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What is Yoga

In this interview, Michael Wohl, the President of bodywisdom media, offers some insights into yoga and health in general.

Please tell me about some of the physical benefits of yoga?

The physical benefits are numerous. New medical research is coming out daily about how yoga helps us physically. The most obvious, most external examples are the increases in both strength and flexibility. This helps in both the healing and prevention of injury and disease. So many injuries occur due to a lack of range of motion. Just like a rubber band looses its function and strength when it gets dry and hard, our body goes through a similar process. We were not made to sit on couches, at desks and cars. Nowhere in our evolutionary past did our bodies need to adapt to this modern day scenario of sitting as we do and having chronic stress. We are asking new things of our bodies and our bodies don't particularly like it. We loose strength in our backs, flexibility in our legs and hips.

Unhealthy torques are exerted on our skeletal-muscular system due to these imbalances that causes the physical breakdown of certain systems (most commonly perhaps is lower back pain, ie tight hamstrings cause tilt in pelvis, which weakens lower back, etc). When you combine this with certain physical activities (ie. golf. tennis, running, etc) the load on the system can be the straw that breaks the casual athlete's back (or at least causes some injury). Yoga also balances and strengthens the major systems of the body in a healthy way, ie cardio - pulmonary, nervous system, etc. It seems that not a day goes by that new research uncovers additional benefits.

Moreover, it is estimated that 70-80% of all doctors visits are stress related. Yoga obviously helps on this front as well. In a society where our sympathetic nervous system is forever on and taxed, you strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system and helps with what Herbert Benson of Harvard termed "The Relaxation Response" (which is in some ways opposite of the well-known Fight or Flight Response.

So while yoga externally helps with range of motion and core strength issues, it equally keeps our internal chemistry/nervous system properly balanced so that our heart remains healthy and our arteries don't harden. The implications and benefits of this have been studied for diseases such as Asthma, Diabetes, and heart disease.

What are some of the psychological benefits of yoga - tell me about stress reduction and how yoga can be a great stress reducer?

Yoga can be approached on a number of levels that approach the issue of stress reduction on different ways.

1) Asanas - when people think of yoga in the U.S. they are often meaning one sliver of yoga, the postures. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, the postures affect the body on a multitude of levels: Muscularly, neurologically (including the autonomic nervous system - ie heart rate, breathing rates, etc), the endocrine system and all physiological systems. So when stress affects these systems physically, the asanas act as a counterbalance to undo this stress through a variety of mechanisms.

2) Pranayama - breath awareness/control. When people are stressed, there is a profound affect on most systems of the body. One of the most interesting is the pulmonary. What makes the pulmonary system especially interesting and unique to yogis is that it is part of the autonomic nervous system (ie. involuntary) that we can have complete voluntary control. When one does yoga, one become intimately aware of all the nuances of the breath. Just as Eskimos have so many words for snow, yoga practitioners learn to recognize the myriad of breathing patterns we have and what the underlying mental state that is causing a particular state. Stress, for instance, might involuntarily cause shallow breathing in the upper, front chest. Countering this by voluntarily breathing more into the belly and back will counter the stress induced shallow breathing and thereby reduce stress (eliciting the relaxation response and strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system).

3) Meditation - The fundamental goal in yoga is to still the fluctuations of mind. The postures and breathing techniques prepare the body for meditation, where we sit, release our physical tension, relax the breath and begin to still our thoughts. Just like snow in toy snow globes settle to the ground when it is still, our endless thoughts (with all of its stresses, tasks, doings, plans and worries of the future) settle down when we sit to meditate. During our harried lives we misidentify these thoughts as some fundamental way as part of our selves rather just something ephemeral and illusionary. When these thoughts settle out, our truer nature begins to emerge, a clarity of consciousness. When this happens, we naturally loose our stress because we loose this misidentification. We see that so much of the stress in our lives we either make up in our thoughts or exaggerate in a way that causes tremendous, unnecessary, unhealthy stress in our lives.

In summary, there are so many different ways of even noticing we are stressed. We might feel tension in our shoulders, irritability in our mind or a tightness of breath. Yoga allows us to identify and gives us the tools to counter these stresses on our mind/body. The question of psychological benefits as distinct from physical benefits is somewhat anachronistic (ie Cartesian mind set of the ghost in the machine, akin to the Newtonian vs Quantum world view). Modern cognitive science research recognizes that the delineation between psychological and physical stresses is an incomplete way of approaching the human being. Rather, viewing the totality of the human being as a single system where consciousness arises out of the underlying physical conditions making up the body is a much more comprehensive and accurate view of humans.

What about weight loss - can yoga be used for weight loss and if so, how does it work to help one in one's weight loss efforts. Absolutely. Yoga affects weight loss on a number of levels, as you might begin to expect at this point.

1) Physically yoga builds muscle and burns calories (depending on one's intensity of practice, duration, etc).

2) Physiologically yoga affects our body's chemistry. In connection to weight loss, the most commonly studied mechanism is cortisol levels. Once again, thinking about this from an evolutionary stand point, it makes sense. For millennia, if early humans were stressed, it was often associated with conditions that might limit the availability of food. So what would our bodies do? Take whatever food comes in and store it as fat to be used during difficult times. It turns out that cortisol levels seems to be the linking mechanism between stress and holding on to fat. In our modern lives where stress is a day-to-day mode of living, our elevated stress levels cause an increase of cortisol and hence weight retention. Yoga counteracts this whole process.

3) Perhaps most importantly, yoga brings awareness to our actions. So much eating is habitual and somewhat unconscious. When asked what is enlightenment, a master responded, "Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired." Though this is deceptively simple, the underlying truth is that most of us eat when it says so on the clock and sleep when our TV shows are done. Healthy, conscious eating is probably one of the single greatest benefits of yoga relating to weight loss.

What are some yoga no-nos (people with certain injuries, and those who are pregnant - what positions are they to avoid)?

There are many no-no's, pretty much every person has to figure this out by themselves with the help of a teachers. People with lumbar injuries have very different needs and abilities than people with cervical issues. A twenty year old woman has very different needs than a 70 year old man. This is why our DVDs adapt and change to fit as many people and their changing, daily needs as possible. Pregnant woman should avoid deep twists and forwards bend. Our Prenatal DVD suggests routines that are appropriate for each trimester. The needs and no-no's of a first trimester woman is very different than the needs and concerns of a third trimester woman. Menstruating woman should avoid twists and inversions.

Please comment on diet and water intake - your typical advice to your clients, etc.

Light water intake before a practice is ok. Yoga should be done no less than 2 hours after a meal, preferably 3. Especially with twists and inversions! You will feel it. Keeping well hydrated is vital. Simple eating is usually best, whole foods (ie as unprocessed as possible). Though it is hard to do in today's time-crunched, over-processed society, it is vital to health, I believe. If you eat meat, limit how much you eat to a couple of servings a week. I always think about these things from an evolutionary standpoint: our bodies evolved in such a way to be in harmony with our environment. We ate whole foods and meat rarely (Looking back 50,000 years ago it was scarce for us in our daily diet)

In your opinion, what is the greatest benefit of yoga and what do you tell people about yoga to get them interested in it?

Yoga is a beautiful is a beautiful practice that brings you into harmony with yourself, the people in your life and nature. It is a holistic system that keeps us healthy physically, physiologically & psychologically. It helps us maintain our youthful natures and age gracefully. It helps us to wake up from the distracting stories we create and cling to within our minds. It helps us live life with joyful, profound equanimity. I believe this is something from which we can all benefit.