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.
When we set aside all the modern perceptions we have attached to yoga such as it makes you more flexible, develops core, helps you to lose weight, calms you down and we strip back the images of yoga is associated with the East, incense, chanting and mystical gurus, we are left with a system that is truly amazing in making you astute, strong and incredibly tactile on a physical, mental and emotional level. Here is why:
YOGA IS A WORK OUT
Many people are surprised that they can build up a sweat during a yoga class. It is not the same as the one you develop during a gym session lifting weights and running on a treadmill, but it is an intense sweat that tells you have done something much deeper and profound to your body. Most yogis will tell you also that they don’t know how to explain this phenomenon, but despite the stiff and sore muscles two days later they overall feel amazing, alive and much more connected to themselves. They find inner strength in their practice and I have many yogis who would tell me that if they skip a week of yoga they can feel it, physically, mentally and emotionally. So what is happening?
SO, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Why has this 5,000 year old science suddenly become so popular?
Yoga does a lot more for the body than most people realize, it is not just about increasing flexibility or developing a calm mind. It is not necessary to sit in the crossed legged lotus position, chant OM, or be able to put your legs behind your head (but it does make for a very cool party trick!).
- develops strength and endurance,
- enhances your focus,
- improves your balance, and
- increases your performance in every aspect of your life
It works the whole body synergistically, working every joint, muscle and fibre improving all of your bodies functions.
Yoga is the best medicine for preventing injuries and aiding muscle recovery and repair. When the muscles and surrounding tissues are lengthened and relaxed during yoga asana it creates more room for blood to flow. And increased blood flow carries vital healing energies to those injured and inflamed parts of your body, thus accelerating healing.
This in turn attracts more oxygen to the area helping muscles to heal and grow, making them more effective for your next workout (and less sore in everyday life). As an added bonus yoga also helps to flush lactic acid from the system. The squeezing and releasing motions the yoga postures create invite the good stuff in and push the bad stuff out.
Practicing yoga also increases your range of motion (ROM) which is beneficial for all activities allowing you to swing further, reach higher, dip lower, step wider etc. With this increased ROM it is easy to see how you would be able to put more power and explosiveness behind your movements. With increase in muscle elasticity on top of this you are going to decrease you risk of injury tenfold.
BULK VERSUS TOTAL BODY CONSCIOUSNESS
Weight training and cardiovascular activity such as running tightens and shortens the muscles while yoga lengthens and builds functional strength. It teaches you how to use this strength effectively – look at an average yoga class, there are bodies of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, but they can all do more or less the same things you would throw at them during a standard yoga class. In a gym it is much more varied, some tiny body just can’t lift the same weights that a big bulky one can. But in a yoga class that same tiny body and that same bulky body will be able to do the same balance or stretch you throw at them. And this is what makes yoga so appealing and amazing, it is literally for every body!
What is the point of having all this strength if you can’t use it? The level of concentration needed to maintain balancing postures also gives you a great lesson in focus and the importance of having a calm mind.
WHY DOESN’T STATIC STRETCHING ACHIEVE THIS RESULT?
Yoga is different from other modes of stretching because it works on full muscle groups and not just isolated muscles, bringing all the little supporting muscles into the game as well. During your study of Anatomy, we have seen that many asanas can be used to help the neck, shoulder as well as the hip for example. A single asana can focus on 3 or 4 major muscles groups and work them as once. It is like opera, if you get 4 people to just speak, it will be chaotic, but is you add a tune and a piano for example they can sing that same dialogue in complete harmony to the ear. The same with yoga, the asana is the tune and adds the harmony needed by the body to make different muscles work together in great synchronicity.
Not only does yoga decrease the risk of injury it also can increase your muscle endurance and pain threshold. In yoga you learn correct breathing techniques that teach you how to have better control of your oxygen intake, monitoring the inhalations and exhalations allowing you to use the breath more efficiently as well as using it to move through pain.
Along with all the benefits you will gain physically it is also important to mention the mental clarity and focus gained from a regular yoga practise. Jumping on the mat allows you to draw the senses inwards for awhile and regain your composure and sense of self. It puts you back in touch with what is true for you and allows you to reassess where you are, and to start fresh every day.
It teaches you to work with what you have on that day because everyday the body has something different to offer and to teach. By coming more in touch with your body you are able to work with it, not against it. When you can hear what the body needs you are able to work together to go beyond your boundaries in a way you never considered before.
