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Mending mind, body & soul

Unlocking the healing potential of yoga

Unlocking the healing potential of yoga
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Yoga beginner poses

What type of yoga is best for you?

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2011

Before moving into a pose that has him balancing on his elbows - head down and heels pointing to the ceiling - Larry Rich reminds his yoga teacher that he has "shoulder issues."

A well-known Winnipeg artist, Rich has been struggling with shoulder pain and tennis elbow, caused partially by the repetitive motions required while painting his deep, rich canvas pieces, large-scale room murals and conceptual abstracts. He also plays stand-up bass, where his approach to music follows the same lines as his art - expressive, creative and personal, with an emphasis on space, energy and vitality.

Rich's hopes for better health have brought him to the study of yoga, which he practises daily for physical and mental well-being. He is in a level four class at the Yoga North studio in Winnipeg. A former martial arts aficionado who also practiced Tai Chi, he found that those, along with cycling and weight training, tightened the very muscles he was hoping to make more flexible and pain-free.

At the studio, Rich moves through a series of poses, or asanas as they are termed in Sanskrit. Starting with the Vrksasana, or tree pose, he notes the feeling of balance and poise it gives him. He then moves into the Baddha Konasana (bound angle) pose, using a strap under his feet to enable him to sit up straight, while lifting his chest to its maximum.

"I can feel the difference in using a prop, like the strap, in that I feel more compact in body, yet long in the spine," he says, as he holds the asana for several minutes. "When I first started doing yoga, I didn't know what to expect. I was muscling my way through the poses, rather than working with my body."

His teacher, Val Paape, reminds him to work with props on the next pose, the upward facing bow or Urdhva Dhanurasana. Rich lays a cloth over a folding chair, and then eases his body into position, his back supported by the chair and his feet firmly on the floor. He then moves his arms overhead, places his hands on the floor and pushes off the chair into an arch or backbend. The chair is used by beginners for support, in a way that allows them to learn how to arch their backs and use their arms and legs properly, even when they are not strong or flexible enough to push up from the floor.

He finishes with the elbow balance, a cloth strap supporting his upper arms just above the elbows. Despite his worry about aggravating his shoulder injury, Paape reminds him that the Pincha Mayurasana pose strengthens the shoulders, neck and back, by lining up the large bone of the upper arm - the humerus - directly into the socket of the shoulder.

"Uppermost in our training is the need for safety," says Paape. "Larry wouldn't be in this pose if he was a beginner. We know what areas he's worried about and this pose will not harm his body. Iyengar yoga is taught with precise placement of the skeleton, muscles and internal organs, so that no part of the body is misaligned."

The practice of yoga originated in India about 5,000 years ago as a means for achieving spiritual growth and physical well-being. It has evolved over the years and now includes more than 100 styles of yoga taught around the world.

Many of the new styles find their roots in the system of yoga written about by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text written some time between 300 BCE and 300 CE. This text referred to Eight Limbs in the Yoga Sutras, which focus on the moral code of the practitioner; their personal and ethical development; the yoga postures; breath control; withdrawal of the senses; concentration; and finally a state of transcendence.

People turn to yoga for a variety of reasons. In the 1960s, when yoga swept the Western world, it was perceived as being a trendy thing that hippies did to get in touch with themselves. Since then, yoga has exploded in popularity, with many using it as a form of exercise. Hot yoga in particular tends to appeal to a younger crowd looking to power through poses in 39° C heat.

Others are more interested in the practice for its ability to help heal mind, body and soul. They come to yoga to help recover from a car accident, attain strength after chemotherapy or surgery, or boost their spirits when they are feeling depressed.

Yoga can be modified to suit the needs of those suffering from fatigue, stress or illness, in that they move into a pose and then rest. Restorative poses are adapted from classical ones, modified for each person's health situation. At Yoga North, for example, there is a mother with back pain so bad she couldn't lift and carry her children. Another woman is recovering from ovarian cancer.

Along with physical recovery, they have discovered the psychological side of yoga: if you eliminate stress, your body will look after itself. The health benefits of yoga are many. Beyond increased flexibility, better overall health, better circulation, enhanced strength, and a more developed mind-body connection, yoga is linked to improved healing.

Yogi B.K.S. Iyengar has written on the health benefits for specific ailments in "Yoga: a Path to Holistic Health," while many scientific studies have also tied yoga practice to overall wellness.

In 2007, a Washington State University study linked Iyengar yoga to improvement in the immune systems of women recovering from breast cancer. The study, which followed breast cancer survivors, showed how yoga incorporates cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and balance.

