Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Yoga for Softies

by Aidan O'Shea   © 2014

We are all creatures of habit, good habits and bad ones. In today's hectic world, most of us would admit to the cardinal sins of our time: too much sitting, too much fat, sugar and salt in our diet, too much needless anxiety, too much passive gazing at TV, iPads and laptops. Sit on the bus and look around at those surfing on the internet, ninety percent of which dulls our judgement or floods us with stimulation or stress.  How do I step off this whirling roller coaster? Last July, I stumbled on a clue, by accident.
While on holiday in Spain with my daughter and her family of three girls, I was getting used to the energy and clamour of the children. My daughter took time out each morning after breakfast to practise her yoga. She practised on the balcony while I entertained the girls. As we ran out of patience and ideas to share, the girls demanded that they join their mum at the end of her session. She agreed, and suggested that she show us some basic postures and yoga moves. We were two adults and three children flexing and stretching in a tiny space under the Mediterranean sun. I was sceptical, but gradually felt an improvement in my moves, a gentle calming of my mind.
Later that day, I noticed that my breathing, the weakest aspect of my swimming, had improved, allowing me to swim further without a breathless break. Next morning, I was first to join my daughter, even though I was least flexible and mobile. I also discovered how strong my right-handed bias is, leaving me much weaker and stiffer on my left side. Some of the balance postures caused great laughter, as I toppled after a few seconds, while the children stayed upright.

We returned to Cork and I quickly forgot about my holiday yoga trial. I simply enjoyed the best Irish summer for a decade. In September, my daughter spotted a yoga course for beginners at Ashton School. I registered on line, took my courage in my hands and joined trainer Helen O'Connell's class. First impressions count, and Helen had the places carefully laid with a non-slip mat, chair, strap and foam blocks for each of us.  Seventeen students in the class, and I was the only man. Helen's calm yet determined instructions brought us through a series of progressive steps using all the main features of yoga: deep breathing, relaxation, stretching and meditation. The session ended with a ten minute rest period ending in a salutation. I came into the room somewhat nervous and sceptical, and left after 80 minutes, feeling relaxed and refreshed. There were no machines, no treadmills, no weights and no extremes. We worked to our personal limit for each exercise. Ten weeks later, we had learned a variety of yoga stretches and poses and begun to practise them at home. Even on the wettest and windiest morning, and we have had plenty of those, I have enjoyed the yoga practice to start my day. 


Yoga can be traced back to India in the 6th century BC where it has formed part of the meditative practice of Hindu and Buddhist thought. Yoga means union or yoke, linking breath, body, mind and spirit. Yoga now enjoys great popularity all over the world. It may be practised at any age from seven years to old age. Practice is most important, and even half an hour daily can easily be accommodated in a busy lifestyle. The pupil is also the master, in that the practice is modified in time and intensity to suit the individual. One can explore more complex postures, deeper meditation and adapt the practice in line with any personal medical problems. Some pupils like to explore the faith aspects of yoga, but this is optional. 

There are many different styles and disciplines, and people practice yoga for a variety of reasons. One of the main goals of yoga is to improve overall well-being through teaching discipline and self-regulation. Recently, research has been conducted on the healing properties of yoga and how it relates to positive psychology. Researchers wonder what psychological advantages it can afford, in addition to the previously discovered physical benefits. Yoga has proven to offer different and multiple benefits for individuals ranging from consciousness of one's body and its capabilities, satisfaction from challenging oneself physically, and increased energy and mental clarity and concentration. While the topic is still somewhat new and some research is still preliminary, results have shown significant improvements in both physical and mental health among a variety of subjects in various circumstances. It has been proven to give relief for patients with asthma, high blood pressure, anxiety and lower back pain. In diseases such as cancer and AIDS where anxiety adds to the stress, yoga has provided relief to the psychological symptoms. 
Thanks to yoga, I have discovered an accessible means of combining relaxation, deep breathing and muscular exercise, a new habit with a lasting benefit.

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