Yogis know the poses that “open” the heart, but did you know that regular practice can also help protect your ticker over the long term?
1. Love how you feel after class? That’s your stress melting away.
Stress may affect behaviors and factors that are proven to increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating, according to the American Heart Association. Chronic stress may also cause some people to drink too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure and may damage the artery walls. A regular yoga practice, on the other hand, is likely to calm you down, making you less likely to lean on caffeine, sugar, fatty foods or alcohol to “numb out,” says Hazel Patterson, Urban Zen Integrative Yoga Therapist and teacher trainer at YogaWorks in Los Angeles.
“Moving with the breath, in other words linking expanding movements with the inhales, and contracting or softening movements with the exhales, starts to create a dynamic which calms the nerves and moves that stress energy out of the body,” she explains.
For your go-to bliss-out pose, Terrence Monte, a Managing Teacher at Pure Yoga in New York City, recommends the Seated Forward Bend. To make it even more delicious, place a rolled blanket or towel under your knees, and rest your forehead on a block or other prop placed on your shins.
2. It’s a feel-good workout.
Maintaining a normal BMI (body mass index) can help your heart, according to the CDC, and regular physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight. Yoga, Monte says, is the “best resistance workout on the planet” —meaning it’s easy on the joints and uses your own body weight to build strength. Become a fat-burning machine by building long lean muscle—Monte suggests Plank Pose as all-over strengthener that does double-duty by targeting your core and shoring up your back.
3. It blasts belly fat.
Excess abdominal fat has been linked to increased risk for heart disease. By strengthening the large muscle groups in the body, such as the gluteals and quadriceps, yoga gets your body burning more calories, meaning you are less likely to store them as fat around your middle, Patterson says. “Standing poses like Warrior II held for a little longer than the mind is comfortable with is a great way to build these powerhouse muscles,” she says.
4. It “opens” the heart.
What does it mean to “open” your heart mean anyway? “Asana is the practice of putting your body in challenging shapes. Yoga, on the other hand, is the practice of integrating what you learn on the mat with what you do off of it,” Monte explains. “As you become more mindful about your body, your breath, your language in challenging poses, you become more aware about your own perceptions (read: misperceptions) of the world.”
Rather than the obvious heart-openers (Fish, Camel, Locust ), Monte suggests a pose that’s really challenging to stay vulnerable in, like Chair Pose. “Sit as low as you can with your lumbar spine as long as possible for as long as you can. Notice how your mind, your language, your perceptions change as the intensity increases,” he says.
5. It changes your diet.
A healthy diet (heavy on colorful fruits and veggies, fiber and heart-healthy fish and light on red meat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and processed foods) is critical to heart health, and studies have linked regular yoga practice to mindful eating.
“As you connect to your body, breath and perspectives in challenging shapes on the mat, you connect more to what you do to it off the mat,” Monte says. “Suddenly, if you have to do yoga in the morning, it gets much harder to have that fourth martini, that fried whatever, that extra serving of needless sugar. You develop a sense of respect for this absurdly miraculous body that has developed over millions of years of evolution.”
Benefit: A foundational pose that teaches you how to find your center and activate your legs in arm balances
1. From Plank Pose, align your shoulders slightly ahead of the wrists and come onto the balls of your feet, pressing the soles of your feet back, as if into a wall behind you.
2. Simultaneously push back through the heels to engage the quadriceps and bring the lower body to life, and reach your sternum forward, creating a straight, taut line of energy from the crown of your head through your feet.
3. On an inhalation, draw the heads of the shoulders and the tops of the thighs up and away from the floor, pull your lower body up and in, and release the tailbone toward the floor.
4. On an exhalation, bend your elbows, keeping them over your wrists and drawn in against your sides. Slowly lower yourself toward the floor, keeping your body as straight as a plank of wood, neither letting your center sag nor sticking your buttocks up in the air.
5. Bring your gaze to the floor, about 6 inches in front of you, and continue to lower until your shoulders are at the same height as your elbows.
6. Continue to reach through the heels, sternum, and crown of the head as you breathe.
7. To come out of the pose, exhale and lower down to your belly or push back up to Plank Pose. Or inhale and come onto the tops of your feet and into Upward-Facing Dog.
