By MacDuff Perkins, RYT 2015-12-22 05:45:35
Think you couldn’t be a yogi? Think again! More than simply stretching, yoga benefits all ages, body shapes and levels of fitness. THOSE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE BENEFITS OF YOGA might think of it as “relaxation for contortionists.” After all, many novices see the bending and balancing postures as a new form of torture instead of an ancient way of meditating. In its most traditional form, however, yoga is time-tested method of strengthening the body and clearing the head—and the ability to practice has nothing to do with your body’s inherent flexibility, weight, age or injury status. Anyone can do yoga, even those who think they can’t touch their toes. In fact, those who are flexibility-challenged often benefit the most from yoga, whether it’s a fast-paced hot vinyasa class or a gentle restorative session. (If those words sound like gibberish to you, review the different types of yoga on page 56 to learn more about their similarities and differences.) Of course, there are obstacles to practicing regularly, and sometimes the hardest part is finding the time, inclination and space to roll out your mat. Studio classes can be often prohibitively expensive, and those studios might not populate your hometown. And think of the time! Carving out even 15 minutes from your day to stretch may sound ridiculous, given your busy schedule. To top it all off, the intimidation of heading into a room with a bunch of thin, Spandex-clad women is enough to turn many of us off entirely. When you look for solutions rather than obstacles, however, you might find that yoga is much more accessible than you thought. Should you practice yoga if you don’t think you have the “right” body type—or are the “right” gender? Yes. What if you can’t even touch your toes? Of course! And what’s with the ‘ommm’-ing? Read on to find out. ROLL OUT YOUR MAT If you’re entirely new to yoga, you might have questions about where to begin. The optimal way to experience yoga is to do so as part of a community, in a classroom setting with a qualified teacher who can watch you practice and recommend tweaks in the position to best serve your body. In reality, though, finding the perfect teacher in a great studio can be hard and often expensive—not to mention time-consuming. But don’t worry, there are alternatives if a class isn’t in the cards for you right now! The Internet is a great place to start when beginning your yoga practice. With an easy search of YouTube videos, you can find well-respected yoga teachers providing resources for yoga practitioners at any level. Search for “Yoga for back pain,” “yoga for weight loss” and even “yoga for senior citizens” to find hundreds of results that you can cull through before picking one that fits your needs. You can also check out your local library, where they’ll have DVDs of longer-length classes, allowing you to find a teacher or style of yoga that you enjoy before you purchase a DVD for yourself. While a yoga mat is a great thing to own for many reasons, it’s not mandatory if you’re practicing in your own home. As for clothes, just wear something comfortable that gives you plenty of room to move. Remember: Five minutes is all you need to feel a benefit. When you have more time, use it—but when you only have five minutes, that is all you need. Then, if and when you are ready to head into a studio—or a class at a comunity center, gym or church —call ahead and ask about the different teachers and their styles. Studios and instructors want you to find the right class for your interest, so they’ll be more than happy to let you know what to expect. If you’re trying a studio, don’t hesitate to ask for a quick tour so that you know where the bathroom is, where towels are kept and where you can find a rental mat. During your first class, listen to the teacher’s instructions during the pose instead of looking around the room. This is to get you into your own body, but also to protect your neck; there’s nothing like getting into a funky pose and then cranking your head around to see what you’re “supposed to be doing.” At the same time, don’t worry if you can’t go through all of the poses or if you need to take multiple breaks. To the teacher, the most important thing is that you stayed for the entire class, even if you spent half of it just resting. BEND YOUR MIND, BEND YOUR BODY While yoga does depend on the ability to manipulate your body, the first point of flexibility occurs in the practitioner’s mind. When you allow yourself to recognize that yoga might be a challenge—but a worthwhile one—the practice of yoga truly starts. Of course, on the mat, it’s not always so simple. When you’re born, your body is mobile. Just watch as a baby easily brings his feet up to his mouth or a young child drops down to touch her toes. As you age, though, your muscles