Healing Moves Off the Mat
Blending ancient tradition with modern-day interests and
activities makes yoga more accessible to many.
By Polly Campbell
Katherine Winge, 37, of Austin, Texas, wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to practice yoga again after injuring her back for a third time in 2010. The pain and stiffness caused by three herniated disks made it impossible to even touch her toes.
“I couldn’t do much of anything for about a year so I started learning the philosophy behind the physical aspects of yoga, and I began meditating and actually integrating yogic philosophy into my everyday life, striving to be present no matter what’s going on and, most importantly, applying the practice of non-violence to how I treated my body and heart,” says Winge. “This practice really changed how I moved through the world. But I still couldn’t do the postures or poses.”
At least not on land.
Yoga is a 3,000-year-old holistic mind-body practice that involves physical movement along with mindful awareness of the breath and body. When practiced regularly utilizing specific poses and postures, as well as breathing techniques and meditation, yoga has been shown to ease chronic pain and stress, improve strength and flexibility, boost endurance and concentration, and contribute to inner peace and better overall health.
Winge says she experienced many of those benefits when she took what she knew about yoga into the pool. There she was able to resume the yoga practice that had been too painful to do on land and found the experience “transformational.”
“The water slowed me down,” says Winge, who now teaches aqua yoga to others. “My aqua yoga practice became a kinder, gentler way of treating myself. What makes a real difference is when your yoga practice reflects on how you move throughout the day. The flowing movements of water yoga and the study of yoga helped me adopt a healthier approach and lifestyle.”
Setting Intention, Finding Focus
Aqua yoga is one of dozens of hybrid forms of yoga that blend aspects of a traditional practice, including asanas, or physical postures, and pranayama, focusing on life force or breath, with other activities, techniques, tools and environments.
As a result, you can complete warrior poses on a paddle board and go into downward dog while on horseback. Hybrid yoga forms now incorporate aspects of ballet, martial arts and fitness programs such as CrossFit.
These yoga blends are a good way to introduce people to this ancient practice, says Kate Hanley, a Rhode Island yoga instructor and author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide (skirt!).
“Anything that gets you excited about bringing your mind and body together is a good thing,” says Hanley. “Anything that gives you a taste, that gets you to try, yoga is good and the hope is that it will inspire you then to go into a deeper practice.”
The word “yoga” derives from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning “to control” or “to yoke” and is often interpreted to mean “union” or connection with higher self. Discipline is central to any yoga practice; Hanley notes that yoga is a way of forming a union with one’s higher self, which requires a certain focus. As a result, “It helps to know the ‘rules’ of yoga before you break the rules.”
Keep that intention and discipline in mind, says Winge, and you can practice yoga anywhere.
Fibromyalgia pushed David Rogers’ yoga practice off the land and into the water several years ago. “The stretching was too hard on land,” says Rogers, 66, a retired substance abuse program development specialist and a member of Winge’s aqua yoga class. “The water relieves weight by reducing gravity and it’s more relaxing.”
Yoga Beyond the Mat
Looking to broaden your yoga practice or ease the impacts of a floor-based class? Aqua yoga isn’t the only hybrid that may prove fun, restorative and even healing, according to those who practice them. These are only some of the various yoga hybrids.
This combination of physical therapy and therapeutic yoga creates a powerful holistic healing method, says physical therapist Elizabeth Trausch.
A longtime yoga practitioner, Trausch, who practices at Breathe Physical Therapy & Wellness in Des Moines, Iowa, was looking for a way to incorporate the emotional, spiritual and social aspects of yoga with the physical methods of therapy in a way that fostered whole-body well-being. Physioyoga does that, she says, noting that the practice promotes stability and strength in her patients and also works with underlying stressors that can lead to pain and illness.
“This is about getting physically stronger in addition to getting better. It treats the pain, condition or illness by recognizing that when there is an imbalance in the body and the muscles, a lot of dysfunction can occur.
