By Staci Elder Hensley
It’s not a religion. It’s not for vegetarians only. It’s not just for ditzy celebrities. You don’t have to have the flexibility of a circus acrobat to make it work.
These are just a few of the major misconceptions people have about the practice of yoga. These misconceptions lead many people to dismiss out of hand one of the most beneficial forms of exercise and stress relief available. The physical demands of yoga alone greatly improve a person’s strength and flexibility, but that covers only a fraction of the picture. Plus, it’s something that everyone can do – the elderly, children, the disabled, or pregnant women.
“Yoga is a practice of healing,” explains Bryce Delbridge, certified instructor with Ashtanga Yoga Studio in Norman. “The literal translation of yoga is ‘union,’ and it is about connecting your body, mind and spirit so there’s complete and total harmony. The practice of yoga provides significant physical, mental and spiritual benefits. The exercise is simply one facet.”
There are more than 100 different schools of yoga, all incorporating variations of three main elements – exercise, breathing and meditation. It’s an all-inclusive practice where individuals can choose which element they wish to focus on, or embrace all three.
“Here in the West, most people tend to start with the physical side, and then later get into the deeper layers,” Delbridge said. “The thing is, you can go as deep as you want. If you want to just work on the physical aspect, there are practices for that. If you want to emphasize the spiritual side, there are practices for that. It’s up to the individual to decide how they want to proceed.”
Many people mistakenly think yoga is a part of Hinduism. Actually, the classical beginnings of yoga date back more than 5,000 years. The most well-known in the Western world is Hatha Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga, another major school practiced by Delbridge and many others, was developed about 1,000 years ago and includes a physical sequence of postures synchronized with a person’s breathing, in a process known as “vinyasa.” Most studios and yoga classes in the modern world today use vinyasa practices.
What Yoga Can Do for You
Today, it’s commonly accepted that therapies like acupressure, neuromuscular massage and reflexology can have total-body effects, due to pressure applied to certain areas of the body. The physical basis for the effects of yoga is similar, in that the poses and breathing techniques provide an equally deep massage and strong compression of the body where the endocrine glands are located. Pressure on these glandular systems increases the body’s efficiency and total health. Many yoga stretches also target the nerves in the legs, arms, neck and spine, according to the American Yoga Association.
Devotees of yoga cite more than two dozen physical and mental benefits.
“Even five minutes of physical yoga per day will boost your immune system,” Delbridge said. “You’ll have noticeably more flexibility, more physical strength, more lung capacity and better cardiovascular health. Chronic pain, like back pain, is usually eliminated or lessened.
“Mentally, you’re going to create a more focused state of mind that will give you greater clarity and take away the busyness and constant chatter that plagues so many people,” he added. “Yoga can definitely do this if you want it to. It’s all up to the individual to approach yoga with their specific needs at the forefront.”
Among its benefits, yoga can:
Improve your posture and balance
Prevent cartilage and joint breakdown
Protect your spine
Increase your blood flow
Control digestive problems
Drain your lymph glands (which boosts immunity)
Reduce blood pressure
Boost your heart rate
Regulate your adrenal glands (which produce the physically damaging stress hormone cortisol)
Keep allergies under control
Lower blood sugar levels
Help with weight loss
Relax the entire body
Reduce or eliminate depression
Provide a conduit to greater spiritual awareness
It’s the only form of exercise to provide such a broad spectrum of physical and mental healing.
In short, yoga can help anyone, whether you’re a couch potato or a professional athlete. Size and fitness levels don’t matter, as there are modifications for every yoga pose, and beginner classes in every style. Just as with any other exercise program, however, to achieve these benefits, a person has to be self-motivated.
“Physical pain was always my greatest motivation to do something to change,” Delbridge said. “It is for many people. Pain can be physical or psycho-emotional. For anyone who is interested in trying yoga, I would start by asking them what their quality of life is and if they want to do something to feel better. The want has to be there.”
Delbridge himself has a deep and personal appreciation for yoga’s healing powers. At age 15, he was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. Doctors wanted to treat it by surgically fusing virtually his entire spine with titanium rods. At the suggestion of Andrew Eppler (owner of the Ashtanga Studio where he now works), he tried yoga, at which point he decided against surgery. Ten years later, after several years training with yoga masters in India, he is free of pain and is in his third year as a yoga instructor.
How to Get Started
So, once a person has decided they want to try yoga, the next step is to see what’s out there in the local community. Large classes can be a good starting point, and like any other type of exercise class, they allow a person to try the basics and see if it’s right for them. Classes can typically be found through adult education programs, family Y’s, massage and dance studios, the local university, or local weekly papers.
Those who want a deeper experience may want to seek an instructor who focuses on a more one-on-one approach, known as integrative yoga therapy. The difference between these two options is similar to attending a regular exercise class at your local gym versus working with a personal trainer, Delbridge said.
Yoga regimens also can be tailored for groups with special limitations, such as seniors, children, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and women who are recovering from childbirth.
“I would recommend a person who’s interested research and go to as many local studios and interview as many teachers as they can possibly find, until they find a teacher and a class that matches their goals,” Delbridge said. “They can also research online to check out various types of yoga, look at different studios, and determine if their personal focus is going to be physical, meditation, or psycho-spiritual.”
Many yoga instructors are certified as an RYI, or registered yoga teacher, meaning they have had at least 200 hours of instruction. That’s desirable, but it’s not the entire picture.
“I know of many people who have certification but aren’t really that good,” Delbridge said. “The main thing that certifies somebody, in my view, is their own personal practice. I look at what has the teacher used yoga for to heal themselves. That’s the type of thing you should be asking.”
When searching studios online, most websites will have biographies of their teachers, and potential students should definitely check those out, he added.
Above all, he said, people who want to feel better shouldn’t dismiss yoga out of hand as too complicated or too “religious.”
“Yoga isn’t meant to replace a person’s religion; yoga is a practice that’s meant to go hand-in-hand with any religious practice,” Delbridge said. “But it’s not limited to people who are inquiring of spirit. You can be an atheist and benefit from yoga. You can eat meat and have a 9-to-5 job and do yoga. This is about health, healing and self-empowerment. I have seen innumerable students completely remove pain from their bodies. I’ve seen countless people work through deep emotional traumas and come out in love with life.”