There has recently been a lot of research on the benefits of yoga and mindfulness in one’s overall physical and mental health, especially in combating anxiety and depression. My yoga practice has been an integral part of my journey towards spirituality, self-acceptance, compassion for others, and connection to the community at large. Through my yoga practice, I learned how to relax, feel more centered, and more grounded, both on and off the mat. Although I currently do not take yoga in the studio or have a daily mat practice, I can draw from these teachings of mindfulness, meditation, and breathing when needed in my own life. I teach clients these techniques in sessions so that they can utilize these tools in their own lives when feeling anxious, stressed, or angry, to replace unhealthy coping mechanisms that they may be using, or have used in the past.
But for this blog entry, I decided to interview a dear friend of mine who devotes her life to the practice of yoga, and is the founder and owner of Abhaya Yoga, a renowned yoga studio in Brooklyn. I asked her some questions about the practice of yoga and how people can integrate the practices into their daily lives.
What is yoga? And why is it beneficial for people to practice it?
Yoga is an integrated practice that connects the body, heart and mind. Yoga in its earliest forms referred to more meditative and philosophical practices oriented toward "union" with our manifest self and Spirit. In the last 1000 years, Hatha Yoga ( physical) emerged and demonstrated the importance of they physical postures to release blockages of "prana" or energy in the body. Through Hatha Yoga, one could find freedom in the body, ease the aging process, and be more connected to their eternal Spirit. In modern days, we see a conglomerate of physical, devotional, and philosophical yoga. Each of these facets may vary the "goal" is the same... to reconnect us, to help us feel alive, free, and grounded in who we are.
Yoga is beneficial because it awakens and integrates each facet of our being; heart, mind, body. Studies show that slower more mindful movements have a greater impact on brain, body, and emotional health.
What is mindfulness? How can a person use mindfulness to combat stress/anxiety? What is an example of a simple mindfulness exercise one can use in their daily life to do so?
Mindfulness is simply becoming mindful in the present moment. The Yoga Sutras ( 1st Century Seminal Yoga text) teaches Atha Yoganusasanum, "Now is the time for Yoga". This idea of "NOW" is seen many modern teachings; Eckhart Tolle, Tony Robbins, etc. To be mindful is to fully connect to one's senses and feel and experience fully what is happening in the moment. In our culture we are often so preoccupied with what's next, we have a hard time living in the moment. Stress usually exists when thinking about the past or the future; mindfulness opens up the present moment.
A simple mindful practice that can be done anywhere at any time (the subway, with kids, at a business meeting):
Pause and take breath, ground yourself and feel your body. Tune into your senses. What do you see, what colors/ shapes/ forms, what smells do you smell, feel the quality of the air on your skin- the seat or feet touching the ground and the quality texture in your experience. Connecting to one's senses can be the simplest and best way for beginner meditators to become present. This exercise is highly effective for stress as well as since feeling through the senses calms the mind and the active nervous system.
What is meditation? How can a person use meditation to combat stress/anxiety? What is an example of a simple meditation exercise one can use in their daily life to do so?
Meditation is a practice of integration or absorption of mind, matter/ body, and Soul. Meditation is a very deep process and often when people feel extremely stressed, closing their eyes and sitting quietly can make them feel more stressed. It is important to have tools for meditation that can help ease the mind from highly active state to something more settled. As the mind and nervous system settles, one can find the peace that meditation can offer. Without some basic tools, the practitioner can feel like a can of Coke that has been shaken and then suddenly opened.
A simple meditation exercise:
Start with a comfortable upright seat in your chair, cushion, and couch. This is most important. If one feels comfortable close the eyes, if not, eyes down the tip of the nose and soft. Find an easeful sense of relaxation in the body. Start with a simple observation of the flow of breath. Watching the breath as it flows in and watching the breath as it flows out. When you feel distracted by thoughts, without judgment, return to the flow of the breath. Try this for 3-5minutes.
Why can breathing be helpful to combat stress/anxiety? What is an example of a simple breathing exercise one can use in their daily life to do so?
The breath is directly connected to the nervous system and endocrine system. If we are stressed, we probably have high levels of cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our system. My feeling the natural flow of the breath and slowing it down, deepening it, this will allow the adrenals to relax. The adrenals rest right above the kidneys and the kidneys are located in the back but opposite the diaphragm, which is the primary breathing muscle. Regulating a deep slow breath helps us utilize the diaphragm and move the breath down, therefore calming the adrenals.
