Benefits of therapeutic yoga
If your energy is low as a result of chronic stress, an injury or a disease process, your body may not be able to handle the intensity of a regular yoga class. Therapeutic yoga classes focus on meeting the student where they're at physically, making yoga accessible to everyone. The postures of restorative yoga fully support the body with props, so movement is minimal, and yin yoga helps remould our shape through long-held poses practised for several minutes at a time.
Over time, tense muscles become contracted and shrink-wrapped by shortened connective tissue, which limits our functional mobility. "The postures in yin yoga pressurize the body in much the same way as an acupuncture treatment," says Tracey Soghrati, a registered nurse and yoga teacher in Toronto.
Both practices actually restore the nervous system and promote deep relaxation through breathing, which activates the body's healing process. "If there's rigidity held in any place, rather than bracing yourself against the posture you'll relax into your own skin," says Soghrati. The effect is blissful: your body feels looser, your mind becomes clearer and your breath is fluid and resilient.
Reducing stress through yoga
So why are we still hesitant to opt for therapeutic yoga in favour of sun saluting our way to a stronger body? "The biggest barrier is that people feel like they're not really doing anything," explains Soghrati. While active forms of exercise, such as vinyasa or power yoga, release endorphins and build strength, harder and faster is not always better.
In fact, according to Soghrati, the action of staying still is just as beneficial as exercise. Since stress is a prime indicator for a slew of common illnesses, including irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and even cancer, we need to slow things down now more than ever.
"Part of the reason we're so stressed and so diseased is that we're completely out of balance," says Soghrati. Through a therapeutic yoga practice, we're taught how it feels to achieve homeostatic function in ourselves.
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Why are we always so stressed?
Soghrati points out that while we used to function in cycle with nature's rhythms, making time for ourselves to unplug has become less of a priority on modern day to-do lists.
"Culturally we live in a highly stressed society where what's valued is producing more, doing more and becoming better," she says. With the portability of tech gadgets like cellphones, tablets and laptops, we now carry our work and social life with us wherever we go. "We're constantly having to extend ourselves because we have all these technological tools that facilitate us taking on more responsibility," says Soghrati.
According to Kelly McGonigal, a psychology professor at Stanford University, stress impairs our ability to change a habit. When we're in fight-or-flight mode, our body believes we're experiencing a state of emergency, making the smallest temptations even harder to resist. Stress prepares our brain to act on impulse, so if you're trying to put down the cookie jar or turn off the TV at a decent hour, chances are you'll continue to yo-yo until you develop tools for managing stress.
Even ruminating over a work email can elicit the stress response, showing up physically in actions like nail biting, or in racing thoughts and high blood pressure. "Whether stress is occurring outside of us or in our mind, our body still reacts the same way," explains Soghrati.
How therapeutic yoga can boost your mental health
In terms of self-healing, learning to actively rest our bodies is just as important as getting enough sleep. Yoga's guided meditation actually takes the mind into an active state of rest where the brain experiences alpha waves. You're alert, says Soghrati, but your brain waves are the same as they are in the first stage of sleep.
We now know that meditation can actually change the limbic system and restructure the brain. Typically, grey matter, which makes the brain more efficient and powerful, depletes over our lifetime. According to recent studies, practising even just a few minutes of meditation on a daily basis produces more grey matter in the regions of the brain responsible for controlling attention, mental flexibility and emotional regulation.
We still need to get out and get active to keep our health in check, but it’s important to find balance in the type of practices you engage in. Therapeutic yoga classes tout a long list of payoffs, including lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and decreased depression, making slowing down just as beneficial as sweating your heart out.
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