Yoga works the mind and
muscles together for better health

By: Mary Young
Oahu Island News

Yoga: A 5,000-year-old system of personal growth that started in India and is now a fad in the western world. Here in the United States, the emphasis is on fitness and the route into yoga practice is through a studio or gym. For shoppers, there’s a ready supply of special yoga clothes, music and videos, not to mention yoga mats, blocks, straps and other equipment. Yoga even has crossover appeal: A quick web search brings up such items as yoga sculptures for the home and a yoga board game for children. And a recent issue of Food and Wine magazine featured the menu of a “yoga party” presented by a southern California heiress – after teaching her afternoon Kundalini yoga class.

Yoga practice in 21st Century America isn’t quite what the yogis of old intended. Practicing “asanas” – poses – is only one path to a meaningful and purposeful life, according to the “Yoga Sutra,” the ancient writing that still guides yoga practice today. The Sanskrit text, which put into writing centuries of oral tradition, suggests an eightfold path: “yamas” (restraints), “niyamas” (observances), “asana” (postures), “pranayama” (breathing), “pratyahara” (withdrawal of senses), “dharana” (concentration), “dhyani” (meditation) and “samadhi” (absorption).

The physical aspect of yoga is not even the most important one, says Rupali, a Yoga Alliance-certified teacher and director of teacher training at Yoga Hawaii. “The health benefits are secondary,” she says. When Rupali began teaching 19 years ago, her students were hippies, “fringe folks” who were more interested in trying something new than in attaining physical perfection. “Originally, you came for some spiritual orientation,” she says. “Because that’s what the yogis said was the goal: enlightenment. It wasn’t about, you know, getting a yoga butt.”

Still, physical yoga practiced mindfully can lead to other benefits. Stress relief and a greater sense of well-being are often attributed to physical, or Hatha, yoga, which seeks to develop strength and flexibility and to quiet the mind through focus on the breath. The compound word Hatha (“ha” means sun and “tha” means moon) suggests the balance of opposite yet equal pairs, such as yin and yang, strength and flexibility, or the equal development of both sides of the body. The mind-body-breath discipline of Hatha yoga encompasses most of the styles in use today.

Louisa DiGrazia, a longtime yoga teacher and director of Yoga School of Kailua, says a lot of people have tension between the matrix of the shoulders and the neck muscles. So she’ll work with the person or class to release the tension. “And when you let the tension go, you realize that you had something like a weight on the shoulders,” she says, ”And when that weight is reduced or released, one becomes freed up. That tension and that freedom make one feel better within themselves, and there’s a sense of peace that wasn’t there before.”

Anyone who’s been in a yoga class knows about the emphasis on the spine – on strengthening the back and abdominal muscles while preserving the spine’s natural curve. In India, where people are accustomed to squatting or sitting cross-legged, proper posture is less challenging. But for Americans, even basic postures can be difficult. DiGrazia says she sees students in their early 20s who can’t sustain a sitting position on the floor. “After 30 seconds, they start flopping,” she says. “Our back muscles are very weak because we drive around in cars and we sit around in chairs and we’re not using the muscles of our back to elevate our spine. If you look at little kids, especially between 1 and 3, and they’re sitting up, they’re always sitting up with a really straight back, straight spine. And we can’t do that.”

In fact, most of the teachers interviewed for this story came to yoga as a result of a back injury. Kai White of Yoga Hawaii suffered compression fractures in her mid-back and lumbar spine as a result of a bike accident a few years ago. White, already a “casual” practitioner, switched to a more gentle yoga practice during her recovery and became a certified teacher later that year.

Like any form of exercise, yoga can be overdone. If performed improperly or too aggressively, some poses can aggravate a back problem or even cause injury. One example is a familiar leg stretch called the “sitting forward bend.” For someone with tight hamstrings or a flattened curve in the lower back, the sitting forward bend can jeopardize the intervertebral discs. That’s because the back normally curves forward slightly, evenly distributing the body’s weight throughout the discs. Repeated forward bending, even in a yoga class, can cause the ligaments supporting the discs to weaken and bulge.

Yoga and yoga therapy are gaining prominence as a form of complementary health care. Oahu medical facilities, including Kapiolani Women’s Center and Queen’s Medical Center, frequently offer yoga classes. A private Kailua studio, Three Paths Mind Body & Spirit Fitness, presents “corporate yoga” classes to local businesses as part of a holistic health program. Not surprisingly, most of Three Paths’ corporate clients are professional movers
and others who lift heavy objects at work, says co-owner/instructor Sisi Takaki. “Businesses these days, especially those with a lot of union workers, a lot of laborers, are experiencing an increase in their health care costs as well as injuries,” she says. Her instructors recommend 10 to 20 minutes of yoga, at least every other day, before the work day starts. “And really what it is, is a conscious awareness of ‘getting my body prepped for work,’” Takaki says. “It’s amazing how much that 10- to 20-minute time frame can do for workers. It creates that body awareness. And that seems to really cut down on their injuries.”

For people who spend hours at a computer, such as Windward Community College instructor Franny Oliver, just a few minutes of yoga each day can relieve back tension and increase flexibility. What’s more, she says, “I utilize breathing exercises whenever I feel stressed and that has helped me tremendously.”

Oliver practices Viniyoga, a gentle yoga that’s particularly suited to people with physical limitations or injuries. Her teacher, Charlotte Nuessle of Hawaii Yoga and Wellness Services, says Viniyoga is more of a methodology than a distinct style, adapting classical poses to suit the individual’s needs. In Viniyoga, the practice of asanas is directed toward understanding the mechanisms that are responsible for the body’s present condition.

Nuessle, who has a bachelor’s degree in gerontology and teaching certifications in Kripalu and Viniyoga, says the Viniyoga method adapts to the body’s potential as it changes through a lifetime. “It’s not just for people who are sick, it’s also for people who are well,” says Nuessle. “How do you keep exploring your potential? How do you challenge a body appropriately when it’s 60 as opposed to when it’s 20?”

Barbara Nishida of Kaneohe began private studies with Nuessle when a bone density test revealed she had early osteoporosis. The 60-ish retired teacher had a family history of osteoporosis and already had a compression fracture in her lower back. Nuessle, who is working toward a Viniyoga therapy certification, designed a routine to help stretch and strengthen the soft tissue in Nishida’s back in order to help maintain posture. “And if we can prevent those fractures, we want to,” Nuessle says. “But even if someone has fractures, we want to keep those muscles strong, so we’re doing everything we can to prevent them from collapsing into gravity.”

Contrasting with Nuessle’s more clinical approach, Yoga School of Kailua reflects the socially conscious world view of its director, DiGrazia. For DiGrazia, yoga is a “practice, art form, and tool to raise awareness and is a part of the movement to help in the fundamental transformation of human consciousness.” The transformation toward a more peaceful world, she says, begins within the individual and moves outwardly. Yoga postures prepare the body for the mental and spiritual work. Creativity is key to DiGrazia’s practice. “You’re taking people on a journey into themselves, a creative journey,” she says, “and to be on a creative journey yourself is the only way that you can help other people explore their own creative nature within their body and their mind and their spirit.”

Oahu offers a range of locations, philosophies and yoga styles – Hatha and others with a different emphasis, such as Bikram (“hot”) yoga and the more spiritual Kundalini. The adventure begins with choosing one and following its path.

Yoga Hawaii’s Rupali says, “What I’ve witnessed is that the yoga is powerful enough that it takes them to the same place. That it doesn’t matter what doorway they come through, they end up finding a stronger connection with themselves and their inner life.”