By Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA
Yoga has been a regular practice in my life for 40 years. In the early days, there were no studios, classes, or retreats. It hadn’t become popular yet, and some of my colleagues considered me “way out there.” Why would I want to contort my body, focus on my breath, and learn to meditate? Why would I study a philosophy that focuses on mindfulness and living in the moment? Why would I aspire to be calmly active and actively calm? As it turns out, I wasn’t as odd as some thought. Yoga is now a $27 billion industry,1 and with 37 million people practicing yoga in the US today.2 I was simply an early adopter.
My discovery of yoga came about by happenstance when I read a book entitled “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. Upon learning of this 5,000-year-old practice,3 I became curious about its philosophy and was open to trying it. It wasn’t long before I experienced its benefits, both physically and mentally.
Working as a clinical hygienist was exacting a price on my body. My shoulders and neck were feeling progressively sore and the nagging pain in my lower back was not receding. My hips were bothering me and I knew that I was holding tension in my TMJ as well. I had been working for a only few years, and I was concerned that my body would not sustain itself in dentistry over the long haul. My career was at risk and I needed to take action.
The asanas (poses) of yoga were helpful in easing my discomfort. Practicing the poses slowly and gently while always listening to my body, and stretching to the point of resistance but never pain, relieved the strain. My strength and flexibility improved dramatically as I counteracted the natural shortening of muscles, blood vessels, veins, and connective tissue that was occurring because of clinical working positions. Over time, I became pain free and attribute working comfortably as a clinician for over a quarter of a century to having adopted yoga early on.
Science today supports what I inherently suspected at that time. Yoga is good for the body! One study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health shows that yoga can reduce symptoms of chronic back pain. Twelve weekly yoga classes helped patients to function better than those receiving traditional care. Also, the American Osteopathic Association promotes yoga to help increase muscle tone, improve respiration, balance metabolism, improve circulation, reduce weight, and increase energy and vitality.
Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs) receive extensive training in the musculoskeletal system, the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles, and bones. This leads to a greater understanding of how one part of the body can affect the other. DOs look at patients as “whole persons” (just as yoga does) by viewing the body as an integrated whole – body, mind, and spirit.5 Their focus is similar to dentistry in that it focuses on the prevention of disease.
Other studies show yoga can help lower blood pressure in people who have hypertension. It helps to restore “baroreceptor sensitivity,” which helps the body sense imbalances in blood pressure and maintain balance.6The deep breathing and focus required in yoga relaxes both the body and the mind, resulting in stress reduction. Today, yoga is included in many cardiac rehabilitation programs.7 Its benefits improve not only cardiac health, but also blood sugar levels in people with noninsulin-dependent diabetes. In some people, medications can be reduced.
Another reason for yoga’s popularity today, especially among young people, is the resulting esthetics on the body. Sculpting of the body, muscle definition, and toning are natural outcomes when challenging poses are practiced over time. Some yoga positions can be difficult, and certain vinyasas (sequences of poses) can increase cardiovascular output.
A fit body is only part of yoga’s attraction. It attracts people of all ages, with classes including people from ages five to 90, and every person benefits. Some people practice yoga their entire lives, and the trend today is to introduce children at young ages. Schools are beginning to incorporate yoga in the classroom with the hope of providing children with a tool to manage anxiety and stress.9
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve experienced yoga’s tranquil effects firsthand. In the early years of practice, I was under intense stress due to an unhealthy marriage. I needed a way to “find my calm.” As I reached the pinnacle of pain, I became a single mom raising two sons. My closest family member was 900 miles away, and I was finding it hard to stay focused. I felt increasingly anxious about the perceived helplessness and hopelessness of my situation. No doubt I would have been diagnosed as clinically depressed at the time, but I did not seek professional help, and right or wrong, medication has always been my last resort.
Yoga offered a space to turn worries off, breathe, slow down, and be present. It was my sanctuary. The time I set aside daily for my yoga practice became sacred as I navigated to an oasis of calm, enabling me to meet my challenges in a balanced and effective manner. By the time the strain eased, yoga had become a well-engrained habit and I had become an advocate of the practice.
My passion for yoga has led me to becoming an instructor. Today my goal is to enable my students not just to practice yoga, but also to experience it. Getting into the zone of the mind/body/spirit connection is not only healthy, it is also empowering. By linking the body through exercise and the mind through “innercise,” we become more centered, grounded, and confident. It has been my experience both as an instructor and student that from this place of peacefulness, kindness and empathy rise.
Dr. Brent Bauer, the director of the Mayo Clinic of Complementary and Integrative Medicine program, strongly supports yoga and other alternative modalities, yet he is clear that yoga is not the answer for all that ails us. If you want to know if yoga is right for you, ask your doctor.
When we find the stillness…
Benefits to the brain – Research reveals that our brains actually change. New neuropathways are formed, as supported by the findings of Chantal Villemur, PhD, and Catherine Bushnell, PhD, of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. Their work reveals that there was an increase in brain cells corresponding to the time devoted to the practice of yoga and meditation.
Just breathe – One of the major differentiations of yoga from other physical activities is the intensity of focusing on the breath. Most of us breathe engaging only the upper third of our lungs. Our breathing is shallow, tight, and rapid, and lacks richness and roundness. In yoga, we breathe with intention. Consciously breathing deeply and rhythmically and expanding and contracting our breathing muscles (the diaphragm and lungs) have a multitude of benefits on the brain
One example of a pose is the revolved chair pose. This pose is accomplished by placing your feet hip-width and bending the knees as if sitting on a chair. Aligning knees with the center of the feet, sit deeper, balancing weight on your heels. Bring your hands together to your heart center, and twist so that one elbow is outside of the opposite knees while squeezing your shoulder blades together to open through the chest. This pose, held for five to seven deep breaths, improves flexibility of the spine and vertebrae while stimulating the liver, spleen, and digestive system. It can also tone the abdominal muscles and improve the elimination process.
Emotional release – When I started practicing yoga, I noticed that my tension was releasing, but my hips and TMJ weren’t as fluid. What was going on? As I delved into the science behind yoga, I learned that not only does the almond-shaped amygdala in the brain store emotions and the hippocampus store memories of emotions,15 but so does our body, even beyond the neck and shoulders. One study linked the TMJ to the hips in storing negative emotion.16,17 In relieving tension in the TMJ, the hips loosen and vice versa. I found that by practicing hip rotations I was able to increase the synovial fluid to relieve my hips, and surprisingly, my TMJ. The result was that I became pain free.