Research-Backed Benefits of Yoga

If you are reading this, chances are you have already at least dabbled in yoga. Maybe you’ve noticed a feeling of peace after practice or your back pain has eased. It’s not a coincidence! More and more, research is proving that a yoga practice has physical and mental benefits that last well beyond the time you spend on your mat. Check it out:
  • Reducing stress: Studies have found people who regularly practice yoga have low cortisol (a stress hormone) levels and perceived stress as well as reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines which cause painful inflammation.
  • Relieving anxiety: Yoga practitioners have increased GABA levels, which improves mood and lessens feelings of anxiety.
  • Managing depression: Again, by decreasing the level of corisol, a yoga practice may reduce depressive symptoms in many populations, including people with depressive disorder, pregnant and postpartum women, and caregivers.
  • Decreasing lower back pain: It is estimated that 80% of adults will experience low back pain at some time in their lives. One study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that a 12 week yoga program improved scores for disability and pain intensity and reduced opioid use among military veterans. And even better? The effects lasted for several months.
  • Improving quality of life through illness: Used as a complementary therapy, yoga has been scientifically shown to improve the quality of life for people with the following conditions: prostate cancer, stroke, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Stimulating brain function: Studies have shown yoga improved the brain’s executive functions, as well as people’s mood. Executive functions are brain activities related to goal directed behavior and regulating emotional responses and habits. Other research suggests that yoga can improve mental flexibility, task switching, and information recall among older adults.
  • Preventing heart disease: Yoga has shown to reduce risk factors for heart disease, such as body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, and blood pressure.

Set a New Year’s Drishti

It’s that time again – time to re-evaluate our year and set resolutions for 2021. We start out strong and determined, but then life gets in the way and our resolutions fall by the wayside. Resolutions are daunting because they are inevitably about change, what we must change about our situations or ourselves.
What if this New Years Eve, we don’t set resolutions? What if, instead, we set our drishti?
In yoga, drishti is a focal point. For example, in Tree Pose, we might look at a spot on the floor a couple feet in front of us. Gazing at a drishti helps us find our balance and gives us opportunity to concentrate. With a clear, defined drishti, we can come back into our center when our minds wander and our bodies wobble. A drishti keeps us present, grounded, and authentic (in postures and in real life off the mat).
What might your drishti be for 2021? Remember that what you choose to focus on is where your energy will go. Choose wisely! Will your drishti be celebrations? Strength? Balance? Wisdom? Patience? What quality to you want to focus on (not a number on a scale or an amount in a bank account)?
Here are a few tips from CorePower Yoga for staying in focus (notice how these tips work ON the mat and OFF it, too):
  • Stay present in the moment. Remember to stop and have gratitude for where you are now. Don’t get so fixated on the destination that you forget to enjoy the journey.
  • Forgive the wobbles. Keeping focus and balance is hard. You’re going to wobble (or even fall!) from time to time. That’s okay. Take a deep breath and focus on finding your drishti again.
  • Meditate on it. Take a few minutes every day to refocus on your drishti. Remember why you set your intentions for the New Year and show gratitude to yourself for the effort you’re putting in.

