By Jessica Culver
While original yogis may have used the practice to achieve enlightenment, their modern-day spandex-clad counterparts hit the mat looking for more tangible results. “It often starts that people are drawn to yoga for the physical component,” says registered yoga teacher and BSc kinesiologist Natalie Saari of Your Yoga Loft in Kamloops, BC “Typically, they want to stretch their body and get more flexible.”
Beyond limbering you up, though, Saari says yoga can incorporate all components of fitness, such as strength, stability, balance, and coordination. “It’s so much greater than just the postures. Yoga is so much bigger.”
In fact, yoga can also be used as a healing aid, both physically and mentally. Johnathan Ito-Ikebuchi, a social worker and fellow registered yoga teacher at Your Yoga Loft, warns that it’s not a cure-all, but he does identify yoga as “an integrative system that people can actually learn from.”
Participants looking for relief, whether from pain, stress, or other problems, need to choose wisely. There are many different types of yoga, and not just any kind will do. Look for the variety that specifically caters to your needs and the relief you are searching for. “When we say ‘yoga,’ it’s like saying ‘sports,’” Ikebuchi notes. “Football is different from soccer, which is different from baseball, running, and pole vaulting. Similarly, a gentle hatha is different than a vinyasa.”
That being said, there’s almost no ailment that yoga can’t help you manage — even if it’s just getting your mind off a problem for an hour. And, at the very least, it’s unlikely to make anything worse. Just be sure to get clearance from your doctor before you ditch medical treatments for downward dog. “Anyone with an underlying condition that hasn’t been diagnosed should wait,” Saari says. But otherwise, feel free to roll out the mat and reap the mental, spiritual, and physical rewards of yoga.
Ailment: Tight Hips
Do you spend a large part of your day sitting? Then you’ll want to treat your hips to some TLC. “The hip flexors become shortened,” says Saari, “so it’s nice to do anything that opens them up.”
Yoga Fix: Saari suggests trying out various lunge positions, such as lizard pose. To get started, come into a high plank position and bring your right foot to the outside of your right hand, letting your knee fall open to the side; hold for as long as you’re comfortable, and repeat on the opposite side. For deeper relief, you can come down to your forearms. If, however, you’re looking for a more yin-style, gentle hip opener, reclined butterfly can also provide relief. Simply lie down on your back with the soles of your feet together, bringing them as close to your body as you can. The more your feet are pulled in toward you, the deeper your stretch will be.
Tip: “Have the hips square,” she says, even if this means you can’t lunge as deeply.
Ailment: Back Pain
“Back pain is probably the number-one injury, physically,” says Saari. Whether it’s a deadlift gone wrong or straining yourself during housework, back pain can affect anyone, but not all sufferers can afford remedies like massage therapy. Good thing there’s cost-effective yoga.
Yoga Fix: “Gentle hatha and restorative yoga can be great for mobility and strengthening the back,” she says. A cat/cow flow is great for warming up the spine. Come down to your hands and knees with a neutral spine. Inhale as you lift your tailbone and chin up, arching your back, and exhale as you drop your chin and tailbone toward the floor, rounding your back like a Halloween cat. For a more relaxing stretch, lie on your back and hug your knees to your chest. You can then let them fall to either side of your body for a gentle spinal twist.
Tip: “Before you do any yoga practice, consult your physician,” she says. You need to know what’s causing the pain before you attempt to fix it. “It all depends on the type of injury.”
Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to chronic inflammation, and your most reliable go-tos are good nutrition and exercise habits. In fact, regularly practising yoga, even if you aren’t aiming to tackle a specific grievance, has been shown to help, and a study from the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior has the science to prove it. After eight weeks of a 12-minute daily yogic meditation, participants gave blood samples which, when measured, revealed reduced levels of protein activity, an anomaly that is directly linked to increased inflammation.
Yoga Fix: One group in the study practised the Kirtan Kriya meditation, a Kundalini-style yoga tradition involving chanting combined with different finger positions (called mudras). To do this, you’ll need to sit comfortably with a tall spine, and chant the sounds “saa, taa, naa, maa.” For the first two minutes, use a normal voice; for the next two minutes, whisper the sounds; the next four minutes, say them silently to yourself. Then, for two minutes each, whisper them and say them normally, for a total of 12 minutes. Perform these mudras for each of the following sounds: “saa” — touch index fingers to thumbs; “taa” — touch middle fingers to thumb; “naa” — touch ring fingers to thumbs; and “maa” — touch pinkies to thumbs.
