Downward Dog Into Yoga This Summer

The past year has been difficult for many. Faced with economic hardship, political tensions, and a viral pandemic, the average American is under a fair amount of stress these days. The calamitous physical effects have been draining; however, we as a community can not fail to consider the mental afflictions as well. Job loss, housing instability, and food insecurity have caused some of our most vulnerable populations to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, and insomnia according to an April COVID-19 mental health report from the National Institute of Mental Health. Unfortunately when faced with such trials, many abuse illicit substances which in turn, worsen their issues. It is crucial that we search for alternative methods to alleviate our stressors, and one of the most favorable applications is the practice of yoga and mindfulness. By implementing yoga into our daily health regimen, one can achieve lasting physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. 

The practice of yoga began in India 4000 years ago, and was designed to attain spiritual enlightenment or ‘awakening’ of the practitioner. It is for one to ‘reconnect’ with their highest self, while enriching the body.

“Here in the West, the vast majority of people practice yoga to focus mainly on the physical aspect of the practice – the postures, breathwork and to a lesser degree, meditation and mindfulness,” said Beatrice Mattaway, owner of Willow Tree Yoga in Bardonia, an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (ERYT). Some of the physical benefits of yoga include increased motion and flexibility, improved balance, strengthened lungs, increased breathing capacity, lubricated joints, and strengthened bones, according to Mattaway. In addition, yoga helps release tension and tightness in muscles, alleviates common aches and stiffness in the back, the hips, shoulders, and the neck. 

One of the most central advantages of yoga is that it works on both body and mind to help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is our ‘rest and digest’ mode, according to Chaya Spencer, owner of Shree Yoga in Saddle River. “Yoga benefits the body through poses that stretch, tone, massage and heal it,” said Spencer. “For the soul, which I think is the most important part, yoga helps to connect us to what is already inherent within us.  Yoga is a practice that connects us more deeply to the essence of ourselves and honors our differences and acknowledges our similarities and connection to one another.” 

Most classic yoga classes are based on 84 traditional yoga asana/physical poses, said Mattaway. The traditional ‘Hatha’- meaning force- yoga class focuses on a form of centering practice to begin the session, followed by a warmup, and often moving to a more heated practice, which can be the combination of seated, standing, or prone poses, along with ‘pranayama’ (breath work), winding down, and finishing in a prone meditation, ‘savasana’, shared Mattaway. The other types of yoga include ‘Vinyasa’ which is similar to ‘Hatha’, but instead of focusing on a few poses for a longer time, a series of poses are strung together to allow for a more fluid practice; ‘Ashtanga’, a style that follows preset poses done in a specific order; and Hot yoga, derived from ‘Bikram’ yoga, where the room is heated to 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity, and students move through an intense set of poses. 

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To decide on the type of yoga that works for you, Spencer suggests finding the type that best suits your particular needs. “Are you looking for fitness? Then maybe a flow, power flow, or heated class,” recommended Spencer. “Are you physically challenged in some way?  Then look for an alignment based class where teachers are familiar with your condition and the other students are working slowly and carefully – maybe a chair class or a gentle class.  Are you looking for stress release?  Then perhaps a class that focuses on meditation, restorative or yin yoga.  If you’re not sure, call up a studio and speak to the owner to get guidance.  Be a good consumer and do your research to find the right studio for you.  Take a class or two and see if you feel comfortable and if your needs are being met.  How is the community?  Do you feel welcome?  Is the teacher taking an interest in you and what your needs and wants in relation to yoga are?” 

The implementation of mindfulness and mediation is also crucial to attaining wellness through natural and healthy methods of stress release. A program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) significantly helps with this process. Katie Stoeckeler, owner of Peace in Piermont, is currently working to become a certified teacher of MBSR through the Brown Mindfulness Center. “I believe adamantly in this program because it’s secular, empirically based, and offers effective tools to those who suffer from stress, anxiety, pain, and depression,” said Stoeckeler. “It can be easy for us to feel good during and after a class, but it’s not always easy to sustain our calm when stressors arise in our every-day lives. This program has helped me the most with embodying mindfulness. Embodiment allows us to respond to a situation rather than react; it allows us to let go of things easily and focus more on pleasant experiences (than unpleasant).” 

The most effective way of incorporating yoga into your health routine is by paying close attention to your breath. “Notice your breath and follow it, from the time it enters the nostrils,” suggests Mattaway. “What does the air feel like? What temperature, quality? How far does your breath naturally flow? Does it stop in the throat or the chest? Or does it seem to travel all the way down to your belly?” After you establish your breathing patterns and learn beneficial techniques, you can begin to learn some poses. The best and safest way is to attend classes with yoga teachers who have gone through training and are certified yoga teachers (RYT), recommends Mattaway. “If you are not able to attend classes in person, there are many classes offered online, as well as many great books that can give you detailed anatomical cues for each pose. But as a beginner, having a trained teacher that can help you make adjustments and answer your questions regarding each pose in a way that is safe and most effective for your particular body and ability is truly invaluable.”

Integrating mindfulness and meditation in addition to yoga is a fruitful way to take command of your career, relationships, academic pursuits, and overall health. “As humans, we tend to overcomplicate wellness,” said Stoeckeler. Her advice for achieving mindfulness? “Soften your gaze or close your eyes and go inward. Check in with yourself—how are you feeling? Where are you feeling it? Is there a stretch or pose you can do to find relief?; Place your hands over your heart and check-in with your heartbeat. Think of a few things you’re grateful for in that moment; Repeat (mentally or aloud) an affirmation to uplift yourself (i.e. I am safe, I am supported, I love myself unconditionally, etc.); Get outside (and disconnect) as much as possible. Mindfulness is cultivated by being here now with curiosity… so, while you’re walking, take a different route than usual and engage your senses!”

Lastly, it is vital to stay hydrated throughout the summer, especially where the higher temperatures sap our bodies of fluids faster than we realize, advises Mattaway. “Try having a jug of fruit infused water in your fridge at all times, with the fun flavors (think watermelon, mint, citrus fruits or berries).” 

In the hectic world we live in, it is important to search for healthy mediums of solace and wellness. Yoga is an option for everyone; it unites students under the core belief of spiritual unity and a higher awareness of the world surrounding us. It might take some searching to find your yoga niche, but once you find your personal fit, you will be delighted to be part of a community that values health and centeredness.  In the words of Katie Stoeckeler, “If you can breathe, you can practice yoga.”