Yoga. Even Mayo Clinic embraces it. Their current list of the top ten ways to beat stress (mayoclinc.org) places yoga squarely in the number six spot. Meditation, a component of a true yoga practice is in the number two spot. Traditional and alternative medical practitioners tout yoga as an excellent prescription for relaxation, lowering high blood pressure, building immunity, reducing chronic pain, lowering anxiety levels, maintaining range of movement and increasing overall health. Let me explain this blog entry's title: When I grew up on the Canadian prairies, Mayo Clinic was considered the finest medical facility to go to when the local doctors in Saskatchewan or Alberta were stumped. Probably Montreal or Toronto would have had the same expertise but Mayo Clinic was closer. You could say, and you'd be right, that I grew up with tremendous respect for Mayo Clinic.
|Om...the yoga symbol in Sanskrit|
The original purpose of yoga was to calm the mind, to relax the mind and to focus inward. That is still the primary focus of any true yoga practice today. There are some yoga practices that focus only on stretches and poses and might more accurately be called gym workouts with a yoga flavor. There are several varieties of yoga but I am only familiar with two types. For one winter in Canada, I practiced Iyengar yoga. Iyengar yoga encourages the use of props: wooden blocks, canvas belts, walls, chairs and the emphasis in on attaining a perfect pose. An Iyengar instructor might use his/her hands to help you achieve perfection in the pose. I appreciated the Iyengar class that I took, and while it was my introduction to yoga, and I love yoga, I did not fall 'in love' with the Iyengar version.
Integral yoga,a form of Hatha yoga, claims my heart and passion. The focus of Hatha yoga is stretching and relaxation. About five years ago here in Santa Cruz, I spotted an advertisement for an Integral yoga class being offered in my neighborhood. It was called “Relax with Yoga” and was held at a nearby community center. It sounded perfect so two friends and I signed up.
The teacher, with thirty or more years of experience, began with the story of yoga and I am going to try to repeat it here in my words. (All mistakes are mine, not hers!) She told us that a very long time ago yoga was developed as a way of quieting the mind, of going inward, of finding mental peace. The first yoga participants found that sitting very still and focusing on their breathing helped them achieve a state of mental peace that they were unable to attain any other way. Unfortunately sitting very still for long periods of time in order to achieve this mental state can be very hard on the body. Just when the mental comfort level was highest, the physical discomfort of sore buttocks, tired backs and cramped legs would begin to creep in. It is difficult to stay focused when physical pain is insinuating itself into your mind. The ancient yogis ( someone who practices yoga) created a series of stretches or poses (called asanas) that if practiced regularly, would help them to sit in meditation for longer and longer periods of time without pain. As a bonus, these ancient yogis found that these poses also increased their energy and vitality. It seems that today’s research proves them right!
A typical Hatha yoga class with my teacher always begins with us sitting comfortably, eyes shut and mind focused inward. We chant Om three times and then we begin our movements. Salutation to the sun is a moving posture that is done three times and provides a nice warm-up for the more difficult poses to come. Poses with names such as the cobra, the fish, the bow, the short boat, the warrior, and the shoulder-stand make up the repertoire of every session. There are countless poses and we constantly try new ones. After the smoothly flowing series of poses, we go into the relaxation portion of the class. In the corpse position, flat on our backs, arms away from the body with palms facing up and legs slightly spread, we are guided by our teacher through carefully choreographed relaxation exercises. We tighten our fists and then release them, we clench our jaws and then release them, and in this way, we work our way through our whole bodies. On and on this goes until we feel as if our bodies are melting into the mats beneath us. Cautioning us to let our bodies sleep while we keep our minds awake, the teacher guides us into the “yogic sleep”. After a period of time (five to fifteen minutes), she slowly helps us awaken our bodies. Once we are all sitting up again (some of us are loathe to leave the wonderful pose!), we practice some controlled breathing. We close with a short chant in Sanskrit that translates as this prayer: May all people everywhere experience sweetness in their lives. The final step in our yoga practice is perhaps the most beautiful part of all to me. Each person puts his/her palms together at the chest, bows his/her head slightly and says “Namaste” to the group. Namaste (pronounced naw-maw-stay) might best be translated today like this: the spirit (or divinity or God) in me recognizes the spirit (or divinity or God) in you. This part always moves me deeply because it addresses my own need to acknowledge that there is Something greater than us.
Five years later, I continue to attend the same yoga class along with one of the friends that joined with me originally. Why am I so committed to this activity? Yoga came to me in a period of my life when I was extremely overweight, hitting my fifties, hurting with sciatica and suffering my fair share of stress and anxiety (or not so fair share, who knows?). I was desperately in need of the benefits of yoga. The blessing was that even when I was at my fattest, I could still do yoga. I couldn’t do the poses perfectly but it didn’t matter. Yoga is not competitive. Anyone with any body shape or body condition can do yoga. Yoga is about doing the best you can with your body at any given time. Our teacher says to imagine in our minds that we are doing the poses perfectly. Truly liberating to me is that our teacher has us all close our eyes during class. She explained that if we close our eyes, we are concentrating on our own bodies and as a result, we pay closer attention to what WE can do, and we end up with fewer injuries. If I thought that everyone could have seen me in those first few sessions, I would have been too embarrassed to continue. I could not do what my thin and trim friends could do, nor could I do what the twenty-year-old Gumby next to me could do! Still can't and don't care. As long as no one else could see how my rolls and bulges prevented me from bending more compactly (strap a couch cushion to your middle and try bending over and you will know what I felt like!), I was happy to keep trying. An excellent teacher, my yoga instructor was always positive and encouraging and patient with her very fat student. I found that with yoga, my anxiety and stress levels went down. The night of the week that I always sleep the best is the night I have yoga class. The sciatica pain only appears now when I miss two consecutive yoga sessions. I found that the simple and spiritual (but non-religious) components of yoga contained in the meditation, chants and the beautiful Namaste ending are truly satisfying to me at this stage of my life.
Yoga for who? From baby yoga that is parent-facilitated (ask my daughter what her 6-month-old son’s favorite pose is) to chair yoga for those physically not able to get up and down off the floor (cancer clinics, cardio rehab clinics, assisted living facilities, etc.), there is a yoga practice for every age and ability level.
Trust in the Mayo Clinic. We Saskatchewanites (residents of Saskatchewan) of the Canadian prairies surely did!