Low mood or cranky back? There’s a yoga pose for that.
By Linda Melone
The emotional fallout from a divorce and the challenges of single parenthood took an emotional toll on Amy Buttell. When the anxiety became overwhelming Buttell, 52, a freelance finance writer from Erie, Pennsylvania, first sought help from traditional doctors, trying different medications to ease her symptoms. “At that point I was willing to try anything to help myself,” she says. So when a friend suggested she take a restorative yoga class, Buttell went.
Restorative yoga involves specific poses, usually including supportive bolsters and props, that allow the body to open up through passive stretching. Since poses are held for five minutes or longer, practitioners must relax and learn to calm the mind.
“My yoga teacher thought I’d never come back after the first class,” Buttell says, noting how a closed door and a roomful of strangers initially made her anxiety worse. But after a few classes, Buttell noticed she felt less anxious. “I started feeling I could actually relax in class. I had maybe 10 thoughts in my head instead of 70,000,” she jokes. Now, four years later, Buttell continues to practice yoga and has since added 30-minute meditations to her daily routine. The practice, she says, keeps the “speeding train” of anxiety at bay.
From anxiety to high blood pressure and other chronic health ailments, numerous studies show yoga’s effectiveness in reducing risk and/or easing symptoms. Choosing the right type of yoga and poses can get you on your way to better lifelong health.
For overall wellness, restorative yoga is a good place to begin, says Lynn Dolin, MS, MA, a yoga instructor, trained psychologist and healing arts practitioner in Malibu, California. “Restorative yoga is about relaxation, breathing and becoming more aware of your body,” Dolin notes. “It’s very gentle and helps you develop an awareness of breath, which is critical to getting the most out of any yoga program.” Dolin cautions against imposing too many rules for yourself that may lead to frustration, such as striving for an entire yoga sequence every day. “It can turn you off to doing it at all,” she says.
“Instead, focus on whatever you can commit to doing, even if it’s one simple pose a day. You can build from there.”
Finding the Best Approach
The overwhelming number of new yoga styles and trends such as hot, dance and power yogas can make it confusing for beginners. But a traditional approach to yoga works best if you’re starting out, says Erin Byron, MA, director of the Welkin YogaLife Institute in Brantford, Ontario. Moderate postures in a moderate environment (not, for example, a hot room), coupled with relaxation and breathing practices, “come out on top time and again,” she says.
As with any exercise program, always seek a healthcare provider’s advice before starting a yoga practice, especially if you have a pre-existing condition. Once you are medically cleared, try these expert-recommended yoga approaches. One may be the ticket to ease what ails you. (A qualified yoga teacher can provide guidance, especially for beginners; ask if they have any experience in helping students with your condition. For help with poses, visit yogajournal.com.)
If you are struggling with stress or anxiety, restorative yoga offers simple poses perfect for beginners. “It works well for mood issues such as depression and self-acceptance as well as for chronic fatigue syndrome,” says Dolin.
Use a yoga bolster or, if one is not available, fold two thick blankets lengthwise and stack one on top of the other to create a support at least six inches thick, 10 inches wide and long enough to support your hips. Sit on the support with the left side of your body next to the wall and your feet on the floor.
Use your hands for support as you shift your weight on to the outer right hip, then lower your right shoulder to the ground and pivot your pelvis to sweep your legs up onto the wall. Settle your back into the floor. Legs should be straight, anklebones touching each other, and the backs of your thighs should rest against the wall, creating a gentle support. (If tight hamstrings prevent you from being comfortable in this position, shift your hips slightly away from the wall.) Close your eyes (add a lavender-scented eye pillow for extra relaxation), exhale and surrender to the softness of the pose.
Focus on your breath and embrace the feeling of deep rest. Remain in the pose for a few minutes or as long as desired, then slowly slide your legs down the wall, bending knees into your chest and sit up gradually.
Other restorative poses include Reclining Big Toe Pose, Child’s Pose, Reclining Bound Ankle Pose and Corpse Pose.
Bad Back Fixes
In general, back pain probably motivates more people to try yoga than any other health issue, says Jenny Gallagher, an experienced registered yoga teacher based in Sarasota, Florida. “Often people come in and tell me they need to stretch their back, but they usually need to strengthen their back and open their chest,” she says. Gallagher recommends the Warrior Poses (includes three variations), which can be done standing. This eliminates the need to get up and down from the floor, which can be difficult with a painful back.
Warrior Pose I
Begin by standing in Mountain Pose (toes touching, legs together, hands at the sides), weight distributed evenly and posture aligned. Step with your left foot toward the back of your mat; bring your left heel to the floor and turn toes out to about a 45-degree angle and start bending the right knee over the right ankle. Adjust for stability by widening your stance if necessary. Keep hips squared forward, maintaining Mountain Pose, as you inhale and bring arms up over your head with palms touching or separate, according to your flexibility. Maintain your gaze on your fingertips, creating a subtle backbend.
“Specific yoga fixes for back pain depend on the reason behind the pain,” says Rina Jakubowicz, owner of Rina Yoga, with three yoga studios in Miami, Florida. If you’ve seen a doctor and determined the cause, one of these other approaches may also help. For simple muscular tightness or tension, yoga poses that stretch the piriformis muscle on the outside of the hip and glutes allow the hips and back to release and diminish the pain, says Jakubowicz. Poses that offer this type of back pain release include Pigeon Pose (on both sides), Happy Baby and Reclined Spinal Twist.
