Unlocking the Hidden Power of Yoga

If you think Downward Dog is a canine training command, perhaps it’s time for a basic primer on yoga — and its many health benefits.

For centuries yoga has been used to increase strength and flexibility, as well as improve mind/body alignment and reduce stress. Solid benefits all, but they’re just a sampling of how yoga can improve everyday living. Here’s a breakdown:

Injury prevention

Whether you’re 8 years old or 80, a diehard gym-every-day athlete or a weekend warrior looking to up your exercise game, yoga can help. Regular yoga practice gets you in touch with your entire body as you move through the poses and flows. And when you’re more in touch with areas that are tight or sore, it’s more likely you’ll pay attention to what’s hurting before a potential injury becomes a real one.

Gateway back to fitness

In the same way yoga helps prevent injuries, it also can serve as a safe way to get back into a fitness program following time away. For example, if you’ve had to step away from exercise due to injury and aren’t ready for high-impact activity yet or are recovering from illness or surgery — or even just living a busy life — yoga can serve as a fun, low-impact way to ease back into movement.

In particular, look into restorative yoga. There all many types and levels of yoga classes, and restorative is great for beginners and longtime practitioners alike. The focus here is working on basic poses and holding them for enough time to help joints and muscles relax and loosen. It also increases blood flow and improves flexibility.

Age is just a number

At age 89, Dean Stevens credits weekly yoga classesYoga is also a fantastic fitness option as we age. As a low-impact exercise, it’s good for anyone dealing with sore hips, knees or other joints. At the same time, yoga lets you work up enough of a sweat to help ditch those hard-to-shed pounds and build flexibility and strength that we often lose with age.

For 89-year-old Dean Stevens, the free yoga class she attends weekly at the Nashville Public Library, run by Small World Yoga and part of Be Well at NPL, has given her a newfound stability she says her peers are often lacking.

“So many of my friends are falling,” she explains. “I almost fell in the strawberry patch the other day, but because I have better flexibility and control over my body, I was able to recover. And that’s because of yoga.”

There are sound psychological and emotional benefits to yoga as well. This is good news for anyone battling depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues. A low-key, dependable exercise regimen such as yoga can:

• Improve balance and stability
• Strengthen muscles
• Increase flexibility
• Improve joint health
• Support better respiration
• Reduce high blood pressure
• Lower anxiety

Yoga brings all those benefits to anyone who rolls out a mat and starts building a personal practice.

And that’s another beauty of yoga: It’s called “practice” because it’s about being quiet, calm and focused rather than accomplishing a set-lifting goal or number of reps. In that way, yoga encourages mindfulness, so you can connect with your body as you flow your way to better health.

The intent of yoga is to link the body and mind. Yoga instructors cultivate the idea of directing our attention and intention to the body, to its movement in the present moment, and to our breathing. Yoga is also a good way to strengthen attention through mindfulness.

This story is provided and presented by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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Anatomy 101: Balance Mobility and Stablity in Hip Joints

hips-image

By Ray Long, MD | Originally published here in Yoga Journal

While studying in India with B.K.S. Iyengar years ago, 
I heard that he was traveling to Bangalore to teach, and 
I asked if I could join him. He responded that there was nothing for me to do in Bangalore. As I walked away that day, it occurred to me that he hadn’t said no—and I had a burning question I wanted to ask. So, I booked the seat next to him 
on the plane (you could do that back then).

When I got to the airport, I found Mr. Iyengar sitting at the gate. I walked over, sat next to him, and said jokingly, “Mr. Iyengar! Are you going to Bangalore, too?” He laughed at my bold maneuver, and we chatted while waiting to board. Finally, after the plane took off, I turned to him and asked 
the question I so wanted him to answer: “Mr. Iyengar, what’s the key to mastering yoga?”