Pose Prose

You probably have your favorite postures that you come back to regularly. And sometimes, with such repetition, those postures may begin to feel a bit too comfortable, maybe even stale. This is the perfect opportunity to infuse some creativity into your practice and use the symbolism of the posture’s names to reignite your asana practice. Here are a few common postures to get you started:
Anjali Mudra: Often referred to as prayer position or hands to heart, we can easily see how it is a gesture of gratitude or honor. Look a little closer and try this mental shift. Rather than pressing your palms together, cup your palms a tiny bit. Into this gap, mentally place your intention or prayer, or leave it unfilled to invite blessings to enter your life.
Tadasana: Mountain pose is the basis for every other posture in yoga (yes, even in prone postures and restorative practices). In mountain pose, it is easy to imagine your body actually becoming the mountain – solid, strong, taking up space. What if you instead imagine that you are standing on top of a mountain? Here at the peak of the mountain top, you can feel and see the vastness, the infinite potential that surrounds you. Use your third eye to imagine the brilliant blue sky and reach into it.
Vrksasana: Tree pose invites you to embody a tree – wide, strong roots, a stable trunk, and branches expanding up and out. But beyond that, the wobbling and swaying we usually do while trying to balance in tree pose is much like a tree being rocked by the wind. In a strong wind, trees that cannot bend will fall. Same with people in tree pose. If you lose your flexibility and try to stand stiff, you will fall. Go with the wind, stay rooted in your strength, and you can sway without breaking.
Ananda Balasana: If you’ve ever seen a baby playing with her toes, then you can immediately connect Happy Baby pose with a feeling of carefree movement. Use time in Happy Baby to remind yourself that your body is open to exploration every day and delight in the movements and tasks it is able to perform.
Savasana: In Corpse pose, we lay as still as possible, but not in a morbid way. Instead, use your meditative time in corpse pose to allow the dead parts (the inflammation, the anger, the injury, the fatigue) to drain from your body as you rest on the ground. With each inhale, renew your energy reserves and refresh your mental state.

Gratitude for Our Community

The Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast says that gratefulness springs from a sense of belonging. We can only feel connected with something, or someone, that we appreciate. In Sanskrit, the language of Yoga, this connection between people, the environment, and the universe is called a sangha.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “A sangha is a community of friends practicing the dharma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love… when you find these elements are present in a community, you know that you have the happiness and fortune of being in a real sangha.”
As is the case for the entire planet, this year has been a test of our Yoga4All sangha. We’ve had to be forgiving, innovative, courageous, curious, flexible, and supportive. And for all of this, we are truly grateful for you, our sangha. In times of difficulty it’s extremely hard to feel grateful for anything. It reminds me of an old story about a traveler who comes upon an elderly man seated on a bench outside the entrance to a city. The traveler asks him, ‘What is this town ahead like?”
The elderly man replied, “First, tell me about the last town you visited.”
“It was awful,” replied the traveler. “The people were unfriendly, the food was horrible, the weather was bad.”
“Well,” said the man, “this next town will probably be about the same.” The traveler went gloomily on his way.
The next day another traveler walked by the same old man seated on the bench and asked about the village ahead. The elderly man again asked about the last town she visited. This time the traveler responded, “Oh, it was lovely! The sunsets were beautiful, the people were fascinating, there were so many interesting places to visit.”
The elderly man then replied, “The town ahead will most likely be the same as your last.” The traveler went happily on her way.
We can honestly say our sangha here at Yoga4All has made our “travels” in 2020 full of (as Thich Nhat Hanh described) “awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love”. So as we look ahead into the unknown and unpredictable future, we know we can rely on our Y4A sangha, and we hope you feel the same. Thank you for continuing to trust our teachers and therapists with your mental and physical health. We are grateful beyond measure.

