and on the whole person, it has massive health benefits for a myriad of illnesses and disease processes, a few examples being:
Mental/mood disorders such as depression
Memory and brain degeneration (dementia, Alzheimer’s)
Autoimmunity (Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatiod Arthritis, etc.)
Musculoskeletal discomfort such as back and joint pain
Sarcopenia (muscle wasting)
The list goes on…
Yoga can improve heart, liver, endocrine, kidney, brain, and digestive health and aid in the prevention, improvement, and reversal of any and all of the above conditions. It can keep you younger and more mobile, preventing the cascade of ill health that immobility can create in the aging population and can increase the stamina of both young and old alike.
Yoga can be practiced for therapeutic purposes to heal both the body and the mind as it relieves stress and improves focus and stamina. It can be practiced by both people who are facing health challenges, themselves, or by people who are caring for loved ones who are ill. It can be practiced by older people as well as children and teens.
Some Helpful Yogic Practices
Starting to practice yoga need not be intimidating, nor daunting. It is a personal practice for you to explore as you see fit. You can start very small by exploring one pose at a time or by attending beginner classes. If you already practice yoga, you can deepen your practice by exploring other styles of yoga or by studying yogic principles. If you don’t like a class or if one teacher does not resonate with you, try something or someone else. You can practice at home or in a class, use DVDs or online resources, or explore with a friend or neighbor; just be sure to get good instruction as there is always potential for injury with any physical activity you undertake.
The point is to explore what yoga can do for you, to find our what your body needs, and to have fun and discover a great deal in the process.
✓Do as much or as little as you want, but try to stay consistent. Try to make yoga an important part of your day, even if it is only 10 minutes of focused attention on your practice. 10 minutes of focus without distraction is better than an hour of interrupted half-hearted “going through the motions.”
✓Try inversions such as downward dog and poses that put you upside down or with your legs up on the wall to increase circulation and flow of fresh blood to organs, and to oxygenate your brain.
✓Try a flow workout, where one pose flows into another, such as sun salutations, to invigorate and recharge.
✓Try poses such as warriors 1, 2, and 3 for strength and focus.
✓Try poses such as tree pose and eagle pose for balance.
✓Try twists such as triangle and seated twists to squeeze out old blood from organs, stretch out the muscles around your spine, and to rebalance.
✓Try some hip openers such pigeon pose to open up joints, reduce aches and pains,
to increase mobility, and to make the rest of the poses easier.
✓Enjoy the practice of yin yoga, which is a slow, meditative style of yoga where deep poses are held for long periods of time, as well as poses such as child’s pose and corpse pose (shavasana) for myofascial release, stress relief, eliciting the relaxation response, and deep joint and muscle stretching.
✓Try even a few minutes a day of breathwork such as belly breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and simple, mindful deep breathing where you simply follow your breath in and out of your body while repeating in your mind one word such as “one” with every breath. Try it! Even a few minutes will leave you more centered and calm.
✓Teach these techniques to your children and grandchildren.
Yoga for Your Healing
Through all of the things I have explored and tested throughout the years, it is yoga that has healed me the most. If I am not “doing my yoga” in my life or as a physical practice, I am off-center and can feel a profound shift in my body and sense of wellbeing.
Yoga will push you to your limits and challenge you to go a bit further every time. It is more than just stretching; it is prevention, maintenance, and healing. It is a means to access and nurture your most vital self.
The light in me, sees the light in you. Namaste.