Personally for me one of the great benefits of yoga is that it teaches us to be present in the moment. I have done this many times in a class, I would ask my yogis to do an asana, usually a balancing one as it demonstrates this principle in yoga best, I would ask them to really concentrate, think, breath and then do it and hold the asana. The result is stunning everybody in the class is able to hold the balance in a steady manner for an extended time. I would bring them out, ask them to feel what they have done and then ask them to do the asana again. But this time as they start to hold the asana I would ask them to think about their day, problems at work or home and suddenly the whole class starts to fall apart! And this is the beauty of yoga, it teaches us that we can be in the moment, that it does help us to set our day and problems aside for a moment and that we can attain inner strength and tenacity from our practice.
So instead of asking me why you should be doing yoga perhaps I should ask you why you are not doing yoga. What have you got to lose?
One of the hot buzzwords flying around the yoga studios and yogis sipping hot cups of chai these days is ‘core strength.’ While gym bunnies, dancers and athletes have long known the advantages of having a strong core, the idea of core strength is only now trickling down to the yoga community, in South Africa at least.
You may be wondering what exactly is core strength and should you worry about it? One reason is this: all of our movements are powered by the torso – the abs and back work together to support the spine when we sit, stand, bend over, pick things up, exercise and more. The torso is the body’s center of power, so the stronger you are in that area, the easier your life will be.
What Is The Core?
First, let’s get one very confusing idea out of the way. We all have core strength, without it you would have collapsed and won’t be able to sit or stand upright or do many of the small things like bending forward to tie your shoes. The issue is that in some the core strength is more developed than in others, and this is the concern with core strength.
The core muscles are anatomically referred to as the muscles forming around the trunk of the body including the abdominal, oblique (sides), mid and lower back. It is the muscles deep within the abs and back, attaching to the spine or pelvis. Some of these muscles include the transversus abdominis (TVA), the muscles of the pelvic floor, the lats and the obliques, just to name a few. These muscles are where movement originates and it’s also the source of our stability. Whether you’re running, lifting weights or picking up your toddler, these ‘core’ muscles help keep your body stable and balanced.
What has Yoga to do with it?
The beauty of yoga is that it inherently challenge your balance, flexibility and core strength and as such gives the core muscles a balanced workout as well as strengthening them at the same time. Inherently yoga view the body as a whole, no part of it is separate and this focus on the whole body has the advantage that it incorporates a complete and balanced workout for the body during a yoga session. So long before other disciplines, which in the past saw the body as separate parts which must be exercised separately, saw the body as a whole, yoga did exactly that and exercised the body as a whole as well, resulting in a much stronger or improved core for most yogis.
For me, every asana is potentially a core-strengthening exercise. I always devote a large section of any yoga class to abdominal-intensive poses and many times I will say something like while doing this make sure you arch the back, which is important as that action moves the focus to the deeper core muscles and activates those muscle groups.
However core muscle strength has also to do with our attitude to life. It is what supports us spiritually in our lives, and physically in our yoga practice. If our core is weak, the ups and downs of life are much harder to take and many times we become the doormat for others. A strong core makes us more resilient and ready to face our challenges and fears. It translates into standing up for yourself in life and asserting yourself in a positive way!
In terms of asana practice, core abdominal strength improves nearly every pose, offering a sense of balance and ease. When you step off of the mat, there are lots of other good reasons to be strong in the core, perhaps most obviously to support the lower back. Weakness in the core can result in over-rotations in the vertebrae of the lower back, which leads to degenerative disk disease and back ache.
Weak abs often contribute to trouble in the sacroiliac joint -where the sacrum meets the illium, the large pelvic bone – and can subject this area to undue strain which translates sometimes as sciatica if the core isn’t sufficiently toned.
Core work connects us to our feelings. Working with the core during a class turns on your innate muscles intelligence and allows you to feel more aspects than usual. Such intelligence is essential, especially if you need to decide how deeply you want to or need to move into a specific asana, that intelligence can make the difference in avoiding injury or adding injury.
Some of the benefits of yoga on the core muscles include:
- Improved posture
- Reduction in the risk of injury
- Better ability to function each day
- Can result in relief of back ache and sciatica
- Greater flexibility and better balance
- Focus on the whole, instead of individual parts