by Claudia Dudley
Life is stressful.
The evening news provides constant reminder of world, state and community problems, then we add our own-relationships, work, money. No wonder it’s hard to find inner peace these days.
How do you handle stress?
Many of us would rather not deal with it at all, but self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, food and other addictive behaviors. Others internalize it, and later find themselves with headaches, any variety of body tensions, and emotional outbursts.
Unfortunately, the stress doesn’t end. We need to learn to manage stress before it creates illness. One way is through the ancient system of self-improvement called hatha yoga. Kripalu yoga is one of the many styles of teaching hatha yoga.
The practice of Kripalu yoga is designed to lead us to an ever-increasing knowledge of our mind and body’s needs in order to achieve and maintain good physical, mental and spiritual health. In short, it deals with the whole person. People in my classes range in age from 15 to 86. Many suffer from a broad range of medical conditions including heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, osteoporosis, back problems, mental illness, and stress related disorders. Others are here to improve their strength, flexibility, and balance, as well as cultivate inner stillness.
The course is the same for everyone. We don’t emphasize what is wrong with people but rather what is right with them: their capacity for learning, for mobilizing their inner strengths and for changing behavior in new and imaginative ways. Each session includes postures, guided breathing, relaxation and meditation.
Postures (asanas), help lubricate the body. They keep the muscles and joints running smoothly, stretch and tone the internal organs, and increase circulation, without creating fatigue.
Each person goes to their own limits of strength, flexibility and balance. There’s no molding to some preconceived ideal form; but rather in finding one’s own edge, we allow ourselves to be challenged, without creating pain.
When we’re holding a posture we focus on body sensations. If the sensation happens to be an itch or an ache, then, instead of changing position or putting it out of our mind, we go right into the sensation. In doing so, it can actually resolve.
The second aspect of a yoga practice is breathing (pranayama). Stop and observe how you’re breathing right now. Are you using the full capacity of your lungs? Most of us do basic survival breathing, using about 1/7 of our lungs capacities. Yoga emphasizes how to breathe correctly. Research confirms that consciously directed breathing can have the following benefits: reduced stress, sound sleep, clear sinuses, smoking cessation, improved sports performances, relief from constipation and headaches, reduced allergy and asthma symptoms, relief from menstrual cramps, lower blood pressure, and emotional calmness.
Relaxation (pratyahara) helps release physical and emotional tension in the body. We relax both while we’re holding the posture and after the posture. Relaxation is crucial for our well being as well as an important tool for pain relief. If you’re in pain and you tense up, you hurt more. Instead of automatically grabbing for a pill, in yoga we allow ourselves to feel the pain, and relax into it. In doing so, it starts to dissolve.
Just about all medical programs for healing, whether for emotional, mental or physical problems, include rest. Rest is also a wonderful preventive tool, yet most of us don’t know how to relax, or feel guilty when we do. So here it is in print: It’s OK to RELAX. You’ll improve the quality of your life.
Lastly, we have meditation, which to some may seem like a mystical phenomenon. But another word for meditation is simply "awareness." It’s about paying attention to the only time you have to live, namely this present moment.
Does your mind ever wander? Worrying about the future or regretting the past? Through focusing on sensations, meditation quiets the chatter of the mind. And when the mind is quiet, we’re not as angry, worried or anxious.
Hence the practice of yoga brings not only physical health, but also mental health.
Medical research has recently shown that the regular practice of yoga can relieve high blood pressure, arthritis, arteriosclerosis, chronic fatigue, asthma and varicose veins. In addition, resistance to tumors and viruses improves, heart conditions improve and cholesterol and blood sugar levels can be lowered.
Today there is no doubt of yoga’s effectiveness as both a curative and preventive medicine.
The best reason of all to practice yoga doesn’t come from an article. Ask your body how it feels when you get up in the morning. Can you do the things you used to be able to do? That’s got to be the best inspiration of all to start practicing Kripalu yoga, and feeling good about the body you live in.
The Mountain Posture
This deceptively simple standing posture provides the lessons of postural awareness, pelvic positioning and leg strengthening that are crucial to back health. It helps correct postural deviations and their associated pain. The mountain provides the basic alignment for other standing postures, and leaves you feeling grounded and balanced.
Stand erect with the feet 2-3 inches apart and arms down by your side. Shift your weight so it is distributed evenly between the balls and heels of the feet.
Lift up your kneecaps by tightening your thighs. Tuck your tailbone under, slightly contracting your buttocks.
Lift the crown of the head, feeling the spine elongate. Slowly raise your arms out to the side and overhead, stretching your arms from the armpit to the fingers. Palms face each other. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Lift your fingers up toward the sky.
Softly focus your gaze at a point in front of you along the horizon. Hold to your body’s limit, breathing fully.