Not long ago, I was troubled to read in the Washington Post that local hospitals are having to expand to accommodate increasing numbers of aging, ailing Baby Boomers - a generation of which I and many of Willow Street's students are a part. We're living longer than our parents did, and of course we want to grow older gracefully. Yet even as health care is one of our highest concerns - as it is for people young and old - right now, we're most worried about our pocketbooks and retirement plans!
I understand that in this economy, for many people, a weekly yoga class may seem like quite a luxury. Yes, it's a wonderful way to spend our time, and it makes us feel better in so many ways - but with money as tight as it is now, I can see how yoga might seem like an expensive way to feel good.
The truth, however, is that yoga is one of the most inexpensive and effective ways to prevent many age-related diseases and conditions. In this way, yoga is "preventative medicine," and actually SAVES us money on future health care. When practiced regularly with good alignment, and especially when combined with pranayama and meditation, yoga is one of the very best ways in which we can stay healthy and vital as we age. Prestigious institutions such as the National Institute of Health are doing studies and holding conferences to confirm many of the benefits serious yoga practitioners have long experienced for themselves. Many doctors, chiropractors, osteopaths, therapists, and other health practitioners have begun practicing yoga themselves, and extol its benefits to their patients and clients.
As those health professionals know well, there's a long list of common complaints of aging: stiffness in the joints; reduced flexibility; loss of strength; arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, and other "itis-es," or inflammatory conditions; osteoporosis leading to kyphosis (overly rounded upper back known as dowager's hump); and spinal conditions from disk degeneration. Add to this list insomnia, anxiety, depression, memory failure, being more prone to injury...wow, aging sure doesn't sound like much fun! Now, obviously I'm not claiming that yoga cures any or all of the above, but having turned a ripe young 64 not long ago, (the Beatles lyrics "Will ya still need me, Will ya still feed me?" comes to mind), I can attest to the incredible benefits that Yoga offers in easing the effects of aging. And thank goodness, I don't need anyone to feed me yet, and still feel very needed by many! How does yoga slow down the aging process? Here are some concrete ways in which it works:
First, let's look at what happens when we don't make the effort to stay flexible:
Muscles contract through repeated movements, getting shorter and shorter. This results in tightness and stress in various muscle groups, eventually causing spasms, pain and inflexibility.
When muscles don't relax, they are deprived of oxygen. Think of a muscle like a sponge: when it's squeezed, fluids are extracted; only when it is relaxed can it absorb fluids. A contracted, blood and oxygen-deprived muscle will in time become injured and diseased. Stretching elongates the muscle so it relaxes and absorbs blood and oxygen.
Tight muscles hamper joints and restrict full range of motion. In most joints, synovial fluid lubricates the surfaces, making movements smooth and keeping joint structures supple. Movement encourages the flow of synovial fluid, while restriction sets the stage for arthritis, where joint surfaces become dry and brittle.
Tight muscles on one side mean weak muscles on the other side. Proper yoga stretching with attention to alignment creates and maintains muscular balance. In addition, tight muscles pull the body out of alignment. Yoga poses allow the body to come back to its optimal alignment, encouraging a free flow of fluids and energy.
Muscles that are too tight lose their strength. They may look good (think beach muscles) but are not, in fact, optimizing their potential. Yoga encourages length and strength in muscles, making them long, lean, and strong. In Anusara Yoga, we always create a balance of strength and flexibility: we contract a muscle (using the principle of Muscular Energy) at the same time we stretch it (using the principle of Organic Energy), creating a balanced action of the two forces. In this way, we become strong in a safe, dynamic way.
Of course, physical strength and flexibility profoundly affect how we feel mentally and emotionally, as well. Here's how:
Flexibility of body encourages flexibility of mind. Yoga increases body awareness and encourages physical relaxation, which in turn begins to quiet the mind, reducing effects of mind-chatter like insomnia and anxiety. It is more effective to begin by learning to relax the body than to try to force the mind to relax.
Relaxation is the most effective and efficient way to relieve physical and psychological stress. Yoga Nidra, Savasana (deep relaxation pose) and Meditation are three of the most effective ways to relax.
Savasana, the culmination of most yoga classes, is a complete surrender, a letting go of control. In this pose, blood pressure, pulse rate, brain waves, and metabolism all slow down, allowing the body to receive a deep rest, where healing more naturally and spontaneously occurs.
When the body is fully relaxed, the brain starts to produce more alpha waves, an indication of the mind beginning to transcend normal thought patterns. This is the higher state of consciousness in which Edison created the light bulb, Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity, and countless scientists, philosophers, and sages came to their greatest insights. In yoga, we often use the breath as a vehicle to this place of deeper awareness, which leads to meditation.
A meditation practice of only 15 or 20 minutes, once or twice a day gives enormous benefits to our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Here's how:
On the physical plane, meditation reduces stress. Chronic stress, measured by high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, eventually wears out the endocrine system and thus weakens the immune system. High cortisol levels are also known to be a major factor in brain aging, age-related memory loss, and Alzheimer's syndrome. Meditation is the only activity that reduces blood lactate, a marker of stress and anxiety. It increases calming hormones melatonin and serotonin, and reduces cortisol. Longterm meditators experience 80% fewer cases of heart disease and 50% fewer cases of cancer than non-meditators.
On the emotional plane, regular meditation gives us a capacity to withstand painful and negative emotions as well as to increase positive emotions like compassion and generosity. It increases our capacity for clarity and warmth, allowing us to understand and connect with ourselves, others and the world around us.
On the spiritual plane, meditation shows us that our real Being is an Awareness that is not only within ourselves but also all around us. In this way, meditation lets us deal with upset, grief, fear and other difficult feelings without being overwhelmed by them.
Considering these myriad benefits of yoga for our mind, body, and spirit makes yoga class seem much less like a luxury and more like a necessity! With each yoga practice, after all, we learn myriad ways of releasing physical and mental tensions, and encouraging bodily and emotional strength. With yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation, we liberate our vast resources of energy, tapping into our inner fountains of youth. And as body, mind and spirit are more deeply integrated, our lives become a spontaneous expression of our urge to be well, and our instincts toward joy and health become increasingly clear and reliable.
Happy Health to you all, and see you on the mat!