Ancient Yogis are rolling over in their graves as we westernize the time-honored practice of Yoga. Cue $100 yoga leggings, Pi-Yo DVD’s promising a six pack, celebrity yoga classes, competitive yoga… the hotter, harder and faster, the better. It’s a far cry from the original intent of yoga. Yoga is not meant to be a fitness craze. Yoga is meant to be an explorative journey of the mind and body. Yoga poses, called asanas, were originally designed to unlock blocked energy to allow for the free flow of prana (energy) to transform the mind, body and soul, not to create a six pack. But, our western society, which places the most value on physical perfection, has tried to diminish yoga to just another fitness infomercial.
Despite our western imprint on yoga, its timelessness remains, and with our warp speed world, the most valuable aspect of any yoga class is the mindfulness work. This is backed by multiple research studies demonstrating its effectiveness for improving mental health. Let’s explore how yoga can improve your outlook and create happiness and contentment.
Yoga was first mentioned in the Rig-Veda, one of the world’s first texts, written over 4000 years ago. Yogis believe that our health is dependent on the free flow of prana (chi) in our body, mind and spirit. The mind and body are only viewed as a vehicle for the expression of the spirit. When the spirit realizes its true potential, it transcends mind and body, resulting in enlightenment. In yogic thought, the body contains seven energy centers called chakras (wheels). The chakras store prana and correspond to and control various parts of the physical and spiritual body. Asanas awaken and align these energy centers. In order to achieve enlightenment, all of the chakras must be awakened, thus allowing prana to be released up the spine to the mind. While we may never get close to reaching enlightenment, science is on the side of the ancient yogis.
Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard, was the first mainstream physicians to explore how meditative breath work enhances mental health. He conducted a study in the early 1970’s that showed that there is a direct physiological response within the body when it is in a meditative state. In his landmark book, entitled the “Relaxation Response”, Dr. Benson states that “The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and it is the opposite of the fight or flight response.” This means that heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and hormonal responses all respond positively to relaxation techniques. This is the same mind- body connection that ancient yogis first explored 4000 years ago. (You can learn more about the relaxation response at www.relaxationresponse.org.)
Since the 1970’s, our world has increased in its complexity. Information access via technology has sped up our world, but also our minds. As one of my favorite mantras explains, we often are trapped by “an exhausted mind, beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thought”. For those with mental health issues like anxiety, depression or attention deficit or behavioral disorders, a frenetic mind is very painful. And these conditions are on the rise, as are ways to self-medicate.
Multiple research studies have demonstrated very positive mental health outcomes from a regular practice of yoga. One compelling study examined the effects of yoga and a breathing program on disabled Australian Vietnam veterans diagnosed with severe PTSD.
The veterans were heavy daily drinkers and all were taking at least one antidepressant. Participants were evaluated at the beginning of the randomized and controlled study using the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS), which ranks symptom severity on an 80-point scale. “Six weeks after the study began, the yoga and breathing group had dropped their CAPS scores from averages of 57 (moderate to severe symptoms) to 42 (mild to moderate). These improvements persisted at a six-month follow-up. The control group, consisting of veterans on a waiting list, showed no improvement.” I cannot imagine a more important outcome than helping veterans regain their sense of self and self-control.
Whether you are an avid yogi or yogini, or whether you are a newbie exploring yoga’s many benefits, you can only reap the benefits of the relaxation response with practice. Calming the mind is a difficult task that requires weekly, if not daily, practice. Unfortunately, many yoga students do not embrace the meditative portion of yoga classes. It can be painful to sit quietly with a frenetic mind. Thoughts swirl. Self-doubts rise up. There are places to go, people to see. But there is no way to create contentment and live in the moment without quieting the mind first. Meditation teaches “the pause” between life and your reaction to life.
So, how do you start? I suggest starting small and building up. Even a few minutes daily will create a physiological response in your body, lessening stress. Find a quiet, comfortable place to practice. You can lie down, or sit in a chair with good posture, but regardless of position, this is not the time for a nap! Your focus should first be on your breath. Focusing on your breath quiets the mind. Be consistent and be patient, and keep a beginner’s mind. You will take 2 steps forward, then 1 step back, but any time spent in quiet meditation is forward progress.
The most important part of meditation is to let go of any judgment at all. There is no right or wrong way to practice. Do the best you can to be present and aware. You may find random thoughts popping into your mind. This is perfectly normal. Just let them be and focus on your breath. Even a breath or two of complete presence in the moment can create the opening to a whole new way of being.
About the author:
Kathy Ekdahl, CSCS, of Personal Best Personal Training, is a 29 year career fitness professional, personal trainer, writer and yoga instructor. Kathy’s passion is working with female athletes, young and old, with a holistic approach that combines fitness education, self-care and healthy nutrition. Kathy is the author of “Getting Golf Ready- An Introduction to Golf Fitness and Yoga” and “Today’s Superwoman… What to Do When Your Cape is at the Cleaners” a practical guide to creating an empowered, fulfilled life. Visit Kathy’s website at www.personalbestpersonaltraining.com