Tip: Not into Kundalini chants? The other group simply listened to relaxing instrumental music for the same amount of time each day, which was also effective.
Ailment: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Whether it’s a car accident, years of abuse, or fighting in a war, a wide variety of tragic events can trigger PTSD — and it isn’t always easy to treat. “In people with PTSD, heart rate variability is low,” says Ikebuchi. This suggests a less flexible response than non-PTSD sufferers, and basically means their nervous system is highly activated, they’re jumpy, and they have a hard time calming down.
Yoga Fix: “You can use yogic breathing to increase your parasympathetic nervous response,” Ikebuchi reveals. In fact, researchers from the University of Wisconsin Madison found that Sudarshan Kriya yoga, a breathing-based meditation, was particularly effective in treating PTSD symptoms, namely hyperarousal. In the study, 11 soldiers who received one-week training in yogic breathing had lower anxiety, reduced respiration, and fewer PTSD symptoms overall. A common breathing technique is alternate nostril breathing, which is said to balance both sides of the brain. With your right hand, use your ring finger to block your left nostril and inhale through the right. Release your finger, press your thumb into your right nostril, and exhale through the left side. Inhale immediately through the left side, plug that nostril again, release your thumb, and exhale through the right nostril. Repeat, alternating sides so you’re inhaling and exhaling evenly through both nostrils.
Tip: The more you practise yogic breathing techniques, the more effective they become, according to Ikebuchi. “It gets easier and easier, and you can use it in the moment, whether it’s on or off the mat.”
With busier schedules than ever before, we all know about the effects of too much cortisol, namely increased belly fat and nail-biting, hair-pulling stress levels. But since scientists haven’t created an actual chill pill as of yet, the next best remedy might just be yoga.
Yoga Fix: Exercise in general is renowned for releasing endorphins, but yoga’s spiritual element can also give it a stress-busting edge over purely physical activity. In a 2011 study published online in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, researchers had two groups practise the same hatha-style yoga routines for 60 minutes twice per week for seven weeks. Both groups reported lower levels of depression and anxiety than at the beginning of the study — no surprise there. However, one of the two yoga groups had a spiritual meditation integrated into each class, and in the other group this was omitted. The result? Only the integrated yoga group had decreased salivary cortisol levels after the seven weeks. “The biggest misconception is that this is just exercise,” says Ikebuchi. “It is a moving meditation.”
Tip: If you would rather omit the oms and meditations for now, then Saari recommends a bikram or ashtanga yoga class. “It’s good for people who really like structure and repetition and want to work on fine-tuning the physical practice,” she says.
Ailment: Low Confidence and Insecurity
Looking for yet another reason to get stretchy? “Yoga provides an opportunity for us to strengthen our body,” says Saari. “But it does the same with our mental side. It helps you build more confidence, be a more open person, and carry love into yourself — many women have a hard time with that.” And it’s no wonder. Makeup, clothes, diets, and fitness classes are mostly geared toward women trying to hide, fix, or tweak themselves. “But sometimes we can let go of our inhibitions in a yoga class,” says Ikebuchi.
Yoga Fix: If you need emotional release, try a heart-opening pose, such as camel. Simply kneel with your hips directly above your knees and lift your chest up, bringing your hands to your lower back, calves, or ankles, depending on how far back you can reach. “A heart-opener can be a pose of vulnerability, and our culture does not like being vulnerable,” Ikebuchi says. But that doesn’t mean being vulnerable can’t be beneficial. If the emotional support you’re after is actually a mood boost, then give the Warrior series a try. “These are poses of strength, and there can be an artistic expression component to it,” Ikebuchi continues.
Tip: The best yoga pose, class, or chant is the one you feel great practising — there’s no better way to feel confident than through giving yourself what you need. “Going to a restorative class is just as beneficial as going to a hot yoga class. It just depends on what works for your body,” says Ikebuchi. Everybody’s yoga pose is beautiful in its underlying essence, he adds, so get out there and find the pose that’s perfect for you!