Ease Emotional Pain with Yoga

In Buddhism, there are Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. Fortunately, we can ease the discomfort and fatigue that negative emotions and stress create in the body through yoga postures.
Grief resides in the lungs: When we cry really hard, we often have to gasp for breath. When we grieve a loss, we physically feel the pain and tightness in our chest.
  • Backbends open your chest, allowing more oxygen to enter the lungs and releases tension in the neck: cobracamelbridgefish
  • Long, mindful breaths move the diaphragm, create more space in the lungs and bring the mind back to the present moment: dirgha pranayamabunny breath
Anger builds up in the liver: You’ve heard of being so angry that your “blood boils”? Your blood is cleaned in the liver and the liver is in the belly which, in chakra philosophy, is the seat of power. When you’re angry, you may feel powerless.
  • Twists wring out the spine and internal organs, flushing them with freshly oxygenated blood and releasing spinal and belly tension: easy pose twist, reclined twist, half lord of the fish twist
  • Core strengthening poses build fire in the belly; boatcrow, any balance posture
Fear is felt in the hamstrings: When our bodies kick into “fight-or-flight” mode, our legs get ready to go. You often feel a bit wobbly or weak after a frightening situation has passed. Constant small stressors can lead to chronic tight hamstrings, and thereby back pain.
  • Forward folds are soothing to the nervous system and stretch the hamstrings: rag doll, pyramid, seated forward fold, wide angle fold (seated and standing)
  • Passive leg stretches encourage us to slow down and draw the blood back to the heart: legs up-the-wall
Hips are like an emotional “junk drawer”: If you have an emotion that you haven’t processed (or haven’t even recognized), it resides in your hips. Our second chakra is the seat of emotions and it resides in the center of our hip bowl.
  • Hip openers release sadness: cobblerpigeongoddess, lunges
  • Hip circles move the joints in all directions, polishing them: hula hoops, dancing, hip circles
Shoulders hold stress: This one is usually the most obvious to notice. Ask someone to show you what a nervous person looks like. Chances are they’ll squeeze their eyebrows together, tighten their jaw, make fists, and bring their shoulders up to their ears.
  • Shoulder circles gently get movement started: shoulder rolls, arm swinging
  • Shoulder blade movements release tension while opening the chest: puppyeagle
Jaws control tension release: The old phrase “bite your tongue” comes to mind here. Rather than speaking or yelling, we often hold our emotions in through clamped jaws. This tension effects our tooth health and the tightness trickles down into our shoulders.
  • Release the jaw through large, mindful movement: lion, yawning, neck rolls
  • Remind yourself to keep the teeth from touching during meditation, breath work and throughout practice
Our minds are powerful and our bodies are stubborn. What we perceive as danger or stress may just be that – a perception or belief. But our bodies think it is real and react accordingly. Work through big emotions with yoga postures, breathing, meditation, and lots of positive affirmations.

Building Community Through Yoga

A Yoga practice may be an individual pursuit, but there is no denying that each time you step onto your mat or sit on your meditation cushion, the positive energy and spirit of connection from your individual efforts has a ripple effect out into the world.
In his book, The Tree of Yoga, BKS Iyengar describes how an individual and society can be united through a yoga practice:
“Yoga works on each individual for his or her growth and betterment, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It is meant for the whole of humanity…Yoga is firstly for individual growth, but through individual growth, society and community develop.
Individual growth is a must, and yoga develops each individual. But your body is an image of the world around you; it is a big international club. You have three hundred joints – that means there are three hundred club members associated in one body. The blood circulation is ninety-six thousand kilometres long if you take all the arteries, veins, and smaller blood vessels together, and there are sixteen thousand kilometres of biological energy flowing in the nervous system…Yoga provides help to all these parts to coordinate together so that they may work in harmony and concord. Yoga works on your conscience. Yoga works on your consciousness. Yoga works on your intelligence. Yoga works on your senses. Yoga works on your flesh. Yoga works on your organs of perception. Thus, it is known as the global art.
When your body, mind and soul are healthy and harmonious, you will bring health and harmony to those around you and health and harmony to the world – not by withdrawing from the world but by being a healthy living organ of the body of humanity.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Spending time in internal reverence rather than external reference through yoga, meditation, nature walks, dancing, singing, journaling, whatever it is that brings you joy and connection builds your reservoir of health positive energy that you can then share with your family, friends, and community. Spread that love!
Explore more about wellness, the physiology of yoga, the science behind the practice, and the peaceful power that yoga cultivates in our classes, Y4A’s unique workshops, and on our Facebook page.

