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Yoga as heart opener

Mon, Feb 27th, 2012
Posted in All Health & Wellness

Yoga is more than exercise. Everyone knows that exercise is an important determinant of health; we all should strive to get 150 minutes of moderately intense activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week, as recommended in the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. There are those who say that yoga isn’t enough exercise. A popular 2007 study by the American College of Sports Medicine found that yoga practitioners had a lower than predicted maximum heart rate, burned fewer calories per minute, and expended less energy metabolic equivalents than while speed walking. However, in the fine print, the researchers drew their conclusions from Hatha yoga practitioners, that is, gentle yoga.

Yoga looks different depending on where and with whom you practice. So, lest we judge those who practice yoga—yogis— too soon, first we must learn the terminology.

A vocabulary lesson:

Yoga teaches an array of different disciplines, likened to a tree with eight limbs:

•yama are universal ethics

•niyama are individual ethics

•asana are the physical postures

•pranayama is breath control

•pratyahara is the control of the senses

•dharana is concentration

•dyana is meditation, and

•samadhi is bliss

Furthermore, one must understand that there are different styles of yoga practice with varying intensities. Each style differs in the emphasis placed on various components of breath control (pranayama), meditation (dyana), and physical postures (asana). Common styles you may encounter are:

•Integral, Hatha or Svaroopa: more emphasis on meditation, relaxation, inner connection and individual ethics

•Power Yoga or more vigorous postures and emphasis on breath

•Ashtanga Vinyasa: control and constant aerobic, dynamic flow

•Iyengar: used for therapeutics and incorporates accommodating equipment like straps, chairs, and blocks to facilitate poses

•Bikram or Hot Yoga: practice in a heated or humidified environment to increase blood circulation and breathing is emphasized

Science Says

The growing popularity of yoga in Western culture has stimulated a typically Western response: research. Though evidence from controlled trials is limited, there are inklings to suggest that yoga may provide benefit in therapeutic contexts beyond the scope of physical exercise.

Yoga seems to decrease the activity in one’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. What does that mean? One of the chief products of the HPA axis is cortisol: the chemical currency of stress. So, yoga practice over time down regulates, or decreases, one’s capacity for suffering the physiologic effects of stress. Also, yoga seems to temper the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Our SNS uses the chemical adrenaline to elicit a “fight or flight” physiologic response. Yoga practice can decrease the amount of adrenaline produced by the body.

If this is true, thinking therapeutically, scientists wonder whether yoga could come to replace beta-blockers and other blood pressure medications that block adrenaline’s effects; could yoga be used in lieu of anti-anxiety medication; should yoga be considered a chief therapy for stress reduction? The answer, of course, is: not for everyone, but for some. In a 2011 literature review in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Ross and colleagues summarized findings from 81 studies, mostly comparison group studies. The majority of the studies were typically small and not well controlled, so it remains to be seen whether the trends will hold up under more rigorous clinical scrutiny.

But these harbingers of yoga’s health benefits carry the following olive leaves: Yoga may decrease blood pressure, heart rate, inflammatory proteins, cortisol, blood glucose, plasma renin (a blood pressure hormone from kidneys), and adrenaline. Further, yoga may increase some naturally produced antibodies (IgA), and natural killer cells, the white blood cells that target cancer. Psychologically, studies have shown that yoga may decrease symptoms of anxiety and enhance one’s sense of emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being. All of these potential health benefits make yoga a reasonably strong recommendation for those who may have, or be privy to: cardiovascular disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, or anxiety.

Through the biological lens, yoga seems to be, quite literally, a heart opener.

With all of these good reasons to take up thy mat and get thee to a yoga studio, why would anyone refuse? Spandex leotards are not required, only humility. If you fall over in tree pose, the group’s normative gaze should be delightfully out of focus in disciplined third eye dristhti. There are risks for practitioners that routinely perform their poses incorrectly, misalignment can put unhealthy strain on joints and those who have pain that worsens over time should seek medical attention and/or physical therapy. But ideally, the yoga space is without requirement, without judgment, and without agenda. All ages, all genders, all religions are welcome on the mat.


