It is a fact, yoga increases your flexibility, I have seen this many times in my classes, someone walks in as stiff as an iron board, but after just a few months of practice there is a marked increase in flexibility. But is it just the yoga asana affecting the physical body or are there more behind this sudden change in the body?
Sure, it will be fruitless to deny the effect of yoga on the physical body, but I also belief that there is the hidden, unseen part of yoga that affects the body. We all have heard about the Mind-Body connection and especially in alternative medicine this plays a big role. The mind – what we think and feel – affects the health and well-being of the body. My classes are designed to include a little talk on a topic before the class starts, yoga for the mind I like to think of it. I repeat many topics over and over – we need to hear something eight times before it sinks in!
My talks can lead the yogi who listens intently to discover themselves, it can open the mind and eyes to an unseen world where they start to realise I am not only what I eat, but also what I think. And as they learn to explore their minds and start to question certain patterns, aspects and ideas they hold, the body starts to follow slowly but surely. My teacher, Sri Durga used to say: “As above so below, as within so without, the body follows the mind.”
Normal Muscle Pain
Muscle pain after exercises is commonly known as DOMS and it said to be brought about by microdamage in our muscle fibres. Years ago it was thought to have been related to lactic acid but we now know that this is most likely not the case. Microdamage is caused when we contract our muscles and the total stress on the muscles is greater than its capacity. In other words, we make a movement and our muscles are not yet strong enough to support the movement fully. With the strain we get microtears in our fibres, causing small amounts of inflammation and other signs of damage. This is one side of the coin.
Feel Good vs. Feel Bad
The other side of the coin is that yoga changes our psychology, physiology as well as our mind. In the 8 years that I am teaching yoga, I have heard it many times from my yogis the week after a particularly challenging asana session: I was very stiff, couldn’t get out of bed, but it is was a good one! Or, I can feel it when I skip a week of yoga. For me this is an indication of a body and mind that has started to interact, work together and react on the input of yoga. As the mind is challenged in the class by the talks, sub-consciously people start to adjust, adapt and accommodate different ideas, views and thoughts, so the body starts to follow in its flexibility.
However, I have also heard it many times when a yogi complains about not feeling well after a yoga class, or they feel that after a period of great progress they suddenly stagnate of feel that their bodies don’t react well to the yoga. They complain about a general feel of soreness and stiffness and as a teacher I immediately look to myself and my teaching for doing something wrong. And in the beginning of teaching I thought I was doing something wrong.
But I soon realise we react to more than just yoga. The death of a parent or friend can affect our mind in such a way that we carry that sadness in our muscles. Or a job loss or change can place undue stress on a body which may cause it to read danger in the situation and react to the stress and the only way is the fight or flight response, which cause the mind to narrow its thinking and the body to tense, getting ready to respond to the “danger” in our lives. Children, marriage, money etc. elicit such emotional reactions from us that they unfortunately do affect the flexibility of the mind and the body. If we refuse to see our part in the problem, or if we feel powerless to change an unhappy union (or don’t want to change it) it all translates eventually to an inflexible body, stiff and inflamed muscles and a body that is less responsive as the mind gets more stuck in a rut.
Flip the Switch
The mind is located in all parts of the body. From the top of our head to tip of our little toe, the brain/mind pretty much runs the show. Science had found there are brain cells located everywhere in the body. So it begs the question: Can a stiff and inflexible body mean a stiff and inflexible mind? I think so. I think our bodies tell us all the time what is going on in the dark, back rooms of our mind. It may not be obvious, but here is an exercise you can do whenever you come up against some physical resistance that may also help you clear mental and emotional “stiffness” as well.
If you practice yoga, start doing some of your poses. If you don’t currently practice yoga, just slowly stretch your body in all directions. Move your limbs, your back, your neck, bend forward, backward and side to side. When you feel resistance, imagine that there is also a thought pattern or mindset that is rigid and unmoving. Breathe into that part of your body and see if some new insights come to your mind, as well. Spend a little time there just breathing and feeling the resistance melt away. Keep moving into other areas and breathing as you encounter resistance. You might even find that some emotions start to surface. Listen to your mind talk and see what it is saying. Are you talking to yourself nicely and in an encouraging way or are you being critical or telling yourself that you can’t do this? Use this as an opportunity to release negative mind chatter as well as your tight muscles.
As you open and free your muscles to a greater range of motion, imagine that your mind is also opening to new thoughts and ways of being. Expand your range of motion physically, psychically and mentally and watch your life open to new levels of insight and joy.
