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Yoga & Health

by Suzie Hurley

(Published in the Star Democrat in Easton, MD Sunday June 27, 2021)

Recently I found a long saved article written in 1988 entitled “Yoga: The Best Kept Fitness Secret.” Well, the secret is out! Yoga has definitely reached the mainstream! If you are reading this, you probably are familiar with the more obvious reasons for practicing yoga – creating more strength and flexibility in your body, breathing better, having a calmer mind, and finding an inroad to your heart. In this piece, I thought it might be interesting to explore how this ancient art, science and spiritual discipline contributes specifically to our health and well-being.

Those of you who have been practicing yoga may have noticed some positive changes in your overall health. Perhaps you felt differently after class than when you came in, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and even spiritually. Whether it happened after just one class or after many classes, something kept you coming back.

Yoga is comprised of three separate practices – asana, the hatha yoga postures, pranayama, the breathing exercises, and meditation, practices for quieting the mind. Each contributes to our overall health and well-being in different ways.

Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D. and yoga teacher observes that most of her patients who practice yoga for some time both look and feel much younger than their years. She writes that the physiological basis for her observations stem from the fact that a regular yoga practice helps curtail and even reverse the aging process by maintaining or restoring muscle strength and resiliency, neuromuscular coordination, musculoskeletal flexibility and joint range of motion. In addition, yoga promotes exercise tolerance, circulatory and respiratory efficiency including cardiac output, return of blood to the heart, and blood oxygenation.

The asanas help to promote better posture, to maintain bone strength and structural integrity of the joints, healthy lipid and cholesterol metabolism, improved sensitivity to insulin with resultant enhanced glucose metabolism, and normal bowel function with regular elimination. Yoga asanas also help to stimulate the immune function, and the replacement of red and white blood cells.

All of these positive benefits from yoga help your ability to respond constructively to challenges and stress. Yoga can even help the body respond well to some illnesses that other forms of standard and alternative medicine have not been highly successful in treating, such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

The way we breathe affects our health in profound ways. Pranayama, the art of yogic breathing can be taught in conjunction with asana, or alone. Full yogic breathing is based on abdominal relaxation. Stress and tension tighten the belly and the diaphragm, our primary muscle of respiration, and we may only use a very small amount of our total lung capacity. Consequently, we breathe shallowly and often, only in our upper chest. When we breathe, our bodies collect oxygen needed for normal maintenance and carbon dioxide and impurities are removed from the body. In fact, the human body is designed to discharge 70% of its toxins through breathing!
Our life force or Prana is directed through our bodies by a series of energy currents called nadis which exist in our subtle body, much as the nerves exist in our physical bodies. When these energy currents become blocked through shallow breathing or bodily abuse, such as overeating, poor nutrition, or drug and alcohol abuse, Prana cannot be properly channeled. This causes health problems and premature aging. Learning good breathing techniques can help many respiratory problems such as asthma. When our breathing is even and deep, Prana is enhanced, and the mind becomes steady.

Pranayama can also be extremely helpful in reducing smoking and overeating. The need to smoke is, in part, an unconscious need to breathe more fully. Smokers are often people who are tense and restless. Acquiring new habits of deeper, slower breathing reduces the tension and restlessness. In the same way, overeating is a need of the mind and emotions, not the stomach. Overeating temporarily relieves tensions and feelings of guilt, depression and inadequacy. Yogic breathing helps reduce the need to overeat by balancing the metabolism and calming the mind. It is especially good for anxiety disorders.

Meditation is that aspect of Yoga where much of our inner work takes place. The benefits of meditation have much to do with its capacity to reduce the effects of stress on the body, brain and immune system. When we meditate, the rational thought processes, located in the cortex, communicate with the emotional centers in the limbic system and they “agree to relax”. Thus, optimal conditions for healing and strengthening the immune systems are set in place.

Meditation gives us a glimpse of the vastness, power and love inside ourselves and within all beings. I still rely on my mediation practice to give me more focus and clarity of mind, to create a sense of lightness, humor and balanced emotions. I think positive emotions like love, compassion, warmth, and generosity are increased through meditation. Meditation is the process of seeing the layers of our own subtle world. It brings our unconscious patterns to the conscious mind and begins to purify them. This leads us to a higher state of consciousness in which we have a wider world view and an experiential knowing of the connection of all things.

Whichever of the three approaches to yoga that you practice – asana, pranayama, or meditation – you will receive benefits to your overall health and well-being. In each class you attend and each time you come to your mat in your own personal practice, you are giving yourself the gift of health for a longer life filled with radiant possibilities for joy, love and wisdom.

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