I’ve spent the last six months dabbling in the world of yoga. I’ve sought out different online courses, delved into a variety of yoga styles, and observed how my mind and body responded and adapted to the challenges I’ve presented myself.
I’ve been entertained and enlightened. I can resolutely say that I have not wasted my time. And I’m looking forward to completing the second half of my personal “One Year Yoga Challenge”.
What have I learned so far?
Well, the first thing I learned was that I’m much more interested in uncovering the benefits of yoga than I am in learning the Sanskrit names of the various yoga poses or asanas. Really folks, isn’t Downward Dog easier to remember than Adho Mukha Svanasana? Nevertheless, I’ve included the Sanskrit names of the various exercises and yoga style I mention for the purists among you.
Here are a couple of health benefits I discovered in the last six months and how they impacted me.
I stopped the video the first time a yoga instructor mention that we were strengthening tiny muscles to prevent injury. I liked what I heard. I’ve had plenty of experience with injuries and the slooow healing process.
Tiny muscles are small, stabilizing muscles. Just like the bigger muscle groups they can become both stronger and more extensible which essentially means more stretched. When your muscles are extensible they are far less susceptible to damage and they put less strain on the body’s joints. Sounds like a good thing for every muscle doesn’t it?
In order to allow tiny muscles to carry their share of the load, it is important to practice yoga with proper alignment. This means following directions carefully, not forcing a pose, and using props like blocks and bolsters, as needed.
I don’t always see or feel those tiny stabilizing muscles go to work, but, there’s a one-leg balancing pose I do that gives me a close-up look at my ankle. Watching my own tiny muscles flexing and releasing was so interesting that I Googled: “tiny muscles in the foot and ankle”. What came up was this useful article from a physical therapist on the importance of working dormant muscles. Many of the movements he recommends are incorporated in yoga poses. I say, hooray for barefoot work on the yoga mat.
Yogis use breathing exercises (Pranayama) to connect the mind and body. I’ve never practiced breath exercises outside of classes until a few months ago. One day, an on-line class was moving along and the instructor mentioned that slow abdominal breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. Then he elaborated that when the vagus nerve is not at peak performance, we’re not at peak performance.
“Tell me more”, I thought. So back to Google I went, where I learned that the vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s actually a cluster of nerves, one of the largest nerve systems in our body. It plays an enormous role in regulating our bodily functions because it flows from the brainstem through the respiratory system and into all our key organs. If you are interested in learning more about your vagus nerve, this article from Psychology Today is an information rich starting place.
I spend at least 5 minutes in deep breathing first thing in the morning after I wake up and right before bed. My two favorite exercise styles are breath retention (Kumbhaka Pranayama) and Mrigi Mudra Pranayama where you alternate breathing in one nostril and exhaling through the other.
How do I feel?
At 68, I know a thing or two about the daily stiffness and aches related to ageing.
With six months of daily yoga practice, I have experienced significant improvement in two key areas:
- Overall body stiffness and aches are reduced. In particular, my neck/shoulders and ankle/feet areas are substantially improved. While these specific areas seemed to benefit from all poses, a few months ago I added targeted exercises to further diminish the damages accumulated in these joints. They have been my most troublesome body parts for years now.
- My balance had not declined to the point where I noticed it in normal activities but the loss was obvious when I tried to do a balance pose. In six months I’ve successfully moved past single balance poses into sequenced moves of two or more balance poses. When we returned to cycling this summer I also felt much more confident on the bike.
Overall, I can say I feel pretty spunky and free of pain when I wake up in the morning. Jamie says I mention it all too often so I guess the daily practice is working.
In the past six months. I’ve probably practiced yoga with at least 20 online instructors who have free programs on YouTube. All these instructors are teaching one of several versions of Hatha Yoga the “western world’s exercise yoga”. Most of these styles are available in online classes except for Bikram and Hot Yoga which has to be done in a specially heated studio.
These are the Hatha Yoga styles I’ve tried with links that will lead you to more information:
- Vinyasa Also called vinyasa flow, this style of Hatha yoga strings poses together in sequences. It can be smooth and almost ballet like.
- Yin This form of yoga holds poses for 5 minutes or longer in order to fully stretch the muscles and fascia to gain both length and strength.
- Ashtanga When you see all the poses you can't imagine doing - you're looking at Ashtanga. Popular with men, it is not for beginners or for me as I learned in a studio class one day.
- Bikram/Hot Yoga What Bikram and Hot Yoga have in common is a 105 degree practice studio. Bikram actually follows a pre-determined sequence of 26 poses. Hot yoga can vary the poses but never the temperature. Don't try this in the summer.
- Yin/Yang Yoga This combintation class combines stretching (Yin) with strength and traditional Hatha yoga poses.
- Restorative Yoga Like Yin Yoga, poses are held for 5 minutes or longer except that you use support (blankets, blocks and bolsters, etc.). The meditative element is also important to release mind and body tension. I include it at least once a week or as an additional routine whenever I am sore. It's perfect right before bedtime.
- Iyengar Yoga B.K.S. Iyenger is the guru behind this style of yoga and while his reputation turned sour, he left behind a yoga style that I think has the best potential to prevent yoga injuries because of the focus on proper alignment.
Susan Carey retired in 2017 after a long business career most recently in animal welfare leadership. She writes about her experiences as a recent retiree living in Spain. Susan lives in Valencia, Spain with her husband, Jamie, and the senior pets they brought with them from the United States.