If you haven’t tried your hand at yoga yet, you could be missing out on an overall health booster. Advocates will tell you that practising yoga makes them more flexible and strong. It improves their posture and keeps their mind focused and sharp. It even helps them fight stress, sleep better and stay healthier. And the research proves they’re right.
Numerous studies have revealed the many health benefits of yoga, from reducing stress to lowering blood pressure. Researchers at Harvard Medical School recently discovered that those who were long-term practitioners of relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation had disease-fighting genes that were a lot more active compared to those who weren’t. A study out of Ohio State University found that regular yoga exercises may lower an inflammatory protein linked to aging and stress.
While its Indian origins date back centuries, yoga has garnered particular popularity among Westerners in the past few decades. Based on a combination of exercise, breathing and meditation, yoga aims to connect the body and mind ‒ and people of all ages and fitness levels are flocking to try it.
Even prominent professional athletes like NBA all-stars Joe Johnson and LeBron James are adding yoga to their workout regimen to develop balanced muscles and spines, help mend injuries and improve mental clarity. Internationally renowned opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, who had a heart attack at the age of 31, now teaches yoga when she’s not performing.
Breathing is key
Some yoga forms are designed purely for relaxation, while others entail a vigorous workout. Most incorporate some form of meditation, and all types focus on breathing.
Deena Rasky, a certified Bikram yoga instructor and co-owner of Active Yoga in Toronto, has been practising yoga and meditation for more than three decades. She says every meditation requires a breathing exercise and a way of dealing with your breath. “Without knowing how to control your breath, you really can’t meditate,” she says. “Breathing is so essential to get in touch with what is happening on the inside ‒ physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
Rasky says learning to breathe through the nose is ideal for yoga and meditation because it gets the air circulating throughout your entire respiratory system. She notes that a breathing technique that yogis have been using for centuries ‒ called Alternate Nostril Breathing (see “Calm Down With Nostril Breathing” sidebar) ‒ is particularly effective in having a calming effect on someone who is angry or upset.
During the winter months, when the nose can get congested or especially dry, Rasky says that using a natural-source nasal saline solution daily can really help. “I use it first thing in the morning, and I find it helps me control my breathing better,” she says. “You can’t focus on meditating if you’re worrying about how you’re going to be able to breathe.”
Which Yoga Is It?
There are many styles of yoga, but some of the most popular include the following:
- Ashtanga (or power yoga): considered a demanding workout; you are constantly moving from one posture to another
- Bikram (or hot yoga): a series of 26 postures repeated in a room set to at least 95°F, with the goals of warming and stretching the muscles and ligaments and purifying the body through sweating
- Integral: a gentle form of yoga that may include breathing exercises, chanting and meditation
- Iyengar: poses held for long periods of time, with an emphasis on precise alignment of the body
- Kundalini: focuses on the effects of breathing on the postures, in order to free energy in the lower body to move upward
- Viniyoga: postures adapted to meet each person’s needs and abilities while synchronizing the breathing and postures
Calm Down With Nostril Breathing
Alternate Nostril Breathing is a relaxing and balancing breathing that has been shown to calm the nerves and reduce stress and anxiety. Begin in a comfortable seated position, with your spine tall. Take your right hand and lightly press between your eyebrows with your first and second fingers to help calm the mind. Start by exhaling all of your air; then close the right nostril with your right thumb and inhale through your left nostril. Close your left nostril with your right ring finger; then release your thumb and exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through the right side, closing this nostril; then exhale through the left side. Continue with this breathing for a few minutes, slowing down its pace a little more each time.