When Life Isn’t Pretty

(This message was borrowed from Jan Fuller, Elon University Chaplain. Find her full message at https://www.truittcenterblog.com/post/for-times-that-are-not-pretty)
“It’s not pretty.” I have heard and said this so many times lately. The complexity and uncertainty that we live with is taking a toll on us.
Racism is not pretty; it never was. Politics have gotten harder and more ugly, with more consequence. Division is deeper. Covid is as strong as ever, isolating and discouraging us. Teaching and counseling are harder by zoom; we possess less focus and patience. The sum total of all of these, the strain and stress we are bearing or absorbing, is really not pretty.
There is an old story about things that are ugly and mistaken that has held me together through many ugly moments, even failure.
There was a calligrapher who came to the Master to finish her training. It took time; she gathered new skills and experience, new strokes and brushes and ink. New colors. New confidence.
The day for the final exam arrived. She was given a large canvas and a text to write, while the Master went away. Painstakingly, she began her art, one letter and word at a time. As she was almost finished, and felt happy with the way her canvas looked, her brush accidentally flicked drops of ink across the canvas. Her heart sank. Before her eyes, she watched black blobs appear across her canvas, over her carefully placed words. It was ruined. Tears ran down her face as shecontemplated failure.
At the end of the day, the Master returned and surveyed the damaged canvas. Then he picked up a brush and added a few strokes to the canvas, transforming one ink splash into a flower, then another into a bee. The apprentice joined in, creating of another blob a vine, connecting them with color and shape, creating on the text a garden thriving with birds, insects, and flowers. Finally, they stepped back very pleased, with a work of art before them, made from the errors of the day.
I think of God as an artist, but you can imagine the universe, the energy of life, the arc of justice, the winds of time. What we make now is imperfect, even deeply flawed. The Artist pulls it together and makes beauty of it, adding flourishes, blending our efforts with Hers. It might not be pretty, but it becomes beautiful, appropriate, and finished.
We do our best and along the way it becomes enough.
However today seems, however your efforts come out on paper, in class, on Zoom, know that you are not alone and that the finished product will be perfect, perfect enough. Beautiful and full of hope.”
Explore more about wellness, the physiology of yoga, the science behind the practice, and the peaceful power that yoga cultivates in our classes, Y4A’s unique workshops, and on our Facebook page.

Morning Yoga Poses

Let’s be honest – these days we often wake up after a fitful night’s sleep with our eyebrows already furrowed and our teeth grinding. The anxiety of what new developments happened overnight is enough for even the most optimistic among us to crawl back under the blankets.
On the mornings that are particularly challenging to get out of bed and start your day, spending a few minutes moving your body and minding your breath before your feet hit the floor may change your mood and set a positive tone for the whole day.
Here are some easy, accessible poses you can do right from your bed. You can linger in postures longer if you have the time, or move through the poses more rapidly if you are in a hurry. The most important part? Long, deep inhales to get that prana (life energy) into your body and brain.
  1. Lying Breath: In a comfortable position, inhale through your nose and fill yourself from bottom to top. Pause. Exhale very slowly through your nose. Pause. Repeat several times.
  2. Reclined Twist: Bring your left knee toward your chest and hold it with the right hand. Exhale and twist your knee across your body to the right, left arm extended to the left. Hold the twist for about 3 breaths.
  3. Hamstring Stretch: Extend one leg up toward the ceiling, holding it near the calf. Bend and straighten it a few times and then reach the heel toward the ceiling. Hold and breathe. Repeat on the other side.
  4. Seated Forward Fold: Sit up and extend your legs long. Inhale and sit up tall. Exhale and reach forward toward your toes. Allow your spine to round and your head to drop. Breathe.
  5. Cross Leg Fold: Sit with your legs crossed and gently fold forward, resting your forehead on your hands or a pillow. Hold fo a few breaths. Inhale to sit back up. Switch which leg is on top and repeat.
  6. Puppy Pose: From hands and knees, walk your hands forward as far as you can, keeping your tail up. Let your heart drop toward the mattress and rest your forehead on the bed (or a pillow).
  7. Pigeon Pose: From hands and knees, Move your right foot towards the outside of your left hip, then lower your torso towards that knee while straightening your opposite leg behind you. Rest your head on the backs of your hands. Take a few breaths and then switch sides.
  8. Figure 4: Move close to your bed’s headboard and rest your right foot there, so your right leg is bent at a 90degree angle. Cross your left ankle across your right thigh, just above the knee. Press your left knee away fro your body. Breathe and hold. Change sides.
  9. Frog: Starting on all fours, spread your knees wider than your hips and turn your feet out. Lower to your elbows, and maybe let your chest rest on the mattress. Breathe.
  10. Eagle Arms: Sit tall. Cross your right arm under your left and twist together so that your palms meet (if not accessible, keep elbows crossed and hold opposite shoulders with hands). Drop shoulders and lift elbows to shoulder height. Breathe and hold. Mindfully release and switch sides.