dehydrate. With less use due to a sedentary lifestyle, they begin to atrophy. Everyday activities, such as commuting in a car or sleeping on your side, create invisible issues and imbalances in your body, which are then outwardly translated as pain, immobility, stiffness and more. And, of course, some of us are simply more “bendy” than others! But a lack of flexibility (or the idea that you’re somehow not “right” for yoga) is the last reason that should stop you from trying yoga. After a yoga session, the practitioner should walk away from the mat feeling as if the entire class catered to his specific body and problem areas. The right instructor encourages the practitioner to listen to his own body, diagnosing issues and working carefully and mindfully to alleviate them. Consider a forward fold, a yoga pose in which you bend at the waist and let your arms drop to the ground. If your lower back rounds, the teacher may offer you blocks to place on the ground under your hands. This straightens your arms and supports your upper body as it extends away from your lower half. You might not look exactly like the pose shown in a book, but the roundness in your back is gone—and that means you’re doing it right. Meanwhile, the person next to you might be touching her nose to her shin, looking like a sleeping bat hanging from a tree branch. This is her version of “right,” and although you may feel horribly inept next to chin-to-shin woman, it’s entirely possible that your body, with its stiff joints and sore muscles, is actually the one soaking up the most benefit from the forward fold! Your tight hamstrings are slowly lengthening while the hip joints are releasing. Tendons are also stretching, and the sacroiliac joint in the lower back opens and releases. Your body is flooding yourself with oxygen and dopamine and creating a blissful feeling—but you won’t find this bliss if you’re focused on being just like the person next to you! THE “IDEAL” YOGA BODY In every yoga class or yoga DVD, at least one participant seems to fit the yoga “ideal”—sculpted muscles, long limbs and perfect form. It’s so easy to feel intimidated if you’re carrying extra weight or are a good 20 years older than the people you see around you or on the TV. But before you reconsider your session, remember that just rolling out the mat is all you needed to do. Yoga is about showing up, not showing off. To make a better experience for yourself all around, know what you’re getting yourself into. If you’re in your golden years or are overweight, choose a basic hatha class rather than an intense heated vinyasa session. Yoga is for every age and every body, but you have to respect your body’s limitations in order to serve it to the greatest benefit. Yes, you may be overweight, but you might be surprised to learn you have the most open hips in class and can perform poses that make smaller yogis grunt and groan. You may be older than the rest of the room, but you may have the deepest backbends of the whole bunch. Yoga is not about what your body looks like, but about what your body feels like. So test out the poses, use plenty of props to find your body’s sweet spot and see what your body can do. You might be surprised! INHALE, EXHALE A vital part of any yoga class is a focus on breathing. Movements will be synchronized with the breath (a step forward will happen on an inhale, a forward fold will happen on an exhale), and the instructor will often remind you to focus on your breathing. This isn’t just to make sure that you don’t get out of breath. The roots of yoga are actually in breath work more so than physical movements. Pranayama, or breath control (literally “life force”), is one of the most effective ways to lower stress, improve overall health, uplift your emotional mood and even speed up your metabolism. How is that possible? Think about it—the more you’re huffing and puffing, the more stressed out and exhausted you become. Your nervous system speeds up everything in your body to respond to your elevated stress level. Start to slow your breath down, and the parasympathetic response dials down all of your body’s systems, promoting calm and mental clarity in your mind. Want to try it out? Humans typically breathe at a rate of roughly 14 to 16 breaths per minute. By dropping this number down significantly, to five or six breaths per minute, the body undergoes an immediate change. Grab a watch and give yourself a minute of focusing on your (longer, slower, deeper) breaths and see how you feel afterward. REALIZING THE BENEFITS How do you feel after practicing yoga? After the first class, you’ll notice improved brain function. You’ll feel sharper mentally and much less stressed. Your body will feel more flexible. You’ll go home and find yourself eating less and sleeping better. After a few months of yoga practice, expect to see even bigger signs—lower blood pressure, relief