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Posts Tagged ‘B. K. S. Iyengar’

By Sue Shekut, Owner, Working Well Massage, Licensed Massage Therapist, Certified Wellness Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer

This last week, the web has been a  buzz about an article in new York Times Magazine about “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” The article is well worth the read. In it, the author, William J. Broad, explores some of the recent news about serious injuries than can occur from doing yoga.

As a long-time yoga practitioner and as a person that has been injured doing yoga, I found this article welcome and extremely helpful. I admit, part of my own ego is stroked when I read others finally voicing the same “radical” opinion I’ve had for years, namely that yoga, like all exercises, is not 100% benign. Yoga can hurt you. When doing yoga, you really need to be mindful of your own body and not blindly following directions of your teacher or others.

I first tried yoga in grade school in grade school when my art teacher gave a series of extra curricular classes and told us she used yoga to help her stretch on breaks during long car rides.  Years later I turned back to yoga as an adult to help combat my muscular tension from sitting at a computer all day. It was amazing–I felt better, stronger and, since I was already flexible, doing yoga only increased my flexibility. Which was great…at first.

When I came to Chicago about 20 years ago, I was taking advanced Iyengar classes (BKS Iyengar is a yoga guru of sorts, teaching in India for years and with a  book out used by many Chicago yogis, Light on Yoga). Many of the classes I took where taught by Iyengar devotees, who tried to not only emulate Iyengar’s structural approach, but also his militant and almost fanatical demeanor. This teacher said that, according to Iyengar, “The pose is more important than the person.” I don’t know if Iyengar actually said that, but since this teacher did, I was not surprised when I soon got injured in his class. Along the way I met other experienced yoga students that told me to be careful and not overdo it as they had also experienced injuries doing yoga. Yoga, like all forms of exercise is not without some risk.

The Expert About Your Body is You

One of the biggest lessons I learned from my yoga teachers me was not so much how to do each pose perfectly. Instead, after experiencing a few injuries, I learned that I know my body better than any teacher, personal trainer or guru. And if something hurts, no matter what the teacher says, I won’t do it. In fact, I am rather picky about which yoga teachers I will take classes with. I let them know at the start of class that I do not want them to touch me or “adjust me,” a common practice in yoga classes I have taken. Adjustments are meant to be settle touches to a limb or your back to show you how to get in better posture and alignment. But many teachers I’ve taken classes with tend to push too much or too aggressively. It becomes an ego thing. “How far can I push my students?” And for students it can become, “how flexible can I be” or “I must work very hard even if it hurts just to be a good student and do it “right.” It’s yoga, not Mathelethes!

Know Your Experience Level and Don’t Over Do It

Yoga is supposed to be relaxing and allow you to really focus on your body, your breathe and connect with your body, not contort or injure your body (although injury does make you connect with your body pretty quickly!). When I do yoga now or recommend yoga to my clients, I show basic standing poses, some side bends and simple forward bends. AND to make sure they have a doctors clearance to do even those poses. I don’t advocate shoulder stand or headstands or even back bends for beginners. For some, these posts may be OK. But they are fairly advanced and, as the New York Times article shows, these poses can cause SERIOUS damage and injury, not just to your spine but to your brain. Who wants a stoke?

Yoga is Not a Rapid Fix–It’s Meant to be a Lifelong Practice

Another problem with yoga is the Western approach to it. We want to get rapid results, so we use maximal effort, as though yoga is a hammer and our body is the nail. Fitness isn’t about cramming in maximal effort into a short period of time to check that exercise off out list of goals. Fitness is an overall body balance of cardio, strength and flexibility. We can improve our cardiovascular fitness, we can improve our strength, we can improve our flexibility. But we can’t get the body we want by trying really hard. Our natural frames and muscles are made the way they are made. A man’s hips will not open as much as a woman’s because he is not made to birth babies. When men say they are not flexible, I say of course not! Stretching and yoga can help improve your flexibility, but you don’t need to be able to turn your body into a pretzel. Yoga can help increase flexibility but not beyond what is natural for your body type, frame and gender. It’s about improvement and feeling better, not about getting a gold star for most flexible!

