After 25 years of yoga, I attribute these benefits to my yoga practice:
1) Breathing better and more mindfully
2) sleeping better
3) Achieving inner peace. (Well, let’s say I’m almost there.) Like yoga, it’s a journey.
Yoga helped me realize all three of these not insignificant goals.
I first began taking yoga at the West Side YMCA in New York City in the early 1990s. I was lucky to have as my first yoga teacher Marcela Clavigo, who taught a wonderful Iyengar Yoga class. Marcela’s class gave me the physical and spiritual groundwork which became the foundation of my yoga practice.
In Iyengar yoga, you watch the instructor, then do the pose, sometimes repeating the process, until you really learn to hold the pose correctly. Direction I took from Marcela and other Iyengar teachers informed my practice for years, carrying me through various flow classes where the teacher doesn’t often stop to teach or fine-tune holding the poses.
It was important to Marcela that we learned the spiritual benefits of yoga. She often spent part of the classes reading from Pantanjali, a yogi and sage who codified around 400 CE what would become the practice of yoga— both the asanas, or postures, and some of the spiritual aspects. Marcela closed every class with all of us chanting together an invocation from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, about going through the world without “too much attachment or too much aversion and to live believing in the equality of all that lives.”
Month after month, year and year, that invocation stayed with me. That chant, and other principles I learned in yoga class, guided my path in subtle ways. I moved through my life with equanimity, learning to appreciate and take advantage of what was put before me. I did my best to live generously and with compassion. I’m convinced that what I learned in yoga class attracted all sorts of good will and good intention.
I’m certain that my life would have been harder, if I hadn’t developed a yoga practice.
Marcela moved from the Y and I began taking classes with other teachers, each contributing something relevant. New York City’s YMCA network has offered tremendously good yoga classes over the past few decades, and I’ve gained so much from my membership there.
I never was an awesomely gifted yogini: I’m still not much of a forward bender. But that hasn’t stopped me from benefiting enormously from doing yoga for a decades.
For example, breathing is so important to our physical and mental well being. Yet most of us breathe very shallowly, only using a small part of our lung capacity. Learning to breathe fully and mindfully is perhaps the most important benefit of my yoga practice. Tom Coleman is another wonderful teacher that both Jim and I practiced with for years. Tom says you can develop a whole yoga practice around your breathing and Cat/Cow, a series of gentle back bends we do at the beginning of class to warm up the spine. Focusing on breath, and learning different types of breath work, taught me meditation and mindfulness. It puts you in the moment, quieting the mental chatter of our busy, over-scheduled lives.
Over the years, I’ve watched yoga grow into a global phenomenon. On Instagram, the hashtag #yoga has been used more than 36 million times! Check it out and you’ll see all kinds of people, young and old, practicing all over the world. In his book “The Science of Yoga” William Broad calls yoga, “a kind of oxygen for the modern soul.” A longtime yoga practitioner , and science writer, Broad explains why yoga resonates globally today: “The popularity of yoga arises not only because of its talent for undoing stress but because its traditions make an engaging counterpoint to modern life. It’s unplugged and natural, old and centered— a kind of anti-civilization pill that can neutralize the dissipating influence of the Internet and the flood of information we all face. Its ancient serenity offers a new kind of solace.”
William Broad spent five years researching and writing his book, outlining the history, reviewing claims of yoga’s benefits from a scientific perspective, and making the case for mental and emotional benefits of a yoga practice. Subtitled, “The Risks and Rewards,” Broad also writes about the potential for injury. When his book was first published in 2012, he was criticized by in some yoga circles for perhaps focusing too much on the possibility for injury. Having pulled my lower back numerous times doing yoga, and also pinching a nerve in my knee, I know the risks are real.
Since Broad’s book came out, I’ve noticed that a lot more teachers now teach Supported Shoulder Stand, rather than Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana). As Broad pointed out, doing Shoulder Stand, especially incorrectly, puts a great deal of pressure on the arteries in the neck which deliver blood to the brain. Tom Coleman has warned us in class not to press on the back of your neck, instead of your shoulder, which can cut off blood flow and cause a stroke. He’s partly kidding, but he’s also telling us it’s important to do the poses correctly. And now that “tech neck” is a concern, Supported Shoulder Stand looks like a better option. In that pose, you elevate your legs while balancing your tailbone on a block, avoiding injury to your neck. These days many of us already have stressed necks from looking down at our phones.
Yoga has given me better posture. It has also helped me maintain strength and bone density. The poses don’t need to be strenuous to bring benefits. I’ve taken a few wonderful chair yoga classes over the years, and felt great after them. As Tom says, you do have to work the body to some extent for it to truly relax into Savasana, the wonderful relaxation at the end of each class that is like “dessert.” Tom often does wonderful guided meditations during Savasana: “Let the benefits of what you’ve done sink in,” as we go on a visualized journey through a faded green door that opens into a garden, brimming with fragrant jasmine and other flowering plants, then bringing us to floating above a still lake with a full moon rising from the lake. It’s a real experience of being “aware but not involved,” as Tom says. I always awake from his guided meditations relaxed and refreshed, as if I’ve truly been on a journey.
I’ve seen yoga become very “Type A” over the years. Some of the “flow” classes can be grueling and last for hours, and hot yoga can cause injury because warm muscles can easily overstretch. As I’m getting older, I’m “dialing down” the strenuousness of my practice, but I still get just as much benefit from it. It’s good to know your limits, and as you age, find a level of class that is right for you.
I now take a Sunday afternoon class at the McBurney YMCA. Sharon and Karen trade off each week, so we get the benefit of two wonderful teachers for this very restorative class. It’s a perfect glide-in to Sunday evening, and a good night’s rest for another busy week.
It was Jim who pointed out how well we sleep after a yoga class. He can be a fitful sleeper, but he always remarks how well he sleeps after yoga. It’s one of the things that has made him practice yoga for more than 10 years now. More and more studies are linking sleep to wellness, and brain function, so this is yet another benefit of yoga for us.
Each week, Karen teaches us a pose she calls Super Brain Yoga because it’s been proven to sharpen mental focus. She encourages us to do look it up on Youtube and to practice it daily because it’s very beneficial for your brain and cognition.
I plan to be doing yoga for decades to come– as long as I can. Yoga has made a big difference in my life, and I’m sure it will continue to do so. My yoga practice is a flow. Just like life.
Why yoga makes you happy:
And here’s a new study that found yoga poses can help with back pain if you keep it gentle:
William Broad’s book:
And here is a link to the B.K.S. Iyengar page on Amazon, where you’ll find the yoga master’s key works, including “Light on Yoga” and “Light on Life”