Google “yoga and hypertension” or “yoga and high blood pressure” and the number of articles are just staggering in support of yoga being beneficial in assisting to regulate blood pressure. One thing is also very clear from all these articles and research and that is that yoga is not a cure for hypertension, just an aid in helping to ensure a lowered blood pressure. The one thing that is missing from most of these articles is the data to support their findings, so when one of my yogis who is busy doing her Yoga Teacher’s Training Course with me reached the module on yoga and high blood pressure, we decide it would be a good exercise for her to collect some data on blood pressures pre and post a yoga class.
The class was a normal Hatha yoga class of 45 minutes followed by a 15 minute period of relaxation. We basically took everybody’s BP before class and then again after class directly after relaxation session. And the info from that is in support of what most studies find, yoga does lower the blood pressure. With the exception of three blood pressures that showed an increase, the rest all decreased. Here with a chart of the pre and post BP’s:
Yoga can be a very effective and non-invasive way of reducing high blood pressure. It is particularly effective in reducing the diastolic number – which is the most important. It is suggested that people with high blood pressure should only practice certain asanas (postures), whilst acknowledging that there are other asanas that are not suitable for them. The yogic practices of meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises) are also particularly beneficial for people who suffer from high blood pressure. We did not include any specific pranayama, but focussed throughout the class on proper deep breathing. As an inversion we did include Halasana (plow pose) followed by Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose). I gave no special instructions or warning during this class about what they could and couldn’t do, we decided that all classes would be uniform and the same practice was repeated for three classes.
People with high blood pressure are usually cautioned to be careful in approaching exercise. This is generally because vigorous exercise puts stress on the cardiovascular system, including raising heart-rate and blood pressure. Before engaging in any sort of exercise program, including yoga of any type or variety, people with any sort of cardiovascular condition including high blood pressure should consult their physician. However, yoga asanas are not considered to be cardiovascular exercises as such. Rather than placing the focus on cardiovascular fitness yoga is more about achieving a balance between body and mind, energizing your body in the process. According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali an “asana is a steady comfortable posture”. During most exercise practices the heart is put under stress as the requirement for blood and oxygen is increased. In asanas however, the requirement for blood and oxygen decreases as there are not strains and every muscle is relaxed. When done with conscious breathing asanas balance and stabilize autonomic nervous system resulting in the regulation of blood pressure.
The asanas that regulate the blood pressure belong to the forward bends, supine, sitting, and some of the inversions group. However forward bends are the fundamental asanas to be practiced by persons suffering from high blood pressure, as the sense organs: eyes, nose, throat and tongue are relaxed thereby resting the sympathetic nervous and creating a positive effect on the parasympathetic system. It the appendix of his book Light on Yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar recommends the following asanas for individuals suffering from high blood pressure: Plow Pose, Head to Knee Pose, Heroes Pose, Accomplished Pose, Lotus Position, Corpse Pose and the Pachimotonasana Series: Half Lotus Intense Stretch Pose, Three Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch and Seated Forward Fold.
Research also indicates that shoulder stand is particularly effective as the pose calms the body, “lowering blood pressure by clamping down on the carotids effectively making the local pressure very high. This sends a message to the parasympathetic system, which assumes that the brain tissues are suffering from too much blood, and orders the heart and circulatory system to compensate with pressure cuts.”[sic] (The Science of Yoga: the risks and the rewards – W.J Broad).
In addition to practicing asanas, Yogic breathing has been shown to have a positive effect on blood pressure. Even for those who’ve never been exposed to yoga before, deep breathing can help to reduce the effects of constant daily stress, including rise in blood pressure. Conscious breathing lowers blood pressure (as well as the amount of the stress hormone cortisol) that is present in the body. Extended pranayama can lead to a sustained lower heart rate. A recent study showed beneficial effects even from short-term practice of regular pranayama and meditation techniques, with significant reduction in resting pulse rate, systolic, diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure. Pranayama has been shown to influence the cardiovascular system with decrease in heart rate, and blood pressure:
- Uijayi Pranayama (or Victorious Breath): This is a balanced and calming breathing technique which builds heat in the body and increases oxygenation, it also this also affects the cartiod sinus which helps to normalize high blood pressure, and
- Naddi Shoddi (or alternate nostril breathing): This is very calming to the nervous system as a whole.
Meditation is another beneficial yogic practice for people with high blood pressure. The body’s physical reaction to stress is not always the same for everyone, but with negative stress there is no real relaxation between one stress situation and the next. Meditation is the study of concentration. The mind and body are very intimately connected; when the mind is completely at ease, the whole body gains complete rest. Practicing meditation techniques in times of physical or mental stress helps to manage the “fight or flight” response to negative stress and lower blood pressure.