While yoga is not generally appreciated for its cardio-vascular effects, certain sequences of poses will raise heart rates, blood pressure, cause sweating and deeper breathing. After a series of strong poses, the relaxation benefits may be more pronounced. Relaxation lowers stress levels, which helps the body's immune system fight off viruses and bacteria. Learning to breathe fully helps bring more oxygen to the brain and cells of the body. As you stretch through asanas, your muscles lengthen. Longer muscles are more efficient and less prone to injury. Moving through the asanas lubricates your joints, and the more the joints are used, the more the fluid coats and lubricates the inner joints.

One study found clear differences between yoga and exercise. In 2007 at the Uludag University Medical Faculty, Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Department in Turkey, researchers conducted a trial comparing the effects of yoga with gentle range-of-motion exercises on symptoms related to hemodialysis in 37 renal failure patients.

After three months of twice-weekly sessions consisting primarily of standing and seated asanas and meditation, the yoga group exhibited significant reductions in pain (37 per cent), fatigue (55 per cent), and sleep disturbance (25 per cent) as measured by visual analog scales. These changes were significantly better than those in the exercise group. The yoga group also noticed significant beneficial changes from baseline in grip strength.

"Yoga can be used to prevent falls in seniors. It works for people with chronic lower back pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, carpal tunnel, multiple sclerosis," says Paape. "While you burn calories, you would burn more going cross-country skiing. But yoga can keep you supple in order to keep skiing longer into life."

Paape has travelled to India twice, to learn from B.K.S. Iyengar, who is one of the most influential yogis of the modern age. At 92 years old, he continues to teach students from around the world, encouraging them to penetrate deeper into the experience of each pose. This is the trademark of Iyengar yoga - a focus on the subtleties of each posture, along with the use of supports to help people attain the pose without sacrificing the actions and postural positions that would prevent undue strain on the muscles and joints.

"Iyengar did a lot of teaching in the '40s and '50s, and had to figure out how to get people to do the poses, when they were too stiff. He took his knowledge and looked at the effects the poses have, and invented props to enable people to do the poses," says Paape, who has taken part in the medical classes in India, which focus on the health-care benefits of Iyengar yoga by modifying the active poses and using passive restorative poses, depending on the problems of the students. "The Iyengar method has taught me how to help students with certain types of problems by modifying poses to correct their underlying postural misalignments and encouraging the development of strength and flexibility without further risk of injury."

Watching her with her students, you would never know Paape has had two knee replacements and a hip replacement. She blithely refers to herself as a "total wreck." But thanks to Iyengar yoga, she retains the maximum safe range of motion in her joints, without causing further damage.

Yoga should be a comfort to the body, even if the practitioner is in pain. Having an alert mind is useful for those suffering from mood disorders, headaches, and depression. Using the props allows your body to perform the poses with an open chest, a lengthened spine, a head held in the right place between the back and shoulders. To maximize the therapeutic benefits of yoga, it's important to use the props to adjust the person to the best expression of the pose, rather than adjusting the pose to the person, says Paape. "In other words, if we let someone carry their misalignments into the pose, they will not get any benefit."

The therapeutic side of yoga does follow the mantra of uniting body, mind and spirit, says Jill Taylor-Brown, Director of Patient and Family Support Services with CancerCare Manitoba.

Since 2000, CancerCare Manitoba has been offering a yoga program at no charge to patients, which is funded through donations to CancerCare Manitoba Foundation and in partnership with Yoga North. They started with a pilot class to explore the benefits of restorative yoga, and based on the positive outcome, have been running three sessions a year.

In 2006 the program was studied by a graduate student from the University of Saskatchewan, Meghan Duncan, who found that Iyengar yoga is beneficial to the overall well-being of those living with cancer, as well as showing improvement in cancer related symptoms such as pain, anxiety, or fatigue. "There is good evidence that, with the right type of instruction, yoga is very beneficial," says Taylor-Brown. "Some people with cancer may be reluctant to join one of our support groups, but they will pick an activity-based group to join. They find that everyone in the group has had a diagnosis of cancer. An added benefit of the yoga program is that it becomes their informal support group."

Pat Opitz was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years ago. With the shock of diagnosis and changes in her life as a result of chemotherapy, she sought out support to help her relax and stay emotionally strong.

She saw a posting for a yoga class offered by CancerCare Manitoba. Hoping it would help her relax and calm her anxieties, she signed up for the class. "I looked forward to yoga class every week", says Opitz, a Secondary English Language Arts Consultant with the Winnipeg School Division. "I met other cancer patients who shared similar emotions or physical symptoms which was a tremendous source of support. I also learned how to tap into a quiet place within myself through meditative poses which helped me cope with my illness."

The class featured yoga poses intended for those recovering from surgery or undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy. The students were asked to increase their mindfulness and the benefits of the poses by feeling the sensations of their bodies, encouraging the body to relax by discriminating between feelings of tension and feelings of release and feeling the sensations of their breathing.

