Jenny Beeken – Director and Principal Inner Yoga Trust
In the west it is often forgotten that Yoga has what are known as ‘eight limbs’ which as well as the postures taught in most classes also include the ethical disciplines for living, breathing, meditation and containment of the senses. If practiced as a path for life at all levels of the 8 limbs, Yoga will have very deep, gentle and gradual effect on the body, mind, spirit and emotions.
In terms of weight loss this means Yoga would help us to stop wanting to eat the things that put on weight or cause other harm such as sugar, dairy, wheat and coffee. Most of these are eaten as comfort foods to allay feelings of guilt, depression, lack of self esteem, lack of motivation and drive in life. This theory is set out in the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” written in 6th century A.D. Before that it was passed down for many hundreds of years by word of mouth so is not a modern psychotherapy theory. Yoga, practised as a path for life, helps to bring balance and harmony in the body. It gives us all of those qualities we feel we lack by bringing connection between body, mind and spirit and increasing understanding of our own lives. With regard to weight loss the study mentioned in the article ‘Fit for Nothing’ only looks at calories burned during a yoga class where postures are practiced. ‘Burning calories’ is only a very small part of the challenge to lose weight, which actually needs a much broader lifetime approach. Yoga can give this by touching and resolving core issues in our lives without us needing to analyse or agonise over them. Any excess weight would gradually go, although this would be over a period of some time.
If the extra weight were due to a metabolic problem, Yoga would also balance that out by working on the endocrine glands. The inverted postures, especially the bridge pose and shoulder stand, practised regularly, would gradually have this effect. In a way, balance in the endocrine system is what we seek when we go for a quick fix such as chocolate! Through the practice of yoga our diet will naturally become more healthy, The macrobiotic diets that the celebrities are said to be on may be out of their bodies need and desire to be on that diet rather than it being a punishing diet. We don’t have to go from bingeing to punishing diets. We do not have to be very austere in life. We can still enjoy a glass of the best organic wine or a cup of freshly brewed coffee but are no longer compulsive about it.
Yoga also works on the body’s internal system. Rather than toning and building up the muscles it works on the structure of the body, the pelvis, the feet, the spine, the knee joints, the upper chest, and the breast bone. By moving these areas of the body the spine is enabled to lengthen and we come to our natural height. Immediately a lot of the flab disappears from the waist and the hips. My spine has lengthened by an inch and a half since I started the practice of yoga; it took about 3 years to do that.
As well as extending the spine, yoga twists also strengthen the individual muscles and ligaments that connect each vertebra. This enables the spine to do its intended job as the backbone of the body and we do not need a tight ‘six pack’ to hold ourselves together and fix back problems.
Yoga wasn’t invented to develop a tight outer muscular body. You can tell by looking at someone’s outer muscular body whether they work out in the gym. Working out with weights tightens and bunches the muscles. The muscles of someone who does yoga are toned and yet very long so yoga will change the shape of the outer body, but in a different way than working out.
Yoga can also work aerobically on the heart but it does this gradually by changing the posture. When the long abdominal muscles and the psoas muscles that connect from the spine through the pelvis to the thigh bone, are long and toned the diaphragm can move and we can breathe. If we breathe from the movement of the diaphragm in the pelvic floor and the diaphragm in the rib cage, then our whole internal system is toned, massaged, rejuvenated, the heart is kept healthy. Try tightening your muscles internally and externally from the pelvic floor upwards – can you breathe?
Again it takes two or three years of regular practice to change the body’s posture before you can then move in such a way that will stimulate the heart. Salutation to the sun or backbends will do this but it is important that this type of movement is not pushed and forced. Equally this practice will enable you to walk, run, swim, ski in a much more relaxed, efficient way. Aerobic exercise will be less harmful to your body if it has been toned and become flexible through the practice of yoga.
With regard to the possibility of injury through yoga you need to find a good teacher. There is a Register of Exercise Professionals and qualified Yoga Teachers are currently being encouraged to join this. The British Wheel of Yoga is widely recognised as the governing body for yoga in the UK and runs its own courses and accredits others such as the one run by Heart Yoga. As a guide a qualified yoga teacher should have a minimum of three years training. As in every walk of life there are people who are good at their job and those who are not so good. Generally people are drawn to the teacher that they need but it is important to ask the teacher questions about their training and qualifications.
But you can help yourself not to get injured as well. It is important that you are not pushed, forced, or strained into postures or do the postures from the ego. The postures need to be done from the inner body’s need to move, undo and strengthen. If you feel unhappy about the way something is taught or you have any pain during the class or afterwards, speak to the teacher. A good teacher should be able to alleviate pain by adjusting the way you are doing the posture. It is important for you to learn to distinguish between what can feel like discomfort from unaccustomed stretching and harmful pain. Again, your teacher should have the skills and knowledge to help with this.
I have been practicing yoga for 34 years and teaching it for 27 years. In that time I have seen many people cured by their own practise, their own awareness of their body and from programmes given to them. People have avoided operations, cured themselves of back pain, knee problems, foot problems, internal digestive problems, breathing problems, heart problems, and mental health problems. The only things you need for this to happen is to be well taught and to practise with care, listening to and being aware of your body and mind rather than pushing from the ego.