Stretch it, Baby! My article from Guru Magazine

Downward-Facing Dog, Dead Bug, Cobra, One-Legged King Pigeon, Cow Face and Inverted Tortoise. No, this isn’t the line-up for some bizarre Noah’s Ark. These are the positions into which millions of people twist themselves every day, all in the name of yoga.

Photo by Eric Ward on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/jrKY4M
Photo by Eric Ward on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/jrKY4M

Often when people hear ‘yoga’, they imagine incense burning, long-haired hippies, or, at the other end of the spectrum, skinny celebrities talking about how yoga “healed” them (hmm). Yes, there can be incense, chanting, and the odd Madonna-like-bod – but yoga is much more than smells, sounds and body envy. This activity is about community, confidence-building and, more recently, a little bit of science. It’s about bringing a variety of people together and getting in touch with your physical ‘nooks’ and mental ‘crannies’. Sounds scary, I know, but I recently gave yoga a go, and it wasn’t as bad as it sounds…

Photo my own: Me testing out some underwater yoga (excuse the face...)
Photo my own: Me testing out some underwater yoga (excuse the face…)

We all know that exercise is good for us, but many of us underestimate just how much it can improve and maintain both our physical and emotional health. Last year, the British Medical Journal reported that exercise can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%.

Still, we all know that work, family or relationship pressure can make you feel like there’s little enough time to exercise, let alone dedicate a whole hour to Pilates, Zumba or a yoga class. But, a toned body aside, there is clearly a lot to gain from exercise – yoga included. So is it finally time to wave goodbye to love handles?

There are many different types of yoga out there. From ‘Hatha’, using slow and gentle movements, to ‘Ashtanga’ and ‘Power’ yoga, which are both physically demanding and fast paced – the world is your yoga oyster! No two classes are likely to be the same, meaning the effects on the body will vary according the specific practice. Some practices allow you to stretch and unwind while others will definitely get a sweat going.

Of course, many people still think of yoga as the lazy option – a waste of time in a fast-paced world where ‘boxercise’ or ‘spinning’ are the supposed guarantors of a chiseled physique. Other people consider yoga worthless because of its less scientific roots in Indian mysticism. It is true that you may not be constantly gasping for breath during a yoga class, but the physical benefits of yoga are becoming increasingly hard to argue against. Stretching and the holding of postures encourages muscles to lengthen, known as ‘eccentric contraction’, a process that leads to stronger, more powerful muscles. Indeed, research published in the journal Preventative Cardiology in 2007 showed improvements in muscle strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health in young adults after two months of twice-weekly of ‘Hatha’ classes.

I know how incredibly frustrating it is to trudge away on a cross trainer for an hour after a full day of work when all you really want to do is sit in front of the TV and consume a large glass of Merlot.

Photo by  Yannick B Gelinas on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/4H96P1
Photo by Yannick B Gelinas on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/4H96P1

In fact, an Ofcom survey from the end of 2013 found that the average person in the UK spends around 4 hours watching TV each day, with another report estimating we spend 1 in 12 waking minutes on the internet. And we’re not alone: Canada has similar statistics, while residents of the US squeeze in an impressive 5 hours of boxwatching per day. Even if you are pushed for time, it might be worth substituting an hour of TV or internet surfing for an hour of yoga.

Photo by daverose259 on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/fMPWwA
Photo by daverose259 on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/fMPWwA

While many studies have explored the mental health benefits of yoga and meditation, they have tended to rely on participant questionnaires or have been published in questionable journals. Encouragingly, though, mainstream medical journals are starting to publish carefully-conducted critical analyses: one study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes that the evidence for yoga use is “encouraging” but more research is needed.

While there is certainly more work to be done, scientists are edging closer to confirming what yogis have believed for years – yoga and meditation can improve health and help us cope with stress. John Denninger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, is currently leading a five year study on how yoga and meditation, which are intrinsically linked, affect the genes and brain activity of those who are stressed. Denninger says: “There is a true biological effect. The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain.”

In another report published in 2012, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn found that yogic meditation can reduce stress-induced aging. 39 people were randomly chosen to practice Kirtan Kriya, a type of yogic meditation, or listen to relaxation music for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. The meditation group showed 43% improvement in telomerase activity, an enzyme which has a kind of rejuvenating effect on normal cell aging, compared with 3.7% in the relaxation group.

Photo by Daku Resort, Savusavu Fiji on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/7YVcRK
Photo by Daku Resort, Savusavu Fiji on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/7YVcRK

According to expert practitioner, Swami Rama, yoga (which means ‘union’) supposedly unites the “the body, breath, mind, soul, and ultimately, the universe itself”. Now, I know the prospect of unifying your body with the universe sounds ridiculous at worst and a little comic at best, yoga nevertheless aims to provide something more meaningful than a jog around the park.

“The warmth of the heated ceiling, the smell of the burning incense along with the serenity and peace of the room is totally therapeutic. As soon as you walk into a practice you forget about everything around you and are taken into a world of peace and relaxation,” says Gabriella Maubec, 22, a dedicated yogi.

From a purely psychological point of view, the deep breathing and meditation practices involved in yoga can help shift our thoughts away from everyday financial concerns and personal struggles. “Every session I dedicate my practice to one person. I am able to give up an hour where I can focus on something and someone other than myself”, says Gabriella. Experienced yoga teacher, Emma Despres, 38, says “For me, yoga has been life-changing, and not simply because it helps to increase our strength, stamina, flexibility and balance on all levels – physical, mental and emotional”.

“I love getting so many people involved in my classes”, says yoga teacher-in-training, Sophie Bourge, 23. “I especially like to get boys to come to classes, because I still feel there’s a bit of a stigma in the UK about guys practicing yoga. When I lived in Vancouver, all the ski and surfer dudes loved it! We need to get more of the boys involved!”

So, as a person committed to the ethos of trying new things, I have started a personal ‘experiment’ into yoga. I can’t be sure I’m doing it ‘right’, but I have to say, exercise and healthy eating have become less of a battle. They say that “yoga gets you back to you”. So far, I have found that it also allows you to take time out of your busy schedule, to put down the remote control, and just reflect. Oh, and there are also claims it can improve your sex life. What’s not to love!?

Right, now to get into the one-legged king pigeon…

(Featured Image by Zach Dischner  on Flickrhttp://flic.kr/p/e21AaC)

Research
Comparative effectiveness of exercise and drug interventions on mortality outcomes: metaepidemiological study
Effects of Hatha Yoga Practice on the Health-Related Aspects of Physical Fitness
Yoga for anxiety: a systematic review of the research evidence
Average daily TV viewing time per person in selected countries in 2011
A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity.
Quantification of Outcome Measures for Mind Body Interventions
UK digital adspend hits record 6 month high of £3bn
The Communications Market Report

This article was published in the Feb-March 2014 issue of Guru Magazine

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