Simple Breath Exercise 1: Belly Breath -
STEP 1; place your hands on your belly and allow your belly to distend on your INHALE
STEP 2; let the belly and hands relax in on the EXHALE
REPEAT FOR AT LEAST 1 MIN
Belly breath is perfect for stress/ anxiety, digestion issues and sleepless nights. I always encourage my students to breathe with a "big buddha" belly for this one. It moves the blood flow down into the abdomen and out of the secondary breathing muscles of the chest and upper lungs.
Part 2: 3 Part Breath
Expanding the "Belly Breath" up through the entirety of the torso.
Step 1, visualize the torso as a "vase" and as you breathe, the breath will fill from bottom up. EXHALE EVERYTHING OUT
Step 2, Inhale into the lower abdomen/ belly/ low back - slight pause
Step 3, Continue slow INHALE into the middle region of the torso- heart/ ribs/ mid back- slight pause
Step 4, Continue slow INHALE into the upper region of the torso/ throat/ neck- slight pause
Step 5, Big EXHALE through the mouth
REPEAT 3 PART BREATH FOR AT LEAST 2-4MIN
As you become more comfortable, you may lengthen the pauses, slow the breath in, and slow the exhale. If you feel like you are gasping for breath or becoming anxious, forget about doing the pauses with the inhale.
Why is it important to connect the body and mind for optimal health and how can a person do that in their daily life?
The body and mind are not separate. For optimal health we must feel the body and mind connected. In everyday life we can simply become aware of the how the mind affects the body and how the body affects the mind. How do we feel after a stressful day? It usually takes 24 hours for the cortisol and adrenaline to settle if we have had an extremely stressful situation. How does the body feel when sad or depressed? There is usually a solid connection. The first step to becoming a more integrated individual is to notice and become aware of what is happening between the body and mind ( and to do so without judgment). From, there the mindful and meditation practices above can be practices. Step 3, would be to include more "sattvic" or luminous qualities of the heart: trust, gratitude, and compassion toward oneself and others. Sweet qualities of the heart evoke an emission of "higher" gland secretions like oxcytocin and "love hormones". When there are more sattvic gland secretions, our thinking is more rational, digestion and elimination more effective, and we are more connected to one another universally.
How did your journey of becoming a yogi/yoga teacher help you on your journey to achieve happiness and health?
Becoming a yogi and from there a yoga teacher has helped me in my personal journey toward healing, happiness, and health but continually offering me a bridge to understand myself more deeply. The journey of yoga and mindfulness hasn't always been easy; it has sometimes been very sobering and very real. By helping others heal and move toward health, I am accountable also in my own life. As a leader and a teacher/ studio owner I am responsible to walk the walk and practice what I teach. There is nothing more healing than helping others to heal and become more fulfilled on their own path. I believe in and trust in the practices of yoga more than I can speak in words. Yoga saved my life and saved my connection to myself. When it seems as though the world is falling apart, the bridge of yoga has never left me and I have it as a life line to come back to again and again... for my students and for myself. As someone who suffers/ has suffered from anxiety and high stress, Yoga has grounded me and continues to help me anchor. When we are grounded, happiness, health come naturally.
Tara Glazier, owner/founder and creative director of Abhaya Yoga since its inception in 2010 has 15 years experience teaching yoga, 10 years teaching therapeutic trainings, and a lifetime in her body as a dancer. In 2013 she codified The Abhaya Method as a way to offer a non-dogmatic approach to learning and unlearning new pathways toward healing and awakening. With a background and degree in Pedgagogy, she has a passion for the Art of Teaching and instills this love and skill into her trainings. She holds a BFA from the Hartt School, and is certified in Vinyasa and formerly Anusara as well as highly qualified in yoga therapeutics. In 2015, Tara founded the Abhaya Yoga Foundation which brings yoga and mindfulness to disadvantaged groups; scholarships to diverse groups for Teacher Training, and Women's Trauma and At-Risk Youth. For over 8 years, Tara has been training skillful, spirited, successful yoga teachers.
Nicole Wegweiser, LCSW