"Three years ago, before my diagnosis, I was mindful of myself and my surroundings but I didn't know how mindfulness strategies could help me cope with my illness or the stressors in daily life. Yoga taught me how to breathe and be aware of the breath between inhalation and exhalation. Focusing on the breath grounds you, whether you're at work, driving in a car or managing illness."

After taking the original 10-week class through CancerCare, Opitz has continued in a beginners' class at Yoga North. She also goes bike riding with her kids, walking and kayaking in order to keep her energy level up. "Yoga made the difference for me as a cancer patient. It taught me how to support myself, and how to feel healthy, both inside and out."

Other cancer patients find benefits in yoga. The list includes people with breast cancer who have shoulder problems and lymph systems that won't drain properly; those with abdominal surgery who aren't supporting the core of their body properly; and people who have undergone chemo and radiation and feel drained and sickly.

"I've been through breast cancer," says Paape. "One of the most surprising things people with breast cancer find in yoga is that it helps with lymphodema. One woman came to me after a class and told me that she'd slept through the night for the first time since her surgery. You could clearly see the emotional and mental benefits she was receiving from yoga."

Kurt Schwarz, a spiritual health specialist at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, takes daily inspiration from the teachings of Esther Myers, who taught at her studio in Toronto, following the work of another influential yoga teacher, Vanda Scaravelli. Schwarz has practised the style of yoga taught by Myers for 18 years.

Myer's yoga style makes the connection between breath, gravity and spinal mobility. The core premise of the practice is that because people are always breathing, and gravity is always acting on the body, they can harness and use these powerful tools in order to elongate and enliven the spine. In this way yoga can be practised safely and in a manner that is constantly unravelling tension and ultimately freeing the body into a state of dynamic ease and comfort.

After studying under Myers in the mid- 1990s, Schwarz taught yoga in Toronto, including at the Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital. "The class involved light yoga postures and breathing, to foster the healing process after surgery or chemotherapy," he says, demonstrating how patients were taught to use their fingers to "crawl" up a wall, lifting their arm. "That was used to work on the flow of lymph fluids." Yoga and relaxation helped patients learn to de-stress and reclaim sleep. Many were losing sleep due to anxiety about their future.

When Schwarz moved to Winnipeg and began working at Health Sciences Centre, he introduced yoga to the Adolescent Mental Health Unit, in order to treat teenagers with eating disorders.

"Eating disorder patients often get into a cycle of striving too much for perfection, and this can turn into using exercise as a way to lose weight," he says. "Yoga teaches people to let go of that perfect body image, and instead, to really listen to their body and increase their comfort level in the body they have."

That yoga class has metamorphosed into a creative movement class that combines body awareness and creative movement along with yoga postures, and is taught to both adolescents and adults with eating disorders, by a Spiritual Health Services staff member.

Schwarz also leads two meditation groups at the HSC, along with an occupational therapist from the Mood Disorders unit. The patients do light yoga stretches in order to lift their mood and stave off depression.

"Yoga helps you heal from the inside out," he says, adding that all patients are urged to talk to their health-care provider before taking up yoga, especially if they have blood pressure issues or other health problems.

Adrienne Percy used to be a marathon runner, until the day came when she experienced back pain so horrible she couldn't pick up and hold her young children. Her doctor ordered an MRI, and told her the cause was a classic herniated disc pressing on her sciatic nerve.

"The pain went down my hip and into my leg. I couldn't sleep from the pain. I couldn't do anything with my kids. I wasn't keen on masking the pain with pills, because I knew I could make the situation even worse if I wasn't listening to my body's cues," says Percy.

She tried other things, including massage and acupuncture. Nothing worked. She moved on to seeing a chiropractor and a physiotherapist. That did nothing for the pain either. Something told her that leaving her healing in someone else's hands wasn't going to work. One day, she twigged to the idea of taking a yoga class, and asked a friend for a recommendation. She went to Yoga North and had an initial private session with teacher Val Paape.

"Previously, I'd done a couple of other types of yoga, but they didn't feel right for me. Val struck me as incredibly competent and compassionate. Right away, it was apparent she had a high level of anatomical knowledge. She knows what every part of your body should be doing. And she's sympathetic without making you feel sorry for yourself," says Percy.

One benefit to taking yoga is how portable it is. When Percy's life goes into fast-forward, with her kids, her house and her job, she can still find enough quiet time to practice the poses at home or on her lunch hour. "I get a funny feeling in my back, and that tells me I either need to get to a yoga class, or do some poses at home. Yoga taught me to feel connected to my body, to know that if my back is out, it might not be a back issue. It might be that my hamstrings are the real issue," she says. "Yoga taught me to manage stress, slow down and acknowledge that my physical, emotional and spiritual sides are all equally important in healing."

Yoga should give you a feeling of being lengthened, with more vitality than you started with, says Paape. "As you grow with asana practice, yoga will reveal itself to be life-long," she says. "It's a practical way to work with your body and ultimately get to know yourself better."

Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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