I LOVE yoga! That may not come as a surprise on this blog, but some days, the love for what I do just bursts through my body. Is there something in your life that does that for you? I hope so!
The yogic approach to health and wellness may not be for everyone, but I regularly experience the positive health-improving effects that consistent practice brings.
For example, I recently called the doctor’s office for my results following a routine physical exam and testing. After reading my cholesterol numbers to me, the nurse asked, “What drugs are you taking?”
Initially, the assumption threw me off a bit. You see, I don’t take any cholesterol lowering drugs. That’s why I answered, “Ah, none. But I eat mostly vegetables and practice yoga regularly.”
After I hung up the phone and gave her reaction some thought, I realized that most 47-year-olds with an LDL/”bad” cholesterol reading of 61 (80 or below is optimal), HDL/”good” cholesterol of 75 (60 or above is optimal), and total cholesterol of 142 (180 or less is normal) may use prescription meds to get those kind of numbers!
Of course, I am not advocating a “no drug” policy for everyone.
There are circumstances when drugs are necessary to get back on track because lifestyle changes (eating better, exercising smart, practicing yoga) take a while to show results.
However, if we begin to approach wellness with the prevention mindset instead of the treatment mindset, we might start decreasing our dependence on pharmaceuticals.
Many people take better care of their car than they do their body!
They give their car regular oil changes, routine maintenance, a good wash once a month, etc. But their own body? Most people pay very little attention to it until something hurts or they get sick. And when that happens, they take a pill to make the symptoms go away.
There are a lot of drug pushers out there already…let’s give them some competition! I’m not talking about putting more drugs on the market, though. What I’m suggesting is a little routine maintenance in the form of yoga
How does yoga help? Scientific studies have shown many stress-reducing and health-improving benefits of practicing yoga regularly.
Let’s take a look at specific yoga techniques that help.
Most people agree that stretching is important, but very few take the time to implement a regular flexibility routine. It isn’t until there is a chronic problem that most people start recognizing the importance of adding flexibility training to their regular workout routine.
“Oh my achin’ back” motivates more people than the idea of prevention.
Due to tight backs and a weak core, statistics show that 8 out of 10 people have some kind of back pain… 8 out of 10!
If you knew there was a way you could be one of the 2 out of 10 people without back pain, wouldn’t you want to try?
Half Locust Pose: strengthens low back muscles, improves coordination, and helps your left/right brain connection.
- Begin face down on a mat with your legs together and arms stretched above your head. This is the starting position.
- While breathing in, simultaneously lift your right arm, left leg, and head. Pause at the end of the inhalation. This is the final position.
- As you breathe out, lower your right arm, left leg, and head back to the mat.
- Repeat by lifting the left arm, right leg, and head on the next inhalation. Pause at the end of the inhalation.
- On exhalation, lower your left arm, right leg, and head back to the starting position.
- 1-4 is one round. Repeat for 5-10 rounds.
Boat Pose Naukasana: strengthens abdominal muscles, increases core strength, and improves digestion.
- Begin in the Shavasana (Supine Base Position)
- Inhale deeply, contracting your abdominal muscles and holding your breath.
- Simultaneously lift your head, arms, shoulders, back, and legs off the ground about 15cm (6in).
- In the final position, your upper and lower body should be equal distance from the floor, eyes looking forward with your head in line with your spine and your chin off your chest.
- Exhale and slowly release back to the starting position.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
When done slowly with correct form, yoga postures can take your joints through a full range of motion. Moving your joints this way ensures that a fresh supply of blood and nutrition are getting in to the joint cartilage and keeping your joints lubricated.
Simple joint mobility movement, done regularly, can reduce the pain associated with over-use or arthritis.
Knee Crank: lubricates the knee joint, improving mobility and decreasing knee pain due to age and arthritis; strengthens the quadriceps and knee ligaments for additional knee support.
- Begin with your legs stretched out in front of your body or lie down on your back.
- Bend your right knee and clasp your hands under your right thigh.
- Place your hands under your right thigh and interlock your fingers or cross your arms and hold your elbows.
- Raise your right foot from the ground.
- Rotate your lower leg from the knee in a large circular movement; try to straighten your leg at the top of the upward movement
- The upper part of your leg (thigh and hip) should remain perfectly still.
- Repeat 5-10 times clockwise and then 5-10 times counter-clockwise.
- Repeat with the left leg.
- Synchronize your breath by inhaling on the upward movement and exhaling on the downward movement.
Practice Note: To release your leg after completion of the exercise, gently bring your knee to your chest before straightening your leg and going to the second side. Bringing your knee to your chest will help ensure that the knee joint is realigned after being in a somewhat awkward position.
With age, bones tend to shrink in size and density — which weakens them and makes them more susceptible to fracture. You might even become a bit shorter. Muscles generally lose strength and flexibility, and you may become less coordinated or have trouble balancing.
