Friday, August 18, 2006

Yoga: The mind and body connection


For the Express

Ask a yogi why they like yoga, and they might say, "Well, it feels good." Recent statistics show that more than 11 million Americans feel this way about this ancient, mindful practice. The hundreds of yoga poses used today are more diverse and varied than the limited seated poses of 2,000 years ago, but the outcome is still one of a connection between mind and body.

The beautiful "Om" heard in today's yoga classes, at the local gym, or in a small studio, is a three-syllable chant meant to bind the breath and the mind. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, written circa 200 B.C., organizes and forms the basis of yoga philosophy as we know it today. It encompasses an eight-limbed yoga path, as a direction in which higher consciousness can be attained. Fast-forward a couple millennia to the talented teachers here in the United States. They continue to inspire and teach this mind-body practice.

Why does yoga, literally meaning yoke or union, with its profound inwardly oriented contemplative focus, do a body good? Physically, there is a unique integration of movement that the entire body has to not only move into, but hold in different planes and diagonal patterns. That takes functional and relative strength. Physiologist Ralph Forge explains that to some people the popular triangle pose looks like a simple side stretch. A yogi's experience, though, is completely experienced on the kinesthesia of the pose and breathing.

B.K.S. Iyengar, who brought yoga to the West 50 years ago, explains how when a beginner feels a state of well-being when first starting yoga, it's not just the physical effects of yoga, but about the internal—both the physiological and psychological effects of the practice.

Focused breathing in the poses calms the mind. Research shows how beneficial this calming can be to us. High blood pressure, insulin resistance, increased physical functioning in the elderly, pain and depression are all favorably influenced. Exactly how and why yoga unifies our minds with our bodies, and other beneficial outcomes, is still under ongoing studies. Neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik, in her book, "Another Day in the Frontal Lobe," compares Buddhist monks "to Olympic athletes—gold-medal athletes of the mind." She notes that the ratio between the left and right frontal lobes is tied to happiness and a sense of well-being. Too much activation to the right creates depression and anxiety. A senior Tibetan monk's brain and approximately 200 regular folks were studied and showed that the monk's brain activation was the most heavily shifted to the left. Although such training can take years, recent research has shown mindful lifestyle improvements in as little as an eight-day controlled yoga intervention.

As our lives seem more harried and out of whack, as a client recently said, a little shifting to the left, to feel good, is certainly worth a try.

Connie Aronson is health/fitness instructor, ACE Gold Certified personal trainer, an IDEA Elite personal trainer located at Koth Sports Physical Therapy in Ketchum.

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