Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
I lay flat on my back in corpse pose. My body lay still, but my mind was racing, darting back and forth between memories and plans.
A gentle voice wafted in and jostled for space in the cacophony. “…and if you find that your mind has galloped into the past or into the future, pull it back into the present….”
That was the voice of Gayle Fleming, my yoga teacher.
As I tried to follow her instructions (guiltily), my mind went blank as it focused on my breath flowing in and out of my body.
When I first started yoga lessons two years ago, I approached the practice of yoga with the same mind-set as I would a jog or a workout at the gym. My body was exercising, but my mind was free to do whatever it wanted, to think about work, chores, or an upcoming trip.
Half-way into the first session, it became obvious that that strategy was doomed to fail in a yoga class. Starting with the detailed instructions Fleming provided as we began each pose, through her exhortations not to forget to breathe as we went through its various stages, I needed to pay attention.
My mind needed to be right there, with my body, if I had to have any hope of not tumbling out of a pose every two seconds.
~ ~ ~
The physical benefits of yoga are readily apparent to anyone that has attempted it or even observed someone doing yoga. Yoga poses take a body through a range of motions, including sitting, standing, bending forward and backward, and inversions (e.g., shoulder stands and head stands) and lying down.
A survey of PubMed, the National Library of Medicine’s online resource, reveals numerous recent studies reporting on the benefits of practicing yoga, including benefits of yoga for people with chronic low back pain, patients who have recently suffered a stroke, and people with mild to moderate Type 2 diabetes.
Following a review of research studies published over a period of 10 years, James A. Raub, a researcher at the National Center for Environmental Assessment, reports in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Vol. 8, No. 6, 2002) that yoga (including the poses, breathing and mindfulness) “can improve strength and flexibility, and may help control such physiological variables as blood pressure, respiration and heart rate, and metabolic rate to improve overall exercise capacity.”
So how can women benefit from the practice of yoga? Does yoga help alleviate conditions that are unique to women?
“Yoga teaches us mindfulness which other forms of exercise do not…. [It] cues us to pay attention to our bodies,” says Jennifer Johnston, a licensed mental health counselor and Director of the Yoga Program at Harvard University’s Mind-Body Institute.
“Yoga is a very good way to help people get in touch with their bodies,” echoes Dr. Marie Schum-Brady, an Arlington doctor and yoga practitioner who emphasizes preventative medicine and good nutrition in her medical practice, and resorts to medications only as a last resort.
Although she does not hesitate to prescribe drugs when necessary, she first tries to tackle her patients’ problems by recommending life-style changes, including taking yoga lessons, which she finds is a good way for people to get exercise and learn to breathe.
And self-awareness is the biggest benefit she sees her patients get from practicing yoga.
It is this mindfulness aspect of yoga that has transformed yoga from being merely another trendy form of exercise to a useful tool that women can use to successfully address many of the issues facing them, such as PMS, menopause, infertility, general stress, and lack of self-esteem.
Although yoga was initially practiced exclusively by men, as more women began practicing it, and as more research shed light on its benefits, women discovered that yoga postures had good things in store for them, says Fleming, who owns and teaches at the Samata Yoga Studio in Arlington. She attributes her strength and flexibility to her daily yoga practice, and credits yoga with mitigating her symptoms of menopause.
Yoga practitioner and author Linda Sparrowe discusses many of the common medical conditions women encounter in The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2002), and provides detailed instructions on yoga poses thought to mitigate the effects of such conditions. She organizes the poses into sequences for afflictions such as osteoporosis, high blood pressure and joint stiffness, and for the events that visit a woman during her lifetime, such as pregnancy, menstruation and menopause.
For instance, Sparrowe’s osteoporosis sequence includes poses that improve posture, balance and coordination (all of which help to minimize falls), those that improve mobility and flexibility, and weight-bearing poses (weight-bearing exercises are thought to stimulate bones to retain calcium). The pregnancy sequence contains poses to relieve varicose veins, swelling in the legs, and morning sickness and those that may ease the birthing process.
In addition to the physical benefits and the self-awareness aspects of yoga, one other advantage of yoga is the stress relief that yoga practitioners experience. “Yoga has played a huge role in keeping me from being a stressed out Washingtonian,” says Fleming, adding that stress relief is frequently cited as a goal among her students.
Dr. Alice Domar, Ph.D., founder and director of the Mind/Body Center for Women’s Health at Boston IVF, an infertility clinic affiliated with Harvard Medical School, says that yoga is definitely helpful to the women in her infertility program. She notes that many of the women, when they first arrive at the clinic, are angry with and feel disassociated from their bodies, and some of them are on exercise regimens, which may, in some women, hamper fertility. High stress levels also interfere with fertility, she says.
She uses yoga in her 10-week program in three ways – it is taught as one of many relaxation techniques that women can choose to reduce stress, as a tool to help women reacquaint with their bodies, and as a tool to maintain physical fitness (the women are asked to replace other forms of exercise with yoga while on her program).
In a study published in Fertility and Sterility (Vol. 73, No.4) in April 2000, Domar reported that women who received a form of group psychological intervention – such as relaxation training (including meditation, yoga, and imagery), methods for emotional expression, or participation in a support group – had significantly increased viable pregnancy rates (55%) compared to women in a control group who did not receive any (20%).
“While [the] physical benefits are all well and good, the greatest gifts yoga brings you are those of strength, awareness and self-love or self-acceptance,” writes Sparrowe.
The issue of self-esteem in women is one that Fleming frequently talks about in her classes, because, she says, women tend to have poor physical self-esteem. “Yoga really helps women accept their bodies. Not that they don’t still want to change them, but…getting women to accept their bodies has a real instrumental effect on their self-esteem.”
One of the ways in which yoga accomplishes this is by emphasizing that a person need not (and in most cases, will not, until several months of practice) be able to do the poses perfectly. If a student in unable to bend all the way down at the hips and touch the floor with her fingers, for instance, she can use a prop and still reap the benefits of that forward bend. In using props, students learn to recognize and accept the limitations of their bodies.
This idea that one can approach a problem in different ways empowers yoga students, and teaches them to be creative and flexible not only in yoga practice, but also in their approach to life, says Johnston. Yoga encourages taking baby steps toward a goal, she says, and teaches the futility of groaning and grunting one’s way through a pose (forward bends, which are thought to be calming, can hardly be so if one is exerting herself to achieve the perfect pose).
While yoga has potentially wonderful benefits for women in all stages of life, it is important to find a teacher well-versed in the practice of yoga and able to provide instruction on all the aspects of yoga – the poses, the breathing and the mental awareness – to be able to reap its benefits. Under the guidance of an experienced teacher, each person can modify the practice to complement her physical and mental condition.
Two years of yoga have not left me with buff body or a washboard stomach, but I am thrilled to report that I have learned to breathe, discovered muscles I never knew existed and, my fingers now reach the floor in a forward bend.
This article appeared originally in Washington Woman magazine.