The weight bearing postures of yoga help you improve your strength and balance.
Downward Facing Dog: builds upper body muscle strength and endurance while increasing back and hamstring flexibility.
- Begin on your hands and knees, placing your hands directly underneath your shoulders with your knees under your hips. Roll your toes under.
- On an inhalation, lift your buttocks upward, rising onto your toes.
- On the exhalation, press your hips back and your heels downward, allowing your head to lower between your arms.
- In the final position, your back and legs form two sides of a triangle and your heels will be against the ground.
- Hold this position for up to 3-5 breaths.
- Release the pose on an inhalation, rising back up onto your toes. Exhale and return to the starting position.
- Repeat 5-7 times
Lord Shiva’s Pose: Strengthens upper and lower body muscle groups and improves concentration and balance.
- Begin in the standing base position with your feet together and your arms by your sides.
- Stretch your right arm in front of your body and bring your index finger and thumb together in an “Okay” gesture.
- Beginning on the right side, shift your weight over your right leg, bend your left knee and grab your ankle or foot. Depending on your flexibility and balance, this is the starting or ending position.
- While simultaneously stretching your arm forward, begin to kick your left foot or ankle into your left hand. Continue to reach forward and kick back with your hips square and your left leg aligned behind your left hip. This is the final position.
You guarantee a fresh supply of oxygen flow into and around the muscles and organs of your body when you perform a variety of yoga postures. Regularly practice decreases stiffness and muscular tension while reduce chronic pain in several areas of your body.
Shoulder Socket Rotation: Flexibility and energy flow increase in your neck, shoulders, and chest leading to better posture and breathing.
- Begin with your legs stretched out in front of your body or in another comfortable seated position.
- Place your hands on your shoulders — right hand on right shoulder, left hand on left shoulder
- Begin to rotate your shoulders clockwise, making large circles with your elbows.
- On the forward movement, try to touch your elbows as they come in front of your body.
- As your elbows go behind your body open up your chest and allow your elbows to touch your trunk as they come down.
- Synchronize your breath by inhaling on the upward movement and exhaling on the downward movement.
Practice Note: If there is extreme tightness in your shoulders and upper arms try this movement with only one arm at a time.
Lower Blood Pressure
Statistics show that high blood pressure will affect 9 out of 10 people in their life-time. This is much worse than the stats for an achin’ back!
A natural part of mindful yoga practice is the development of body awareness. Although several postures achieve this, it’s important to note that some postures, especially those that take your head below your heart or increase pressure in your thoracic cavity, should be avoided if you have high blood pressure.
Shavasana: the pose of relaxation.
- Lie flat on your back (supine) with your arms about 6 inches (15 cm) away from your body, palms facing upward.
- Move your feet slightly apart to a comfortable position and close your eyes.
- Your head and spine should be in a straight line and your limbs symmetrical.
- Make sure your head remains straight with your nose pointing upward.
- Take a gentle breath in, and on the exhalation, relax your whole body while becoming completely still.
- Be aware of your natural breath
Practice Note: If there is any lower back pain or injury, you can bend one or both knees or place a rolled up blanket under your knees to relieve the discomfort.
Alternate Nostril Breathing: a balancing-breath practice that has a calming effect on your brain. It improves the flow of breath in your nostrils and helps to bring your breath and body into balance, thus lowering blood pressure and bodily stress.
- Begin in a comfortable seated position with your spine straight, head to the center, with your hands resting gently on your knees or in your lap.
- Once still, shift your attention to your breath and begin to follow its natural pattern.
- Notice the flow of your breath in your nostrils.
- Bring your right hand up to the center of your forehead placing your index and middle finger between your eyebrows. Your right thumb rests lightly on your right nostril.
- Begin Alternate Nostril breathing closing your right nostril with your right thumb and take 5 breaths in and out through your left nostrils.
- Using your ring finger of your left hand close your left nostril and take 5 breaths in and out through your right nostril
- Release your hands back to your knees and lap and take 5 breaths through both nostrils. That is the end of round 1.
- Bring your right hand back into position and begin again by closing your right nostril with your left thumb.
- Continue the above process for a total of 5-7 rounds.
Practice note: If your right arm gets tired, use your left hand to support it (picture 2)
Relief of stress-related symptoms
Yoga encourages conscious breathing — knowing that you know that you are breathing!
This is different from the regular breathing that keeps you alive and happens unconsciously.
When you conscious breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system’s “rest and digest” mechanism, and your heart rate and blood pressure immediately begin to lower. Something as simple as mentally repeating ”I am breathing in; I am breathing out” can make this happen.
Breath Awareness Meditation
It’s not a great party topic, but digestive issues are a real problem for some people. Constipation is one of the most common. Many factors contribute to poor digestive health, including a low-fiber diet, not drinking enough fluids, and lack of exercise.
