Recently, someone asked me, “What’s the big deal about yoga?” I thought since it’s the trendy, in-style choice of exercise I would write about my experience with yoga, why I do it and why I’m compelled to open a teaching space in my practice to offer it as part of our health concepts to our clients.
My mom was definitely one of these women way ahead of the trend! When I was 3 years old, my mom started a yoga group in our house with some neighborhood moms. She had met a woman at my preschool who had studied yoga in India for three years. She was so intrigued by what the woman said and the health of her body that she decided to try it herself. One of the women in the group was a freelance writer for Bazaar Magazine and in 1968 wrote an article about this hip group of women who practiced yoga together.
On sick days from school, or vacation days, I got to practice yoga with the group. I can remember doing the butterfly, headstand and lying on the floor in shivasana at the end. When I had a friend over to my house, I remember sitting on the steps watching the class finish in “shivasana,” which is lying flat on the floor using breath and visualization to restore the body to a relaxed state. My 4 year-old friend asked, “Are they dead?”
It’s odd -- messages I got as a kid have stuck and have been an unbelievable benefit. I rely upon many of those messages when I’m healing! While most people are not sensitive to the needs of their bodies, my life is just the opposite. My life revolves around the constant need for healing my body. And yoga is part of my health insurance. Scientific research at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia showed that levels of cortisol, also called the stress hormone, dropped in yoga students. Yogic practices also help to reduce muscle tension and deactivate the stress response. For diabetes management, keeping good control of stress is extremely beneficial.
A couple of years ago I needed to lower my stress level about 1,000 notches, and I walked back into doing yoga. Over the years, I have been in and out of yoga classes. I never gravitated to yoga at the gym. I always loved seasoned yoga instructors who worked the magic of what I call classic yoga. Classic yoga is about body, mind and spirit, not emphasizing power and strength. Anyone who has traditional training in yoga realizes strength is part of the process -- you can’t possibly put your foot around your head if you don’t have strength. Trust me! In teaching classic or traditional yoga, teachers use what is called the eight limbs of yoga: yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawl of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and Samadhi (absorption). When you look at the names, imagine each pose carries an intention to incorporate the above words. To explain some of them, restraint is about social values of non-violence, truth, appropriate behavior and non possessiveness. Observances are personal ethics, contentment, self study and surrendering to a higher power. Pratyahara is referring to turning your attention inward, allowing no distraction of the mind from the posture, or, in other words, “mindfulness”!
Being able to focus through understanding the “limbs” will deepen your understanding of your body. And the result is remarkable! Four years ago, I felt distracted and walked away from some of my core strategies for better living. And within a year I was dealing with chaos in every area of my life. It’s not because I walked away from my core values, but the result was I ran back to finding my self through yoga, meditation, massage and anything that had to do with personal healing! When life felt like it was spinning out of control, I walked into a yoga studio and began to reconnect with my inner self. After four months I began to move away from distraction and focus on what I could control to feel better, which was my well being. At the same time my head was getting a mental refresher, my body changed. I became leaner, more flexible and upper body gained strength. I began to run fewer miles and still maintained my endurance and speed. As I began to let go of people, habits and issues my body responded with more energy.
I steadily climbed through different classes and finally found my teacher, Abby Vakay. Abby was a nearly perfect human being! Her dancer’s body was lean and elegant, her smile made everyone feel at ease and her class was about exploring postures at your own pace and ability. Her strength as a teacher was her encouragement as she would take you through learning about each posture one step at a time and suddenly up what had been impossible was possible. I would do a Friday morning class and sometimes stay for the lunch class with her as well. In trendy language, Abby just rocked!
Yoga styles also play a part in whether you gravitate to a class and teacher. I have found of all the styles, I love Vinyasa Flow. For me, many things about my life are structured, and Vinyasa was flowing from one posture to another. When I allowed myself to really let intention flow with it, it was like a runners high… only better! When I was in Abby’s classes and really moving I sweated harder and got more from yoga than any other sport. And I’ve done a few! My health was easy to handle and my blood glucose numbers were much easier to manage! At the end of class, to lie on the floor and take in the world around me with renewed energy and a fresh attitude, nothing could have benefited my body, mind and soul better! Ok, so let’s see: fabulous physique, feeling great, healthy…. What’s not to love about yoga?
There are a myriad of styles out there and teachers to boot! So if one class doesn’t keep you coming back, don’t give up. It means you haven’t found your teacher or you haven’t found your style!
Favorite Yoga books:
Elements of Yoga by Godfrey Devereux
The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga by Srivatsa Ramaswami
Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar (often considered the teacher’s bible)
Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic by Darren John Main
These are just some of my favorites, please feel free to share your favorites!