by Shayna Ogden
What is it that you really get when you start going to yoga? Are you just getting some flexibility or is there more to it?
When beginner students first start our six week beginner yoga courses, they usually come along looking to improve their flexibility and fitness, or to alleviate stiffness in the joints. Many tell me that they are very stiff due to having sedentary jobs or sitting for long periods in the car commuting to work. They are all invariably surprised that within about four short weeks, most have significantly lengthened their hamstrings and many can touch their fingers to the floor in uttanasana (bending over with knees straight).
But is improved flexibility the only thing that yoga offers? Is that all that students buy when they sign up for a course?
By about the fifth and sixth weeks, many of our beginner students tell us about the changes that they have started to experience in their bodies and minds which they did not expect. They thought that they were only buying increased flexibility when they signed up for the course but discovered many more positive changes were thrown into the deal. These changes come as an added bonus to increased flexibility.
Recently a student who has an injured shoulder, expressed her joy at the improvement in mobility of her shoulder joint and corresponding decrease in shoulder pain. Another who came to yoga looking for flexibility, found instead, that she gets a full, undisturbed eight hour sleep on yoga nights, after experiencing disturbed sleep and insomnia for many years. She had just accepted that poor sleep was her lot in life. Not so with yoga.
Others have reported, a sense of feeling stable on their feet and a sense of feeling strong and confident. It’s not that they were feeling weak or lacking in confidence before doing yoga, there was no sense that anything was wrong or missing, but having started yoga, a new confident feeling has come over them. This is true for both young and old students.
Another student said recently after lying over chair in a backbend position that he felt he could breathe deeply. He felt his chest expanding sideways and upwards and his lungs filling easily with breath and that it felt so good.
About fifteen percent of students who come suffer from anxiety or depression. Some suffer with Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and are using prescription medication to manage their conditions. One student recently told me that after doing yoga four times per week for six months, she was able to go off her medication for PTSD. Another with PTSD claims that her moods have levelled out and she no longer experiences intense mood swings since she started yoga.
Most of these people noticed these changes within the first four weeks of attending classes.
So the benefits or the good things that students derive from yoga are much more than physical. They sleep better, breathe better, their mind becomes quiet, anxiety lessens and they feel good about themselves. All much more than they bargained for when they signed up for a beginners yoga course.
When teaching, we try and give students an understanding of these broader health benefits that are theirs for keeps if the asanas are performed in a specific way and they keep coming to yoga classes regularly. For example, I ask students to lift the chest and roll the shoulders back to create space for the organs of the chest. When the heart has space, it can spread. When the heart begins to spread, it starts to become more flexible, pliable and elastic. This means it can more easily expand. When it can expand, it can more easily pump blood around the body. It doesn’t have to work as hard to deliver the same volume of blood.
Likewise, when the lungs have more space they can expand broad to the side and lift high up under the collarbones. They also become soft, flexible, pliable and elastic. The muscles associated with breathing – the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles that weave in and out between the ribs are often hard and inelastic before a person starts yoga. With yoga practice, these muscles become soft, pliable and elastic. In this state, they allow the rib cage to expand broad to the side and lift from the bottom to the top when you are breathing.
This soft pliable, elastic quality of the diaphragm, intercostal muscles and lungs allow you to begin to breathe more deeply. It is what we call ‘yogic breathing’. In a beginner’s class, yogic breathing is not something that we deliberately teach but if the poses are done correctly with the application of detail provided by the teacher, yogic breathing will naturally come about.
Every detail given by the teacher for each asana can be directly related to a health benefit. And as teachers, we do try and point this out so that students understand why they are being asked to perform poses in a particular way. For example, the instruction ‘pull the kneecaps up’ causes the quadriceps to engage and the front of the pelvis lifts to a more vertical position which can alleviate lower back pain over time. When the kneecaps are up the knee joints become more aligned improving the health of the knee.
As students, when you follow these instructions closely, your mind also goes into the body. Attention goes to the different parts of the body as the instructions require. Eg knees, buttocks, chest, shoulders etc. When the mind remains contained within the body, then it can’t be brooding on what happened yesterday, nor can it worry about what will happen tomorrow. In this way, the mind gets a chance to rest, which is one of the reasons students feel restored and refreshed at the conclusion of a class.
Students should always feel restored and rejuvenated at the end of a class even though they may have been working intensely. The nervous system should feel soothed, quiet and steady. It should not feel jangled or vibrating.
This feeling of quietness comes about as a result of taking the mind inward by concentrating and taking it to the various parts indicated by the teacher. You also get quiet when the heart and lungs have spread in such a manner during the asanas that there is good oxygenated blood flow throughout the body. When the asanas are performed correctly, the nerve fibres are lengthened causing a soothing sensation. Then the student can experience quietude coupled with inner strength.
So, if you haven’t already, come to yoga, you just might get so much more than you bargained for. And if you keep doing yoga, it’s all yours – for keeps.