Yoga is Meditative, A Way to Calm and Focus Your Mind

If you practice yoga, approach it as a time to relax and unwind. Treat each class as thigh you have never done yoga before (beginner’s mind). Really watch your teacher and tell him or her if you are not comfortable doing a particular pose. Modifications may be suggested or you may need to sit that pose out. That’s perfectly OK! Enjoy the rest between poses and be happy you are spending a few minutes away from your phone, email and workplace!

Practice yoga gently, not while hyped up on caffeine and adrenaline. A yoga session is meant to CALM your nervous system–it’s not Grand Theft Auto on Xbox. Some of my clients and many people I’ve spoken to don’t like yoga precisely for this reason–they can’t relax enough to benefit from gentle yoga because it makes them nervous to be that calm and focus on their breath and bodies. They need constant stimulation and the idea of “just laying around” or breathing actually stresses them out. But a really good yoga class, in my experience, is both gentle on your body (not easy or lame–yoga is a workout!) and so mentally active that you don’t have time to be bored. By mentally active I mean that during a good yoga class, teachers I’ve had are constantly calling your attention to an area of your body and having you focus on that. For example, in downward dog, a teacher may tell you to really open your fingers wide, put your pressure on the palm or heel of your hand, move your shoulders away from your head, attempt to pull your ankles away from your body towards the wall (not trying to put your heels on the floor though). Along with other directions. To avoid boredom and get a good yoga practice in, focus on these instructions, try to follow them and pay attention to your body. How does each movement feel? Are you breathing or holding your breath? All these details serve to not only make your yoga practice more physically comfortable, and give your body a good workout, but they also serve to give your active mind something to focus on beyond the next task on your  do list.

Lastly, I don’t think that yoga is evil or that you should not do yoga. But when doing yoga, use your brain! Make sure the spots are comfortable for you–not easy, just not damaging your body!) Then, you can relax and enjoy the positive benefits of yoga…without causing damage to your body or your mind!

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An Artistic yoga class in session
Image via Wikipedia

By Sue Shekut, Owner, Working Well Massage, Licensed Massage Therapist, Certified Wellness Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer

So you decided to take the plunge and try a yoga class. Then you find out that there are different kinds of yoga. How do you know what kind of yoga to take? And what if you are not flexible? Do not despair!  Yoga is really for people that are not flexible. Unfortunately, many yoga teachers or studios advertise their classes by showing a very highly trained yoga teacher doing an extremely advanced pose that few other people can do.  No worries, most beginning classes teach you simple poses to elongate your body and relax. “Pretzel” yoga is for the very very advanced, not the novice.

If you’ve tried a yoga class and found it either too difficult, too easy or too boring, it may not be yoga that’s the problem, it may  be  the type of yoga you tried or that particular teacher. (Think about it, if you get  a bad hair cut, do you think hair cuts are not for you or do you go to a different barber/hair dressor?!?)

So what type of yoga class should you attend?  Here are some tips from http://www.yoga.orz.nz:

Yoga Styles Overview

Iyengar – A softer -on-the-body classical style of yoga, Iyengar is perfect for beginners and those who haven’t exercised in a while. It uses props such as chairs, straps, blocks and pillows, and even sandbags, to compensate for a lack of flexibility, which is helpful for anyone with back or joint problems.

Iyengar is the most widely recognized approach to Hatha Yoga, it was created by B. K. S. Iyengar. Iyengar yoga is characterized by attention to detail within poses and the aid of the props. The props assist all sorts of people to be able to do the poses comfortably.

Each pose is held for a longer amount of time than in most other yoga styles, developing a state of focused calm. Benefits include toning muscles, eliminating tension and easing chronic pain.