There is no single meditation technique that is best for everyone. The right technique is the one which focuses the mind and to elicit the relaxation response. Some examples of meditation techniques are:
- Deep Breathing Meditation: This meditation can be practiced almost anywhere and is the cornerstone for many other relaxation practices.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A technique for reducing anxiety by alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles. As the body relaxes so too does the mind.
- Mindfulness: By focusing attention on a single repetitive action such as a word, mantra, breathing, picture or candle the mind becomes calm and focused, bringing the nervous system into balance.
- Yoga Nidra: A guided practice, which puts the body and mind into a deep state of relaxation.
According to many studies, high blood pressure is influenced by the stress and strain of the modern lifestyle. There is a wealth of clinically significant research that suggests adopting yogic practices and principles can help to improve health and mental well-being, increasing resiliency to stress, and, by extension, to high blood pressure. It may seem like stating the obvious, but if one reduces stresses on the mind and the body by eating healthy diet focused on pure, wholesome and nutritious foods, practicing yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation the blood pressure can be controlled within normal limits.
Important note: If you want to try any of the previous suggestions, do not stop any prescribed medications without consulting with your doctor first. Most of these studies have shown that alternative therapies have the ability to help people with pre or mild hypertension avoid medication, or help people who can’t tolerate medications, but are not effective enough for people with severe cases to get off medication altogether. People with hard-to-control blood pressure, however, can use these therapies in conjunction with medication to help bring their numbers down even more.
Many people when calling me for yoga classes want to know if yoga will help their back pain. And usually my answer to them is yes. However before you consider yoga as an alternative therapeutic form for your back pain, there are a few considerations. Whether you have acute or chronic back pain or just sciatica, you should first visit your doctor and ensure that you have the endorsement of your doctor to start yoga. Reducing back pain in your life will be a team effort between you, me and your doctor and in that regard I will need all the information you have about your pain.
In the case of Yoga for back pain or sciatica, most people usually first feel a worsening of the back pain as your muscles start to adjust to the asanas and the new postures your body is required to perform. People suffering from sciatica usually find immediate relief and long term healing. Depending on the severity of your back pain and the years of neglect through diet and lack of exercise and proper care yoga will make it either worse initially or it will bring immediate relief. However, I find that most people with back pain have neglected their muscles and bodies to such an extent that building them up through yoga takes considerable time and effort coupled with a severity in back pain before they start to reap the benefits of a regular yoga practice.
After trying a variety of solutions, most people tend to continue with anything that helps them manage, or eliminate pain. With that said, Yoga asana classes are often part of a larger solution for pain management and in some cases, the complete elimination of back pain.
Also remember that going to a general yoga class where there is a mix of people with different needs, that the asanas will not be specific for your problem. Therefore, it would be wise to schedule private Yoga sessions with me in order to compile a programme that will benefit your problem most.
A short description of back pain
Back pain is a common musculoskeletal symptom that may be either acute or chronic. It may be caused by a variety of diseases and disorders that affect the lumbar spine.
Low back pain may be experienced in several different ways:
- Localized. In localized pain the patient will feel soreness or discomfort when the doctor palpates, or presses on, a specific surface area of the lower back.
- Diffuse. Diffuse pain is spread over a larger area and comes from deep tissue layers.
- Radicular. The pain is caused by irritation of a nerve root. Sciatica is an example of radicular pain.
- Referred. The pain is perceived in the lower back but is caused by inflammation elsewhere—often in the kidneys or lower abdomen.
A short description of sciatica
The sciatic nerve is irritated just as it leaves the spinal cord. It is unusual to feel sciatica symptoms in the back. Usually the pain is felt along the ‘distribution’ of the nerve or in other words in the area that the nerve supplies. This means that sciatica is often felt as a spreading leg pain.
Pain resulting from irritation of the sciatic nerve, typically felt from the low back to behind the thigh and radiating down below the knee. Diagnosis is by observation of symptoms, physical and nerve testing, and sometimes by X-ray or MRI if a herniated disk is suspected.
In conclusion, yoga can definitely help to alleviate your back or sciatic pain, but this is not an instant cure, it will take time, effort and discipline in the beginning. However, you should be able to experience relief within the first 6-12 months of a regular and dedicated asana practice. During private sessions we will also consider the emotional, mental and spiritual causes and issues for sciatica and back pain, as most pain isn’t just a purely physical condition.