Avoid These Mistakes
DON’T stick your buttocks up or let your shoulders collapse any lower than your elbows.
DON’T lose integrity in your core and let your center sag.
The second of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga; the Niyamas are moral codes or social contracts which guide us towards positive behavior, especially towards ourselves. This article looks at one of the Niyamas –
The third of Patanjali’s Niyamas is ‘Tapas’, which often translates traditionally as ‘austerity’ or ‘discipline’. The word Tapas is derived from the root Sanskrit verb ‘tap’ which means ‘to burn’, and evokes a sense of ‘fiery discipline’ or ‘passion’. In this sense, Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness. Tapas fieriness is what gets our heart pumping, heightens our desire for personal growth and reminds us of how much we love our yoga practice!
Tapas on the Mat
First of all, ‘discipline’ doesn’t strictly mean pushing ourselves harder in a physical sense. Sometimes just actually making the time to get on the mat and meditate, or practice for 10 minutes every day is difficult enough! For some, Tapas will mean making time to be still and observing the mind, and for others it will mean working on strength and practicing that arm balance we’ve been putting off.
Tapas is an aspect of the inner wisdom that encourages us to practice even when we don’t feel like it. It’s that fiery passion that makes us get up and do our practice for the love of it, and by committing to this, the impurities are ‘burned’ away. That’s Tapas too – ‘burning’ away the negative thought patterns and habits we often fall in to.
Cultivating a sense of Tapas in our physical practice could mean practicing poses we usually avoid or find difficult, or leaning mindfully in to our edge within a tough asana. Realizing that it does take time to get in to a more ‘advanced’ version of a pose doesn’t have to be discouraging at all; having the discipline to practice consistently and the humility to admit when we’re not perfect are both essential to reaping the rewards that ‘discipline’ has to offer.
Taking Tapas off the Mat
The discipline we learn on the mat is a fantastic lesson to take off the mat and in to every day life. When we breathe through challenging situations in a yoga practice, such as a difficult balancing pose, or when we find the strength to lift up in to an arm balance we previously thought was ‘impossible’, we can take these lessons with us and learn to be strong when facing challenging life situations.
Having the courage NOT to listen to the voices in our head that tell us we’re ‘not strong enough’ or ‘not good enough’ to attempt a more demanding pose or go for that new job opportunity is also an element of Tapas that ‘burns’ away those ‘impure’ thoughts, and leads to more self trust and inner strength.
Travelling a bumpy road is well worth it when you eventually find a place of peace and freedom. The lessons we learn from facing challenges and fears are the ones that tend to have the biggest positive impact on us.
When we work with the element of Tapas, it’s important to make sure we’re acting from a place of positivity and love, and not from fear. When we push ourselves a little further, we should do it not because our ego tells us to, but because we really truly feel we can go just that little bit further.
What does Tapas mean to you? The next time you’re faced with a challenge in a yoga class, practice facing up to it and igniting your inner fire – you’ll soon notice big changes on and off the mat!
Most who practice yoga these days have at least heard of the word ahimsa. We might even have read some of the in-depth literature on it, or practiced incorporating the idea of ahimsa—non-harming—into our lives. Translated as “dynamic peacefulness” by Sutra translator Alistair Shearer, it is arguable that ahimsa is the foundation of the entire practice.
Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, the first of yoga’s Eight Limbs. In the yoga tradition, the yamas, along with the niyamas (skillful living practices) were introduced to children and practiced before learning asana or pranayama, or the meditative limbs. Coming from a foundation of non-harming, budding yogis and yoginis could approach asana practice with the intention of calming and caring for the body rather than conquering it by force.
Even though we may not have started our yoga journey from the foundation of the yamas and niyamas, it’s never too late to incorporate them into our lives, both on and off the mat. With the rise in yoga-related injuries over the past 10 years, practicing ahimsa in asana seems especially pertinent. As we age—which we all are!—practicing ahimsa with our bodies becomes even more important.
Be Here Now
Many, if not most, of us begin our practice with the notion that it will improve our lives in some way—through weight loss, creating healthier habits, increasing flexibility, improving sleep, alleviating back pain, or calming and integrating our bodies and minds. There are lots of reasons, but mostly they have to do with changing the way we are.