No two yogis are the same. Everyone has their own story that tells how they came to yoga and why they continue to practice.

For example, Mayo Clinic’s Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center’s (DAHLC) yoga instructor Hirono “Hiro” Sekiguchi began her practice three years ago. By way of New York City, Hiro came to Rochester, Minnesota from Tokyo, Japan. Her first few months in Rochester were lonesome. She began attending yoga classes taught at the DAHLC by Stephanie Yerhot. She said, for her, the discovery of yoga was a transformational experience.

She was so inspired by the practice, the benefits she derived from it, that she sought to complete teacher training, and was soon after following Stephanie’s lead. Yoga aligned with her long term aspirations of working in women’s health. Hiro says:

“I created my community through yoga. I made really beautiful friends here, and that is a huge part of why I do what I do,” Hiro said. “This is the start of a huge journey. I still feel like a little baby, but I am learning more every day.”

One of the yoga classes Hiro currently leads is a candlelight session after 8 p.m. on Wednesday nights. She has the class fan their mats in a circle around a cluster of candles, the only light in the dark room. Hiro opens the session asking each person around the circle to introduce themselves and share a blessing or a fun fact.

“My philosophy is one of connecting people and sharing energy, no matter whatever kind of yoga style people practice.”

Hiro leads the flow poses and her soft voice is accompanied by jazz music. At the end of the hour, after the shavasana, or relaxation pose, Hiro gives her open-hearted dedication, her mantra, with hands clasped to her forehead:

“Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu- May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to the happiness and to the freedom for all.”

And each person around the candle-lit wheel, themselves like rays of sun, bows to one another with a blessing of mutual respect derived from Sanskrit that means, “I recognize you as a fellow being” — Namaste.

Yoga as medium for transition is the theme in another story of local practitioner, Julie Roenigk. After her youngest child left Rochester for college, Julie was unsettled in her newfound solitude. In the winter of 2008, she began to practice yoga as many do for the “exercise.”

“I discovered that the benefits exceeded the physical,” Roenigk described. A deeply invested parishioner at Calvary Episcopal Church, Julie began to draw parallels between yoga and the practice of Centering Prayer she did at church.

“I left the class with a calmer mind,” Julie recognized, “After a time I began to move into the yoga posture flows and used them as a way to praise God with my body. … I began to dedicate each practice as a prayer, an intercession, or a thanksgiving. I saw a connection between the breathing taught in yoga to my beliefs about the Breath of God and the Holy Spirit in my life.”

Julie began a serious study of yoga and found in a book Prayer of Heart and Body by Father Tom Ryan the same lesson that Hiro discovered:

“Yoga means to unite, to join, but also to harness, to yoke. The application of these nuances in the meaning of the word is pertinent: to unite, to join, refers to the harmonious integration of the spirit and body. …

“Yoga is much more than a physical exercise. Comprehensively understood, it takes into its sweep the mayor pathways to spiritual growth and development: work, devotions, study, and meditation. In the actual practice of the psycho-physiological exercise that make up hatha yoga in particular, the postures become points of encounter not only with our bodies but with our own sense of inner limits and possibilities for living. This ‘inner posture’ is the heart of yoga practice.”


My favorite poses in yoga are the heart openers. Like most experiences with healing, they are painful at first, then good. First, drop your shoulders. How much of the day is spent in the hunch? Over the computer, sitting at the desk, in the chair, on the couch. We angle our shoulders forward like our chests are dioramas, our spines rounded for the backdrop, maybe we tuck our chins and shadow the stage, or fold our arms across the front like a curtain.

Heart openers reverse all of that. To achieve the pose, muscles hooked to the top of the vertebral column contract to pull back the shoulder blades, the thoracic spine uncurls like an unstrung bow, the chin lifts to allow light to touch the neck’s pulse, and the arms open wide. Like what Michael Jackson did every time he stood on a steam vent. A few famous others have so hung or stood.

In this posture, the heart itself is the prestige, it is like the dove released at the finale of a magic trick. The victory is the surrender. The heart is allowed to be the furthest most point in your body; closer to the surface of things than before.

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