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.
Most of us want to do yoga 3-4 times a week, however there are time, money and other constraints such as family life and work. And on top of that it is for most of us a challenge to know where to start. By the time you get home, you have most probably forgot the intricate yoga class your teacher sequenced and tomorrow morning you are stuck because for the life of you, you just can’t remember what your teacher did or even said. So where do you start? I would like to share a few tips with and hope it will put you on the right path as it helped me years ago to develop my own home practice.
Space & Time
First set a special spot aside where you will only practice yoga, where your cats and dogs can’t distract you or bother you for attention and where you can build your yoga energy. If you would like to do your yoga in your garden, choose a spot and make sure you feel comfortable there. What time to practice? I personally like to practice at the end of my day, late afternoon, but this is me, you can choose a time that would be more conducive to you and your practice, but make sure you can stick to that time on the days you have selected to do a home practice.
Have a goal in mind
The next tip is to decide initially why do you want to develop a home practice. It is to relief some physical pain? Do you just want to do it to relax? Or do you want to develop your core? Choosing a specific reason why you want to develop a home practice assist you in sticking to that programme and time. If the objective is just to add more yoga to your life, there is little motivation behind it for you, which will cause you most probably to abandon the practice.
But, having a specific goal in mind – for example I want to do yoga to help with my back pain – helps you to stick to programme and it also narrows down the asanas you have to remember. If your yoga teacher has knowledge of you back problem, he/she has already indicated in class which asanas are beneficial for your problem. So listen in the class and remember the asanas that are specific to your problem.
Or, do you want to develop a yoga home practice to help you to relax after a hard day, again listen to your teacher, he/she will indicate which asanas are calmative and relaxing. Also remember the ones that made you feel relaxed and more in tune with yourself and add them to your home practice.
Practice a shorter flow
It will be a long time before you will be able to remember a full 45 minute sequenced class. So, what is the solution? Practice a shorter version of a class and do the asanas you can remember. My yoga teacher, Sri Durga, use to say that the benefit of yoga is not in the doing of the asana, but in the holding. Why not try to do a few asanas, but really try to hold them and repeat them, there is no rule that says you can’t repeat an asana for, five or even six times! And limit your time initially to 15 or 20 minutes, stop, relax then and get off your mat and continue your day.
Add Pranayama & Meditation
A home practice isn’t just asanas. How about adding pranayama as part of your home practice? In class there is most probably very little time for a long session of pranayama, but at home you have the perfect opportunity to get into Anuloma Viloma Pranayama for example and work on those in breaths and activate those stomach muscles to help with the out breath. And, after that pranayama you have the perfection moment for a good meditation. Remember the Eight Limbs of yoga doesn’t consist of asana and pranayama only, there are the yamas and niyamas, pratyahara, dharana (do candle gazing to add to your concentration), dhyana and then samadhi – these can all be added to your home practice.
The most important aspect of your home practice is that you do what is good and fun for you. Sometimes you can challenge yourself with an asana you struggle with, but please always remember – Safety First! If you want to, add props like straps, blocks and bolsters to help you with your home practice. And lastly, always end your practice with a relaxation in Savasana (corpse pose), you can use your favourite music or some guided relaxation on a CD or DVD to end your session.
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.