There are several yoga postures and series of postures that can improve digestive health. Get things “moving’ by giving the following a try!
Palm Tree Pose: stretches the entire digestive tract and is great for those who suffer from indigestion.
- Begin standing upright with your feet together with your hands clasped together in front of your body.
- Find something to fix your gaze on that is at eye level and approximately 10-15 feet in front of your body.
- On inhalation, lift your arms up, stretching them alongside your ears with the palms of your hands facing upward.
- Continue the movement by lifting your heels off the ground and coming onto your toes. Pause here, balancing for a moment, while continuing to stretch your arms upward. This is the final position.
- On an exhalation, slowly release the position by lowering your arms back down and your heels to the floor.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
Practice Note: If balance on your toes is difficult, keep your feet flat on the mat throughout. For added difficulty, take your gaze to your hands in the final position (Pictured)
Leg Lock: massages your digestive organs, improving blood flow and function.
- Begin by lying in Shavasana (Supine Base Position)
- Bend your right knee and bring your thigh to your chest.
- Interlock your fingers and clasp your hands on your shin just below your right knee. If this is difficult, your hands can also be clasp around your thigh.
- Keep your left leg straight and on the ground.
- Inhale deeply through your nose, fully filling your lungs with air.
- Exhale, engaging your muscles in your abdomen, and raise your head and shoulders off the ground while moving your nose toward your knee. Pause briefly at the top of the movement.
- Inhale and return slowly to the supine base or starting position.
- Repeat up to 5-10 times on each side.
Reduced Body Pain
Yoga has been shown to reduce back pain, arthritis flare-ups, carpal tunnel syndrome, and pain-related illnesses such as fibromyalgia.
Wrist Bending: decreases wrist pain due to prolonged periods of typing, texting, weight bearing, etc.
- Begin with your legs outstretched and your back straight (pictured) or in another comfortable seated position.
- Stretch your arms in front of your body so that they are parallel with the floor.
- On inhalation, bend your wrist so that your fingertips point upward.
- On the exhalation, bend your wrist so that your fingertips point downward.
- Keep your upper back engaged, your shoulders down away from your ears, and your arms parallel throughout the movement.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
Improved Lung Function
Due to poor posture, restrictive clothing, inefficient breathing techniques, and stress, we often don’t breath in a way that uses the full capacity of our lungs. For those who suffer from asthma, which compromises the function of your lungs, it is even more important that they learn to breathe correctly and efficiently.
Practicing yoga regularly ensures that, at least for a few minutes a day, you’re taking deep breaths.
Crocodile Pose: increases low back flexibility and realignment of vertebrae; opens your chest and lungs, leading to deeper breathing and improved alveoli function.
- Begin on your abdomen.
- Place the palms of your hands flat on the mat below but slightly to the outside of your shoulders and touch your big toes together.
- Press up on your hands and bring your elbows below your chin.
- Rest your head in the palm of your hands.
- Adjust your elbows so that your neck and low back are comfortable.
- Hold the final position for up to 10 breaths.
Practice Note: Crocodile pose is considered a relaxation posture. However, depending on the condition of your back, you may not feel that relaxed! Stay in the posture as long as you can do so comfortably, releasing it when necessary as directed above.
Adding breath awareness will further induce a state of relaxation as well as improve breath capacity as the position of your body helps more air enter your lungs
Abdominal Breathing: the most natural and efficient way to breath; encourages the use of the lower lobes of your lungs by enhancing the action of your diaphragm and minimizing movement of your rib cage.
- Sit in any comfortable position or lie in Shavasana (corpse pose).
- Become aware of your natural breath. Don’t change the way you are breathing, just simply become aware of your spontaneous breath. (Short Pause)
- Now place your right hand on your abdomen above your navel, and your left hand over the upper part of your chest.
- Begin to direct your breath from your nostrils into your abdomen (right hand)
- With abdominal breathing you will feel your abdomen moving up and down. At the same time, your abdominal and chest muscles should remain totally relaxed.
- Your right hand will move up with inhalation and down with exhalation. Your left hand should not move with your breath.
- Continue to breathe like this for 5-7 minutes.
Just Do It!
Well, there you have it! Now all you have to do is use it! (But remember to always seek a physician’s advice before starting any fitness program or reducing/stopping prescription medications.)
The above variety of yoga-specific postures for common health issues that have proven to be effective will help keep you healthy and ‘drug-free.’
Yoga may not be a ‘cure all’ for everything that ails you, but it’s hard to argue against giving it a try when more research continues showing its value.
Hales, D. (2015). The Joy of Fitness. In An invitation to health: Live it now! (16th ed.). Stamford, Conn.: Cengage Learning.
Satyananda, S. (2008) Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Yoga Publications Trust, Ganga Darshan Munger, Bihar, India.