He didn’t respond by dismissing me, nor did he give 
me a standard answer like “Just practice.” Instead, he said, 
“To master yoga, you must balance the energies and forces throughout the body.” To demonstrate, he held up one hand and, with his other pointer finger, indicated the outside of his index finger and then the inside, and so on through all 
of his fingers and the front and back of his wrist, explaining that the energy should be balanced on both sides. “You have to do this throughout the body in each pose, on each side of each joint, according to the forces needed for each position,” he told me.

See also Anatomy 101: How to Tap the Real Power of Your Breath

Mr. Iyengar’s words contained great 
wisdom, and as I dedicated my study to this concept over the following years, 
I learned that balancing forces is particularly crucial when it comes to addressing the feeling of “tightness” many of 
us have in our hips. Because so many 
of us sit for a living—or for far too many hours when we get home from work each night—our hips are subject to a lot of imbalanced forces. To wit: 
Sitting leads to shortened hip flexors (including the psoas, iliacus, and rectus femoris) and weak hip extensors (especially the gluteus maximus), which prompts the hamstrings to work harder. The combination of all of this leads to 
a common set of muscle imbalances that can produce, among other things, abnormal pressures within the hip joint itself and that dreaded tightness.

Stretching the muscles that surround your hip can help to maintain healthy mobility of the joints, to improve circulation of the synovial 
fluid (which reduces friction in the 
joint cartilage during movement), and to counteract some of the imbalances created by our chronically sedentary lives. However, while maintaining range of motion in your hips is very important, it’s not all about flexibility. Based on firsthand experience, both from my perspective as a doctor who treats patients with hip-joint pain and as someone with occasional hip pain myself, I’m confident stating that balancing flexibility with strength in the muscles around the hip joint is the key 
to mobility and stability.

Mobility and Stability in the Hip Joints

To better understand, let’s look at what determines mobility and stability in your hip joints. First, there is the joint shape: a ball fitted into a socket. Surrounding the bone are a capsule and tough ligaments (which connect bone to bone at the joints). Finally, there are the “dynamic” stabilizers of the joint—your muscles. Bones do not change shape, and in general, the ligaments do not stretch very much. So, 
if you can’t change your bone shape, and your ligaments and cartilage are fixed in shape and length, what can you adjust so that you can more easily get into hip-opening poses? The answer: your muscles and tendons.

See also Anatomy 101: Understand Your Hips to Build Stability

bound angle pose

Find Your Own Imbalances in the Hip Joints

To activate the muscles in your hips—and learn where your weaknesses and imbalances are so you can ultimately find more openness—try this exercise: Come into Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Your knees should be flexed, while your hips will be abducted and externally rotated. Now, squeeze your calves against your thighs and notice that your hamstrings contract. Next, squeeze the outsides of your hips and buttocks to draw your knees down, then notice that you’ll go deeper into 
the pose. This exercise engages many 
of the muscles that create the form of 
the pose—including the tensor fascia latae, gluteus medius, and hamstrings—and you will likely experience more “open” hips in the pose as a result.

Now, do this exercise again, and notice if there is a difference between your muscles on each side. Does your right knee melt toward the floor more easily than your left? Do your left hamstrings seem weaker? On the side 
that feels less strong, engage your muscles a little more strongly than on your other side (while still keeping your stronger side active) to find more balance. You can apply this same observation to your hips: Are the gluteals on one side stronger than the other? If so, practice engaging the weaker glute, without letting the stronger one go slack.

To work on activating the muscles 
of the hips to find more balance, try 
this sequence.

The Emotional Effects of Hip Openers

The beauty 
of finding more balance and openness 
in the hips is that not only will it lead you into your fullest expression of hip-opening poses, it will also help on an emotional level. That’s because stress causes our bodies to contract and curl inward—a natural action to protect 
the vital organs. But hip openers counter this energetic closing, which means there is a good chance they will affect your mental state and perception of well-being for the better.

See also Anatomy 101: Target the Right Muscles to Protect Knees

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Teacher Ray Long, MD, is 
an orthopedic surgeon in Detroit and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a website and book series dedicated to the anatomy 
and biomechanics of yoga. He trained 
with B.K.S. Iyengar.