Western yoga has an image of being for the young and the fit. But that image doesn’t include so many of us. And what if we have a health issue, like multiple sclerosis? Or Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or any number of other conditions that make it hard to be as active as we’d like, or to play the sports we used to enjoy.
So if we were to begin a yoga practice, what would it do for us?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while. The internet abounds with articles and studies about how wonderful yoga is for all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways, but it’s difficult to synthesize much from all the details. I think that there are three main ways that yoga is helpful for us.
Strengthening and Conditioning
This is all the stuff you’ve heard of and expect from the physical practice. Yoga can gently build muscle tone and improve both balance and flexibility.
These things manifest in our lives by making us more comfortable as we sit at our desks and do our daily activities. We can increase our range of motion, and feel more confidence in our balance and less prone to falling.
The Relaxation Response
In restorative yoga, yoga nidra, and many meditation practices, we allow our minds to switch from functioning in the sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system to the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. In my study of restorative yoga, I learned that the two are actually physically separate in our bodies. The two systems use nerve pathways and connections that are distinct from each other.
We spend most of our waking time in our sympathetic nervous system, working, thinking, worrying, making lists and worrying about lists. Exercise keeps us in the sympathetic nervous system, too.
The vast majority of us are very out of practice at using our parasympathetic nervous systems. To do that, we have to relax. To make a point of being still, calm, and relaxed. After a few minutes of deliberate relaxation, our minds automatically switch over from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic system. Our heart rates and blood pressure drop, our body sends blood to the digestive system, and we begin to metabolize cortisol, the stress hormone.
The parasympathetic nervous system also lowers the body’s inflammatory response. Inflammation is a particular issue in many autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis.
Proprioception is the word for the way the brain knows about the body’s relative position in space. This is how you can lift your arm and know where it is in space and how hard you’re working to lift it, without looking. It also describes a lot of what we woo-woo types call the “mind-body” connection.
We as Westerners are by and large very out of touch with our bodies. We don’t have a sense of how we move or carry loads. People who study dance, yoga, and martial arts train our brains to build new connections in our nervous systems and strengthen these pathways. Building new neural pathways is especially important for those of us who struggle with MS and other neurodegenerative conditions.
Even if you don’t have a neurodegenerative condition, strengthening your proprioception will help you. I believe it’s what professional football players get out of studying yoga and ballet–studying their own movement allows them to move consciously, efficiently, and safely. For those of us who have been pretty sedentary for a long time and want to get back into activity, it’s important to strengthen proprioception for the same reasons–it helps us learn to move gently and intentionally, so we can get active in a sustainable way and not set our progress back by getting injured.
Next, or First, Steps
I am teaching a six-week series called Developing Your Home Yoga Practice in partnership with the MS Society, beginning Nov. 1, 2014 at Form Studio here in Albuquerque. We will discuss all these benefits of yoga and more, and learn ways to incorporate safe, gentle yoga practices into our daily lives.
I am offering the whole series to participants at no cost, though I’m happy to accept donations. Preregistration is required, though. Contact me to register!