Practicing Iyengar yoga will give you a good knowledge of classic yoga poses so that whatever other style you practice, you will have the basic fundamentals of how to do each posture. The teacher focuses on alignment and inner awareness.

Sue’s Note: Some Iyengar teachers tend to take a militaristic approach and may push your body beyond what you are capable of doing. Don’t let them! Many Iyengar teachers are wonderful and gentle. But if you find a teacher that is dogmatic in his/her approach or tells you to try a pose even if it hurts you, avoid this class and find someone that is more compassionate–or risk serious injury!

Ashtanga (Power Yoga) the preferred choice for athletes, Ashtanga yoga is light on meditation but heavy on developing strength and stamina. The poses are more difficult than those performed in other styles, students move quickly from one pose to another in an effort to build strength and flexibility.

This style is suitable for anyone in reasonable physical condition but should be avoided by those who are new to exercise. Even the “beginners” routines are a physically demanding workout.

Students move from one pose to another in a continual flow and combine the inhale and exhale of the breath with movements. This physically demanding yoga was developed to build strength, flexibility, and stamina.

The series of poses involves weaving in a combination of standing, seated, backbends, inversions, balancing, and twisting poses into sun salutation poses which include a standing forward bend, upward dog, downward dog, and other poses.

Sue’s Note: Ashtanga or “power” yoga is popular in the West.  Westerners tend to move at a hectic pace even in yoga. However, proper form is even more important when you move through poses quickly. Potential for injury or overstretching/tearing of ligaments is greater in the faster paced styles of yoga. Take care when you try this style of yoga and make sure your yoga teacher is aware of any injuries or limitations before the class begins.

Bikram done in a hot room that is 38C or higher (to replicate the temperature of yoga’s birthplace in India); this style of yoga focuses on 26 postures that are performed in a certain order. The exercises are very physical and the intensity is high.

The Bikram series is warm and stretches muscles, ligaments and tendons in the order in which they should be stretched. Heat and yoga makes for a tough workout. This style is recommended for yoga veterans and extremely fit individuals only.

Sue’s Note: If you have high blood pressure or tend to overheat easily, you may want to avoid Bikram yoga especially in summer heat!

Hatha: This mellow form of yoga focuses on simple poses that flow from one to the other at a very comfortable pace. Participants are encouraged to go at their own pace, taking time to focus on the breathing and meditation in their practice. This yoga is ideal for winding down at the end of a tough day.

Sue’s Note: Hatha yoga may feel too slow for you if you like fast paced moment and cardio classes. But be patient and let yourself be bored a bit sot hat you can take the time to learn the proper form for you poses. It’s also a  way to sneak a little relaxation into your hectic week.

Kundalini, which incorporates mantras (chanting), meditations, visualizations, and guided relaxation. It focuses on healing and “purifying” the mind, body, and emotions. Kundalini yoga is designed to activate the kundalini energy in the spine.

This is achieved with poses, breath control, chanting, and meditation. Kundalini yoga is beneficial in dealing with addictions, and many people find it a natural way of releasing endorphins just by breathing and doing the poses.

Kundalini yoga consists of poses combined with breath control, hand and finger gestures, body locks, chanting and meditation.

Kripalu, which is more spontaneous, flowing, and meditation orientated. Kripalu yoga starts with the first stage, postural alignment and intertwining of breath and movement, and the poses are held a short time.

The student progresses to the second stage with meditation included and poses held for longer. Finally, the practice of poses becomes a spontaneous dynamic movement. The essence of Kripalu yoga is experienced through a continuous flow of postures whilst meditating, for gentle yet dynamic yoga.

Sivananda Yoga has a series of 12 poses, with the Sun Salutation, breathing exercises, relaxation, and mantra chanting as the basis.

Viniyoga, a slower more individualized form of yoga. This form develops strength, balance and healing, make it ideal for beginners, seniors, people with chronic pain or who are in rehabilitation from injury or disease.

Read the entire article on Type of Yoga at http://www.yoga.org.nz here.

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