May 2016 - HEALTH & FITNESS
Yoga Body, Yoga Brain
By Heather Dacus, DO, MPH
As a Naval medical officer assigned to a marine squadron in Okinawa, Japan, I was used to running, spin classes and weight training. Yoga? Not so much. Another officer invited me to a class one night. She didn’t want to go alone. I begrudgingly joined her... and hated it. Not my thing.
Still, wanting to be a good friend, I agreed to go again the following week. Same room, same teacher. But it felt completely different. I left class feeling more open, energized and grounded than I had in a long while. Fourteen years later, I practice yoga regularly and teach twice each week.
Fit to be Un-Tied
I still run, walk and hike, all while juggling a fulltime professional career. My yoga practice balances me. After returning home from a long walk or run, poses like Warrior I and Warrior II, stretch my hips and lengthen the muscles in my arms and legs. Downward Dog opens my chest, lengthens the muscles along my arms, legs and spine, and stretches my overworked calf muscles. I always finish with a seated forward fold to stretch my lower back, hamstrings and calves.
I like to take 10 to 15 minutes to move and breathe through various yoga poses after I’ve done other exercise, or my body feels tight and constricted. Moreover, when I am able to practice yoga for 30 to 60 minutes most days each week – or participate in 90-minute classes, my body feels more open, and my mind is calmer.
Most of us define fitness based on what we see in the mirror. A “good” body is one in good physical condition, usually due to exercise and a healthy diet. Good health is defined as being free of disease and illness.
However, as a doctor, I know that being fit and healthy does not always go hand-in-hand. I’ve seen that divergence in many patients, but my own life serves as a good example. Before yoga, I considered myself a fit and healthy person – I was on active duty in the U.S. Navy! In the intervening years, and through yoga, I began to appreciate what my osteopathic medical training had been trying to teach me: Health is not just the absence of disease, but a state of balance in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of ourselves. Yoga is a means for achieving balance on all these levels.
Realistically, for most people, it’s the physical practice of yoga that serves as the gateway to all those benefits. That’s fine! It’s a perfect place to start.
Increased flexibility is the most obvious, and often the first-noticed, benefit of yoga. Newer students say they are developing, or regaining, a range of motion and mobility in areas that they had given up on – or just never thought about much. It’s logical. Today’s common exercises work and rework the same muscle groups. Run or bike long distances, and you can attest to how fast muscles tighten up soon after you’re done, and how, over time, flexibility becomes limited. Add in a job where you spend a lot of time at your computer or in your car, and physical imbalances multiply.
It’s possible to be in top shape aerobically, yet experience restrictions and compression, which cause discomfort and pain – and make injury much more likely. Yoga is the perfect prescription: A regular practice of standing poses, backbends, twists and forward folds can undo the damage. And even improve the other exercise you do, bringing you closer to your fitness goals. Not to mention just making you a lot more comfortable.
Strong by Design
Yoga makes you strong. It’s counterintuitive in Western culture. Many think yoga is about already-flexible people bending like pretzels. Take a class at a local gym or studio. New students quickly find that sessions demand significant strength and endurance and practice. A lot has to do with holding yourself up in poses against gravity. Basics like those I’ve mentioned, Warrior I and II, build leg strength. Boat pose tightens the core. Crow pose builds both arm and core strength. For the already fit, poses like these leave sweat marks on the yoga mat.
How’s your balance? Most people never think about it. However, age makes all of us lose our ability to notice whether we feel balanced between both sides of our body. This can lead to serious falls. Yoga gives us a chance to practice balance at any age. Tree pose requires standing on one leg – and the brain, nerves, eyes, inner ears, muscles, ligaments and bones all have a conversation to keep the body upright.
Balancing postures can be humbling and frustrating at first – sometimes more so for those of us who think we’re in great shape. As with anything, improvements come with practice. Add in calm, smooth and lengthened breathing, and that’s a recipe for building a balanced mind and attitude as well.
Ready, Set, Breathe
Let’s face it: Yoga starts with an emphasis on the body. But it’s a holistic practice. Tremendous emphasis is given to the breath. That attention to the breath differentiates a physical yoga practice from mere stretching. When teaching, I always begin by asking students to turn attention to their breath. Once everyone is tuned in to the sound and feeling of a lengthened inhale and exhale, students are naturally reminded throughout the class to make the breath the priority, whether holding a pose or flowing in and out of one.
The emphasis on breathing expands lung capacity and often taps into an internal energy reserve. It quiets the mind and increases concentration. Many of the mental and emotional benefits of yoga – improved mood, reduced anxiety, better sleep and a calmer state of mind – are attributed to a focus on the breath. Little by little, breathing engenders a meditative aspect to the practice.
Be a Joiner
Yoga literally means to join, or to bring union. Students often hear teachers say it’s about joining the body, mind and spirit together. I believe it. I see it. I experience it. BKS Iyengar, a famous yogi who is often credited with bringing yoga to the West, wrote “Most people feel that they are healthy if they are not suffering from illness or pain, not aware of the imbalances that exist in their bodies and minds that ultimately lead to disease.” Why would any of us want to be partially healthy instead of completely healthy? Try yoga. If you hate it the first time, go again. Try a different teacher or studio – or just stick it out for one more class. Maybe you’ll become a believer like me!
Dr. Heather Dacus, DO, MPH came to the upstate New York area as a U.S. Navy medical officer and now heads the Bureau of Cancer Prevention and Control at the NYS Department of Health. She is a certified yoga instructor and teaches at Yoga Mandali in Saratoga Springs.