of chronic pain and even the decrease in blood sugar levels for diabetics. Lung capacity is increased, leading to better sleep and athletic ability. Over the years, watch for increased lung capacity, respiratory function, circulation, muscle tone and bone density. And, most importantly, look for improved cardio function, says a 2014 study in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology. Yoga affects the nervous system, improving heart and metabolic health without causing further stress on the body—and that helps prevent heart attacks. Need more encouragement? The list of benefits goes on and on; yoga also… • Improves your posture. No more slumping in chairs! • Mitigates or prevents degenerative arthritis. That means, hopefully, less pain for you. • Boosts your heart rate. Skip the treadmill for a solid yoga session. • Makes you happier. Thanks, serotonin! • Did we mention it does wonders for your backside? Enough said. MacDuff Perkins is a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) and freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md. Photography by Thinkstock.com. BONUS WEB CONTENT Some shy away from yoga due to previous injuries. However, yoga can help heal those injuries and strengthen your muscles to prevent further ones—learn how at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. Say What? Ah, the ommm-ing. It just makes some people uncomfortable, that’s undeniable, and yet it’s commonplace for even beginner yoga classes to om at the beginning and end of a class. Why? Om is a single-syllable mantra, often called a “bija” mantra or “seed” mantra. These are easy to remember and recite, but they also pack the most punch. By chanting om, the student creates a vibration in the body and dials in the consciousness to a single point of concentration. Try it sometime: It’s difficult to write a grocery list or compose an email while you’re chanting om. When it comes to yoga, the biggest point of flexibility needs to occur in your mind. If your mind is rigid, then you can expect the body to follow. Although the chant may have its roots in a foreign culture and religion, this does not mean that it does not resonate within your body or go against your beliefs if you do not want it to. Different Disciplines for Different Disciples Not all yoga is created the same. Once you’ve tried out hatha yoga, branch out into different varieties to find the one that’s best for you. Below are just some of the dozens of yoga types from which you can choose. • Ashtanga Yoga A physically demanding practice of traditional postures, Ashtanga yoga involves working through a sequence of poses, holding each for five to eight breaths before advancing to the next. • Bikram Yoga Founded by an Olympic gold medal winner in weightlifting, Bikram Yoga classes take place in a room heated to 95 to 105 degrees. Students practice a series of 26 postures, first standing, then seated. • Hatha Yoga The most fundamental form of yoga, “Hatha” translates to “sun-moon” and is the foundation of all yoga styles. Hatha classes involve asana (or poses), regulated breathing and meditative techniques. Hatha classes are generally the ideal place for beginners. • Iyengar Yoga The telltale aspect of an Iyengar class is a focus on alignment. Poses are generally held longer, having the student move slowly into the pose in order to incorporate the entire body into one pose. Iyengar classes involve multiple props. • Jivamukti Yoga One of the newer styles of yoga, Jivamukti focuses on the spiritual and ethical aspects of yoga before moving into a vigorous and challenging asana practice. Expect a lesson to open the class, followed by Sanskrit chanting and only then does your sweat session begin. • Kundalini Yoga Focusing on awakening the energy at the base of the spine, Kundalini Yoga involves chanting, music, meditation and breathing exercises to bring awareness to the body. • Power Yoga The American interpretation of Ashtanga, Power Yoga is a combination of fast cardio and serious stretching. Traditional yoga is partnered with traditional calisthenics, with pushups, handstands and toe-touches woven into a fast-paced sequence. • Restorative Yoga Props (such as blocks, bolsters and blankets) are the calling card of restorative yoga, where comfortable poses are held for longer periods of time (often several minutes) to allow the body to relax into a posture and release tension. • Vinyasa Yoga “Vinyasa” simply means the repetition of poses. This form of yoga focuses on tying breath to movement, developing and adding on to a sequence of poses in a fast-paced flow-style class. • Yin Yoga Yin Yoga works into areas deeper than just muscular tissue, focusing on ligaments, joints, fascia and connective tissue, as well as meridians of energy throughout the body. Expect to hold poses for longer.
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