November 1, 2011

The Health Benefits of Practicing Yoga

Print More

The four years most students spend at college are often regarded as the best time of their lives, but they are also often the most stressful and challenging as well. While there are many positive ways to deal with the pressure of being a college student, physical activity, especially the kind that engages not only the body but also the mind, can help alleviate tension and improve various aspects of health.

Though it has only recently gained popularity in the U.S., yoga is believed to be one of most effective types of exercise for managing stress. According to Prof. Laurie Johnston, physical education, the purpose of yoga is a reintegration of the body, mind and spirit and yoga itself is a spiritual discipline. When taught in a physical education class setting, the focus of yoga is learning the asanas or poses. The process is sometimes called hatha yoga, and is described as the physical preparation of the body and the mind leading to meditation.

The reason yoga is so helpful for handling stress is that it provides the space and opportunity for people to become more connected with their bodies.

“Stress can often occur when people get too caught up in their minds and lose the ability to connect with themselves, others and the worlds. In yoga, we try to drop all that stuff at the doorway and begin to connect with all of our resources–the body, the breath, the spirit, and the knowledge that the zillion things [we think about] can keep for 55 minutes,”  Johnston said.

Yoga can also help with weight management, whether that involves helping someone cope with an eating disorder, or helping someone lose weight. Johnston explains that issues with weight often result from people wrestling with their bodies and a perception that the body is separate from the self.  “The same integration of the body, mind and spirit that can result in stress reduction is also the key for weight management,” Johnston said. Similarly, she explained that yoga has been used successfully in environments that treat eating disorders because the patients begin to “connect with their bodies and food is no longer a weapon but part of the body.”

There are different types of yoga, including ashtanga, power vinyasa also called baptiste,  and bikram, which are particularly effective for weight loss. Baptiste yoga, for example, is a vigorous physical practice of yoga in which some studios teach in a room with the heat turned up. Tory Jenis, a yoga instructor in Blackbird Ithaca, teaches baptiste yoga. According to Jenis, baptiste yoga is not a beachblanket yoga –– it is physically and mentally challenging, but the spiritual, mental and physical benefits are very rewarding.

“[It] will lead you to personal growth in your daily living. You can completely change yourself inside and out when you set your intention to do so.  You shift and the community does.  It is a phenomenal experience –– on and off the mat,” Jenis said.

Similarly, ashtanga is conducive to losing weight because it provides a cardio effect. It flows nonstop from one move to the next, making it more of a typical work out experience. Bikram yoga –– or hot yoga –– is also helpful for weight loss; it combines 26 yoga moves with a room 40 percent humidified and heated to 105 degrees. During Bikram, every part of the body is worked during hot yoga, including organs, muscles and ligaments. The body becomes more flexible when it is warm, which is why Bikram takes place in hot rooms. Bikram yoga flushes out impurities through sweat, and can actually burn between 350 to 600 calories per class.

In recent years, yoga has gained popularity within the Cornell community.

“The biggest change I have seen over the years is that students now come to my classes knowing what yoga is.  Many of them have taken yoga before and have some familiarity with the poses and some of the philosophy,” Johnston said.

There are many studios open in and around Ithaca, including Blackbird Ithaca, Mighty Yoga, Ahimsa Yoga, Sunrise Yoga and several others. While it’s easy to get started, it takes a special mindset to fully appreciate yoga, and all of its benefits. “Yoga is not only about the body but is about the mind,” Jenis said. “You don’t do Yoga, you live it.”

Original Author: Maria Minsker