What if we shifted our intention to simply taking the time to be with ourselves in a nurturing, non-judgmental way? What if we decided just to be present—without an agenda—with our bodies and minds as they are? What if we set aside the need to “improve” our poses and ourselves, and simply allowed our asana experiences to unfold moment by moment?
While it sounds simple, this is not easy. Most of us come to practice with profoundly conditioned beliefs about our own insufficiency. These beliefs cause us to place unrealistic demands on our practice. It causes us to compare our practice to that of others—a completely irrelevant and potentially injurious practice in that it makes us think we need to conform to standards that our bodies and minds may not be designed to achieve. We’re all different, after all! The “shoulds” we inflict on ourselves make enjoying our practice in the moment impossible. As a colleague of mine says, “Don’t should on yourself.”
It’s helpful to remember that we all come to yoga with different genetics and histories. These create superficial differences among us, but essentially, we are all capable of sharing the peace of being present with our bodies and minds just as they are. This is the essence of yoga practice.
What’s Happening in Your Body?
Once you shift your intention to being present in your body instead of striving for some future pose that’s somehow “better” than the one you’re practicing, you may start to notice some of your habits of forceful practice. For example, notice how you’re using your hands and arms. Our arms are our instruments of doing. We use our arms and hands to accomplish things in our lives. Noting the disposition of our arms is especially helpful in poses such as seated forward bends and twists where our arms are potentially involved in moving us further into a pose. Notice: Are your shoulders and arms tense? Are your arms inflicting the pose on your body? Can you instead let your arms support your asana without tensing them or using them to force your body into your idea of a “better” position?
The simplest cue of all is to give your breath primacy—always. If your breath is shallow, labored, fast or uncomfortable in any way in an asana, you are probably pushing yourself too far. When an asana restricts your breathing, it is not life supporting. If the breath is a carrier of prana,asana that restricts its flow is depleting rather than regenerating your energy. It is therefore an act of harming. Don’t do it! Back off to the point where your breath can flow freely.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are an elegant framework in which to grow your practice. As the first Yama, ahimsa is the foundation of the practice. We can practice in daily life through our relationships and choices, and on our mats by shifting our intentions for practice.
Let go of your ideas about practice “should” be and relax into what it actually is.
“Sometimes the body isn’t ready for what’s going on,” says Modestini. Here, Modestini offers four tips for avoiding injury:
Don’t exceed your threshold.
How do you know that you’re exceeding your threshold? If you have to open your mouth to breathe. Allyoga breathing should be done through the nose. If you’re shaking uncontrollably, meaning you can’t stop the shaking by focusing on the posture, focusing on the breath, or by backing off a little bit, then you’re beyond your threshold. Another indication that you’re beyond your threshold is if any part of your body goes numb. Sharp pain is also an indication. Sharp pain in a joint is always contraindicated — never, ever in yoga should there be sharp pain in a joint or basically anywhere in your body.
Stop going to classes that are too advanced for you.
It’s really because of the schedule. People don’t look at level, they look at the time they have available. In the Western world, people also tend to see themselves as more advanced than they really are.
Find a yoga teacher instead of a class leader.
Many teachers are not really teaching, they’re just leading classes, and there’s a huge difference. Some teachers are concerned with students, but don’t know how to look at a student and get them into their center, emotionally, mentally, and physically. To be centered is different for every individual.
IN NEED OF DONATED BICYCLES: I am teaching yoga as a volunteer in a local correctional facility for men who are transitioning out of incarceration as part of a work release program. Some men walk up to two hours in either direction for the opportunity to work. However, if they attend yoga class, group counseling, and meditation, they earn the privilege of using the bike for transportation. They do not get to keep the bike—rather, it is borrowed for very specific use. In this manner, a single bike can make a great difference for many men who are beginning their journey down a road that will hopefully prove positive and productive.
Do you have a bike you are willing to donate that adult men may use for transportation as part of their rehabilitation? I will arrange transportation of the bike (within a reasonable distance). PLEASE SHARE THIS POST. One bike can have a tremendous impact!
AND thanks to Janet Bixler for donating a bike! Pictured with me is Kathy Peppelman who is responsible for initiating the project.
Thank you to Teri Guerrisi for donating bikes to the project!
Thank you Gail King for rescuing this bike from a neighbor who considered putting it out with the trash.