What helps our bodies to recover from their place of trauma and move to healing? We all know that physical exercise is the best thing next to eating right that we can do for ourselves, but what type of exercise is right for you on your way back to your best self? Yoga can sound intimidating, but really it is one of the purest forms of activity there is. There are many different types of yoga, levels of skill and personal preference. How do you know if it is right for you and how do we learn not to be intimidated by something new?
For me, I had practiced yoga before my illness, but not regularly. However, I soon realized it was one of the few things that I actually could do during treatment and afterwards as I tried to regain my strength and stamina. The stronger I got, the better I felt, but the hardest part was just getting up the nerve to keep trying. Every class I went to seemed like a huge personal victory for me, and it was also the only place where I was completely and utterly focused on my physical being. For one hour, I could shut off the noise in my head, feel my body responding and really truly be quiet and gentle with myself.
MNU spoke with Integrated Yoga Tune Up® Teacher and IAYT Yoga Therapist Sarah Court about the benefits and possibilities of wellness in practicing yoga.
What is the most important thing to learn first about yoga?
The really nice thing about the way yoga has evolved is that there are so many different styles of yoga out there that are available for everyone. Depending on what you want to get out of it, there is a type of yoga for you. Varying forms of yoga include loosening of tight muscles and sweating (hot yoga or Bikram), breathing and meditation (Hatha), fast-paced and intense poses (Power or Ashtanga), basic poses and synchronized movement (Flow or Vinyasa), alignment (Anusara), chanting and meditation with intense movement (Jivamukti), use of props and longer poses (Iyengar), which is particularly good when recovering from an injury, or resting and stretching (Restorative). People who are new to it are so bombarded by images of bendy, gymnast-type people that it can seem intimidating. Those people think, “I can’t do that, so it’s not for me.” However, yoga has become so widely available now, that if you can’t get to a studio, there are DVD’s or content online. There is a yoga class for you!
What is it about your experience with yoga that inspired you to become an instructor?
I had sort of of played around with it on and off as a young adult, and got more serious about it after going through a traumatic personal experience. It became a refuge, and it helped me reset my brain. It just did so much for me, that I wanted to do something more beneficial and share my experience. I wanted to learn how to help people take care of themselves instead of selling people things, which was what I was doing at the time as an actress. It continues to be so useful to me during periods of stress or trauma that happen with everyday life. Most yoga teachers have such a personal connection and gratitude for it.
Why do you think some people might be intimidated by yoga?
If I didn’t do it, I would be intimidated by it. The number one thing that I hear is “I can’t do yoga, I’m not that flexible.” There is a misconception that it is only for people that are already bendy, but it really is not that way. You do not have to be young, fit and wear spandex or be a zen master. I think any kind of new form of exercise can be scary for someone who is injured or has a chronic condition or is older. Getting something out of yoga has nothing to do with how in shape you are. It is really about finding a teacher you love and a practice that resonates for you and letting that be a part of your life. I teach privately because some people don’t want to go to a group class, but also because one-on-one is a great way to learn yoga. Costs may prohibit private lessons and group classes, but check around. There are donation classes, community classes, and free classes, so there is always a way to experience it. You can even find classes online and on YouTube. People can be very conscious of not looking like the “yoga type” and that feeling keeps them out of class. Frankly, there is no type and it is for everyone who wants to do it.
What are the benefits of regular practice?
There are a multitude of benefits. What you are going to get out of it depends on what kind of yoga you are doing and what kind of person you are. If you experience high stress, you might want super hot and sweaty yoga or if you just want to lean to relax and breathe, you might want hatha. There are a lot of benefits that may not be immediately obvious, like just learning to have a quiet moment. We spend most of our live being bombarded by so much information that sometimes it is just great to not be available for an hour. There are so many studies out there about the benefits of yoga, for reducing blood pressure, or for weight loss, or even helping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for veterans. Most conditions in some way can be benefitted by yoga practice.
How is yoga beneficial to the healing process?
I can tell you about my experience with it through two hip surgeries. Before the first one, I was practicing a pretty vigorous type of yoga. It was humbling for me to go back to a basic practice when I was well enough and learn to be okay with that. I learned a lot about the practice of just being present. When you are in the process of healing from anything, it is normal to be frustrated about where you are and having to take the time to heal the right way. Unfortunately, no one can tell you that you will be back to normal by a certain day. You will experience a lot of days of back and forth, good days and bad days, surges ahead, dropping back. Practicing in that place sometimes was hard for me. It was all I could do to just meditate, then slowly work up to movement. I learned from that experience that it was okay for me to be where I was in the healing process and it made it easier to deal with the frustration. If you can work through the constraints of where you are in that moment with the right teacher, and understand all that movement does for you, this is how it benefits you. Combining the mindfulness with the centering helps you learn to be okay wherever you are.
How is yoga integrated with diet and lifestyle choices?
Well, I have run the gamut from being completely vegan to eating anything but things I think are gross! There are a lot of differing opinions about this, from very strident and restrictive to doing whatever you want. I think the most useful way to approach diet is to really pay attention to how you feel. What you may find is, oh, I feel better after going to this class, and then you eventually become more aware of these feelings. If you eat this huge carb meal, you might feel very sluggish, so try to be aware of how your body responds to food and in what ways. That goes the same for sleeping, smoking, drinking, etc. For people who aren’t that aware, it starts to bring things to your attention, so you ask yourself do I want to continue this or not? I want to feel as good as possible, so I try to make choices that go along with that, and sometimes people get caught up in the extreme of it. The body will tell you a lot if you listen. Yoga helps you hear what your body is telling you.
What have you learned about your own body through your yoga practice?
One of the things that I have realized over the years is that I didn’t come with a lot of flexibility. The bigger job is about maintaining strength so that my flexibility isn’t a liability. It shouldn’t just be about stretching but to build strength and supplement with other movements. I struggled with anorexia when I was young, so by doing yoga, the focus changed from what does my body look like to what can my body do? That was a huge shift to body acceptance based on the strength of my body and how amazing this body is to live in instead of what it looks like. What does your body really need? When I stopped trying to control it and started listening, I stepped into how powerful my body is and learned about self-worth.
What qualities should someone look for from a yoga instructor or studio?
Most yoga studios are affiliated with the Yoga Alliance, the governing body of yoga accreditation. I am a Registered Yoga Teacher. I suggest looking for experienced teachers and research the reputation of studio. Read the online reviews and get recommendations from trusted friends or colleagues. Particularly if you are going into practice in any sort of compromised way, look for special training or longevity. The benefits of yoga depend on what you respond to, so try different classes with different teachers to find the right fit for you. When you find one that works, you know you will keep going to your class because you connect to it. There is really something out there for everyone!
Sarah Court is an Integrated Yoga Tune Up® Teacher and IAYT Yoga Therapist, also trained in Anusara and Jivamukti Yoga, who draws from all of these styles in her teaching. She teaches weekly Yoga Tune Up® and Vinyasa classes at various locations in Los Angeles, and trains yoga teachers in anatomy and in Yoga Tune Up® across the country. Sarah is a regular columnist at exercise.com, and both writes for and edits the Yoga Tune Up® blog. She has been featured in the New York Times and is one of nursingschool.net’s 100 Incredible Yoga Teachers Who Blog. To find out more about Sarah, please go to www.sarahcourtyoga.com.
**After consulting with your doctor, check with a registered instructor and explain your physical history before you start any kind of practice.**