Yoga Builds Bones

How does yoga make us healthier?
Let us count the ways:
  • increases flexibility
  • increases muscle strength and tone
  • improved respiration, energy and vitality
  • maintaining a balanced metabolism
  • weight reduction
  • cardio and circulatory health
  • protection for injury
  • improves balance
  • improves mood and mental health
Add something else to this list – a benefit that is particularly important as we age: Yoga builds bones!
According to the National Institute of Health, yoga appears “to be a safe and effective means to reverse bone loss in the spine and the femur” by raising BMD (bone mineral density). Osteoporosis and osteopenia affects up to 200 million people worldwide, and with an aging population, that number will likely continue to grow.
As compared to medications and invasive procedures, Yoga classes are a low-cost and less dangerous alternative. Side effects of a yoga practice include “better posture, improved balance, enhanced coordination, greater range of motion, higher strength, reduced levels of anxiety, and better gait”. All of these side-effects also keep our bones safe by preventing falls, too. As an added bonus, Yoga lowers cortisol, a stress hormone that breaks down bones when it is chronically elevated, which is why even passive poses and restorative practices can help prevent bone loss.
The reason Yoga works to build bone strength, is that the postures pit one group of muscles against another. Bones are exposed to force by the pulling (contractions) of the and thereby the bone mineral density is enhanced. Specifically, the study looked at the benefit of twelve specific postures, all of which are accessible to most practitioners, especially if props are used (you can even practice while sitting in a chair), and proper instruction is provided. The postures are (see photos from the study above):
  1. Tree pose
  2. Triangle
  3. Warrior 2
  4. Side Angle/Side Warrior
  5. Revolved Triangle
  6. Locust
  7. Bridge
  8. Reclined hand to big toe
  9. Reclined revolved hand to foot
  10. Seated twist
  11. Half Lord of the Fish twist
  12. Savasana
Hold each pose between 12 and 72 seconds to allow the stimulation of osteocytes (bone building cells). When you build muscle, you build bone. So get on your mat!

Why Do You Practice Yoga?

Question:
Why do you practice yoga?
Not in a “why do people practice yoga” way, but rather in a personal examination: Why do YOU practice yoga?
Out of all the many activities you can do in your free time, why choose yoga?
What drew you to try yoga originally? Does that same reason still apply?
What do you hope to get out of the practice, if anything?
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, has your intent changed from when you first stepped foot on the mat?
What is it about your practice that keeps you coming back?
We invite you to use these questions to clarify your intention(s) and goals of yoga for you, at this moment in time. Of course, each day may bring different answers. But through regular examination, you can adjust and accommodate your practice to bring the most benefit to your life, physically and mentally (and beyond). Maybe you are ready to mix it up in a new class or with a different teacher? Perhaps you are needing to add more meditation – or more movement – to your practice.
You may also consider applying these same questions to other activities you do regularly, to clarify why you are spending your time, energy, money, and attention on those pursuits.
Explore more about wellness, the physiology of yoga, the science behind the practice, and the peaceful power that yoga cultivates in our classes, Y4A’s unique workshops, and on our Facebook page.