We have a strong focus on bio-mechanical alignment and recognizing what our own bodies are capable of,” says Trausch. As a result, she says, Physioyoga is an effective way to ease chronic pain, insomnia, incontinence, irritable bowel syndrome and a variety of other conditions that are a result of an overactive nervous system and musculoskeletal issues.
Started by Miami-based yoga teacher Cameron Shayne, Budokon is a multi-faceted approach that integrates yoga and martial arts with mental focus and awareness.
It draws from a range of movements found in jujitsu and karate, and its slow, methodical, choreographed postures are completed in a flowing circular pattern, says Budokon instructor Jamal Pender, owner of BudokonMD in Columbia, Maryland. Pender says this practice can be a physically demanding fitness routine or an easier, gentler process depending on what participants want.
In aerial yoga participants use a fabric strap called a hammock, which hangs from the rafters, to drop their hips and decompress their spines as a way to ease pain and build strength, says Paula Dong, a Yoga Alliance-certified instructor and co-owner of Colorado Aerial Yoga and Fitness in Evergreen.
Aerial yoga participants hang, straddle and tug on the hammock while completing different poses. Because you are supported by the fabric and using natural gravitational pull, you are safely able to flex and activate muscles that are hard to work during a floor yoga class, Dong says.
Aerial yoga also helps those with chronic conditions who can’t easily get on the floor or support their bodies in a comfortable way. The hammock absorbs much of the weight and pressure, allowing participants to build flexibility, strength and balance.
Dong claims this form of yoga also improves circulation, activates the lymph system and can even help people sleep better.
Pranayama, the focus on the breath, is one of the guiding principles of yoga practice as laid out in The Yoga Sutra, a guide to living a purposeful life through yoga that was written about 2,000 years ago. Mindful breathing is also at the core of harmonica yoga.
David Harp is using the harmonica as a tool for teaching mindfulness and breath work as a way to ease anxiety and promote calm.
“Learning to play recognizable blues and rock harmonica within minutes forces you to become aware of how you are inhaling and exhaling,” says Harp, co-author of The Three Minute Meditator (Mind’s I Press) and other books. He is based in Vermont, but travels the country teaching Harmonica Yoga to corporate and private groups as well as individuals.
While Harp does incorporate some simple yoga postures into his teaching, Harmonica Yoga is more of a meditation to help people become aware of their bodies and thoughts. Negative thoughts create tension in the neck and body; Harp says that tension changes the way people breathe, altering the sound of the harmonica.
“When you focus on your breath, the negative thought disappears,” Harp continues, explaining that breathwork alters “electrical pathways in your brain to help you manage fear and anger and upset. By training your attention on the breath, you can eradicate that negative thought and feeling.”
It can take a few minutes to learn the technique and a simple song. Then, says Harp, it’s all about the practice.
As much as it is a practice, “yoga is a lifestyle,” says Winge. “It’s about yoking to the present moment and learning to be kind to yourself and aware and it’s really something you practice throughout the day in how you go through the day.” Hybrid forms of yoga may help you attain these goals.
Some Yoga Possibilities
Looking to stick with a more straightforward yoga format? One of the following might be up your alley. It’s a good idea to discuss your choice with an instructor trained in that type of yoga before you roll out your mat, and especially to inform him or her of any pre-existing medical conditions you may have.
Ashtanga: Also known as power yoga; in this vigorous, athletic form, pose flows into pose without a break. You should be in good shape before you start this one.
Bikram: Involves a set series of poses done in a hot, humid room to promote toxin release; hot yoga takes the same sweaty approach but without the set sequence. Remember to stay hydrated.
Hatha: Generally used to describe slower-moving classes in which poses are held for several breaths. A good choice if you are new to yoga.
Iyengar: Props such as blankets, straps and blocks are used to help students hold poses in good symmetry and alignment.
Kundalini: The aim here is to release untapped energy, called kundalini, thought to reside at the base of the spine via kriyas, sequences that combine repetitive motions, intense breath work and chanting.
Restorative: A slow, mellow practice designed to promote peace and calm; uses props so that the body can relax into the poses.
Vinyasa: An active form in which breath and movement are linked in a type of choreography, often accented with music to suit.