“Breathe.” This is the word my Yoga instructor was uttering repeatedly on that Saturday morning 7 years ago when I first tried it. At this point, about 30 minutes into the class, I was completely exhausted and confused. As a pretty serious athlete at that time in the sport of Tennis, one of the most physically demanding sports in the world, I was just embarassed by how poorly I was performing. There I am struggling to even lift my butt to attempt a backbend and everyone around me isn’t even flinching. It only took one class for me to realize that I had found something unique and special.
Now lets put this story in context. At the time I was competing in Tennis, but had been suffering from pretty severe back pain since I was about 15 years old (I took up Yoga when I was 18). I visted Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialits, Sports Medicine specialists, Orthopedic surgeons, back specialists, and even had CT scans. None of them found anything structurally wrong and the answer I got was basically “you need to strenghten your abs and legs in order to defend your back.” So, I took up cycling and abdominal work 5 times a week. I was doing about an hour and a half a day of cycling along with 700-800 sit ups daily. After several months of this nothing really changed in terms of my back pain. I was in pain sleeping with my back straight. I was in pain sitting down for long periods of time. I was in pain standing for long periods of time. I wasn’t safe anywhere! Long story short… I started doing Yoga 5 times a week. 6 months later the back pain that had made me miserable for 4 years was gone. 2 years later… I was a certified Yoga Instructor.
This was not magic. It turns out Yoga does not just help your back, but also helps your everything. Lets just go through some of the more well documented benefits:
- Yoga strengthens muscle by enhancing both endurance and flexibility
- Yoga corrects posture and strengthens your back; two things that are crucial for back health and are not typically provided by other, repetitive exercises like weight lifting or running.
- Yoga significantly reduces stress by lowering levels of catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine, a pair of stress hormones), and increasing levels of oxytocin (known as the “bonding” or “trust” hormone.”
- Yoga improves sleep by a combination of the above mechanisms.
- Yoga improves oxygen delivery to your brain leading to enhanced concentration.
- Yoga increases lung capacity.
- Yoga helps lower heart rate and blood pressure, both key to heart and brain health. It was used in the Cleveland Clinic as an adjunct to a lifestyle program designed by Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues which was the first program to ever reverse heart disease with the use of lifestyle modfications alone (changes in diet, excercise habits, etc).
These are just some of the well documented benefits of Yoga. Lets further explore now two of the most common problems on this list: Back pain and stress.
Back pain is the leading cause of missed days at work in the world. It is also the second most common reason for visiting physicians and costs about 50 billion dollars a year to treat. Some estimates claim that 80% of people will suffer from back pain at some point in their life. The main culprit for all of this morbidity is our sedentary lifestyle. Yes it’s that simple. Sitting. See when we sit all day and never stretch or exercise we develop two problems. The first is a loss of good posture. Good posture is very important for back health. This occurs simply because our hip flexors (the set of muscles responsible for flexing our hip) will shorten throughout our life; especially if we sit all day and don’t stretch them. For those anatomy afficionados, this shortening of the hip flexors promotes slouching forward and having a curved lower back when sitting or walking. This puts forces on the back that are detrimental to it. The goal is to have a straight posture.
But what about all the athletes that get back pain like myself? I used to stretch my legs all the time; so why did I develop such severe lower back pain? If you read what I wrote up top again about my back pain you’ll notice something strange. All of the doctors who saw me ordered me to strengthen my abs and legs. Wait… What? Do I have abdominal pain or leg pain? What about strengthening the back? Yes. This is the problem. Many people take up the philosophy of strengthening every other area so that they can then compensate for the weak back. There are plenty of excercises out there that strengthen arms, legs, and abs. Very few focus so much on strengthening the back and hips in order to create good posture. Yoga is one of these exercises. How many of you exercise your hips and back (running doesnt count; that actually tightens your hips and delivers heavy shock to your back).
Now in terms of relieving stress the mechanism is much simpler. The first thing is that Yoga is like any other hobby. People go fishing to kill stress. People run to kill stress. Yoga fits into this category as well. There are other more subtle mechanisms, though. Yoga, like regular exercise, increase endorphin levels in your body. Ever heard of Runner’s High? Yes; there is a Yogi High. The third mechanism, and probably one that is more unique to Yoga than any other discipline, has to do with breathing and meditation techniques. There’s a concept in Yoga about “blanking” your mind. Most of you probably know how hard it is to simply think about nothing while awake. Our minds are constantly buzzing with concerns, responsibilities, and “to-do lists.” The Ujjayi breathe (or “victorious breath” in english) is probably the most important component of Yoga practice. It serves to boost oxygenation and increase body heat by creating friction through the airway (which releases heat). This focus on breathing helps us shut down our worried, concerned, and stressed brain. Most importantly, this “conscious breathe” gives our mind just one goal throughout the practice: to Breathe. For our hour of practice we completely forget about all our problems and responsibilities. The focus shifts to ourselves. Nothing helps fight stress more than that.
I want to give special thanks to David Kyle and Elizabeth Sallabery here, co-owners of It’s Yoga Puerto Rico. They proved to be the best back specialists in Puerto Rico after all was said and done. Thank you for bringing Ashtanga Yoga to Puerto Rico! It changed my life (and I am sure many others).
By: Oscar W. Nevares