Herniated disks require an entirely different set of poses for optimal strength and relief, says Jakubowicz. “You want to refrain from doing any intense forward bends. The spine should stay straight or in a mild backbend position to strengthen and create space between the vertebras allowing them to stretch and alleviate the pain.” Safe poses for herniated disks include the Bridge and Cobra Poses.
In cases of arthritis in the spine, you’ll want to do more forward bends and refrain from doing any back bends that could worsen the pain, says Jakubowicz, who recommends the Seated and Standing Forward Bends as well as the Head-to-Knee Pose and the Mild Reclined Spinal Twist.
Stress, overwork, poor sleeping habits and a lousy diet can all drain energy from your body, says Jakubowicz. “The best way to kick up your energy is to do about five Sun Salutations every morning to start the day by getting your blood flowing or when you feel depleted.” In addition, Downward Facing Dog and other inverted poses may also boost energy when done safely and in good alignment. “Also, finding a random time of day to drop down and do an empowering Crow Pose should do the trick.” The Camel Pose and Bridge Pose may work better for beginners as energy lifters.
Sun Salutations consist of eight poses including: Mountain, Upward Salute, Standing Forward Bend, Lunge, Plank, Four-Limbed Staff, Upward Facing Dog and Downward Facing Dog.
Downward Facing Dog
Get down on all fours, hips directly over your knees and hands slightly ahead of your shoulders. Spread your hands and turn your toes inward, then lift your knees off the floor. At first keep your knees bent and your heels slightly lifted. Then straighten your spine, being careful to avoid doing a backbend. Press the bases of your index fingers into the floor before flattening your shoulder blades and drawing them towards your tailbone (don’t let your head hang down).
When someone is under stress their digestion goes out of balance, says Welkin YogaLife’s Byron. “High stress levels can worsen digestive problems such as irritable bowel, colitis, and heartburn,” she notes. “Yoga is an excellent tool for alleviating symptoms, and possibly causes, of many issues.”
Byron suggests practicing digestive sequences first thing in the morning, when your stomach is at its emptiest, to kick-start digestion. “This series of poses works to massage intestines and stretches the connective tissue around the digestive organs,” says Byron. “It activates a sense of ‘down-and-out’ action, the energy of healthy elimination which the yogis call apana. The relaxation, deep breathing, forward-bending poses and spinal twists regulate the rhythmic contractions of the guts so digestion is neither backed up nor too loose.”
Poses may be done separately during a busy day, when practiced together, be sure to alternate forward and backward bends. Hold poses for two breaths, up to three minutes.
Relaxing Breath into Stick Pose/Wind Releasing Pose
Lie down with your knees bent and tented together, holding each other up. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Inhale through the nose to the lowest lobes of the lungs, which makes your belly rise as your lungs fill. Keep your chest as still as possible, breathing only with the diaphragm. Exhale, long and smooth, through the nose. Relax and allow the air to flow in and out, abdomen rising and falling.
Still lying on your back, inhale and bring both arms overhead, placing the backs of your hands on the floor overhead. Reach the body tall and feel an opening through the abdomen while keeping the shoulders relaxed. Exhale and bring your right knee to the chest, holding it gently with both hands. Flex the toes towards the sky. Inhale and repeat, reaching the body long and open. Exhale the other knee to the chest as you did on the right side. Continue this alternating pattern.
Other poses in this sequence include, in order, the Reclined Half-Moon, Half Lord of Fishes, Half Plow and Crocodile Poses.
Honoring Your Body
Through the Yoga of Food
Yoga is more than just a series of physical poses. It encompasses an overall approach to life, including issues surrounding food. The idea is to clear away the emotional attachments that cling to eating and “introduce a more loving and accepting attitude towards your body,” according to Melissa Grabau, PhD, psychologist, yoga teacher and author of The Yoga of Food (Llewllyn, www.llewellyn.com), available in June.
Food itself isn’t the problem. “Food is a lovely feature of life on this planet. It feels really good to eat when hungry,” says Grabau.
Often, though, simple hunger becomes clouded with other concerns, especially in what Grabau calls “our schizophrenic food culture” that presents cheeseburgers and donuts in an almost erotic light while promoting ideals of beauty—six-pack abs and chiseled chest for him, willowy silhouette and tiny waist for her—that are impossible to achieve on a cheeseburger-and-donut diet. What complicates matters is that people also turn to food for emotional solace; for Grabau as a shy, awkward child dealing with her parents’ marital troubles, food soothed “a sorrow that I could not even articulate.”
Yoga, both on and off the mat, “is designed to…enhanc[e] your ability to connect with, rather than dissociate from, the realities of your body,” says Grabau. This means seeing yourself as you really are while letting go of the shame and self-criticism that keeps many people trapped in bingeing-dieting-bingeing cycles. It also means letting go of fear. As Grabau puts it, “Fears of illness, abandonment, helplessness and financial destitution hover around the edges of food.”
Taking a yogic approach to eating isn’t just moving away from the bad; it also encompasses moving towards the good. “You begin to yoke your external knowledge of how to care for your body with your internal sense of what is good for you,” explains Grabau. “You can learn to choose foods with more awareness regarding how they affect your body.” For example, giving up your nightly ice cream may bring anguish at first. But eventually your new diet will allow you to feel lighter and more clear-headed, which make a healthy eating program easier to stay with as time goes on.
Want to start honoring your body? Grabau has the following suggestions: