Just Say "Om:" The Health Benefits of Yoga

By Sara Hodon

Before settling in to read this story, get comfortable. Close your eyes for a few moments. Take a few deep breaths. Let the day’s stressors ease out of your body. Feel better? You’ve just had a taste of the ancient tradition of yoga.

Yoga is the centuries-old practice of aligning a person’s physical, mental, and emotional energies through a series of deep stretches and breathing. When done correctly and regularly, it creates a powerful feeling of calm and inner peace. “It helps in everyday living,” says Silver Kim, owner of Kula Heart Yoga, Nazareth. “The more you do it, the more you’ll find that everyday stressors melt away. It starts to create space in your body for ‘life energy,’ and once you do this, you may not realize it’s even happening. The changes in your body might be subtle. It’s really about how you breathe, how you move, and your attitude toward the process that affects a person’s progress.”

Although yoga has been around for hundreds of years, it’s had a recent surge in popularity as more people learn about its many benefits. Literally hundreds of variations on traditional styles are popping up in studios across the country, and the Lehigh Valley is no exception. There are dozens of classes offered in the area for people of all ages, body types, and physical abilities. “There are no limitations in order to do yoga,” Kim said. “You can do it sitting down or in a wheelchair. I work with senior citizens who have various health issues and children with special needs. Anyone can do it.” Many “yogis” (yoga loyalists) started taking classes at the suggestion of a doctor to help with various medical conditions, especially arthritis and high blood pressure. Prenatal yoga helps moms-to-be prepare for childbirth. Child psychologists often recommend yoga for children with behavioral problems, particularly attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), as it forces them to focus, quiet the mind, and simply be.

Hatha is the most widely practiced style of yoga, and can be found in most studios throughout the region. Ashtanga and vinyasa are other common versions. According to Midi Miller, owner and teacher at Olde Mill Yoga and Wellness Center, Tatamy, most of the newer, “trendier” yoga classes are really just a twist on the standard hatha poses. A typical hatha class will start with a few minutes of quieting the mind, following by a Pranayama, a controlled breathing exercise which helps to prepare the body for the work ahead. Most hatha classes last between 45-65 minutes, but Miller says it’s the last few minutes that are the most meaningful. “We end with a final relaxation exercise that’s meant to integrate what you just did in yoga into the day ahead,” she says. “Hopefully you bring whatever you got out of the class into the day.”

Yoga doesn’t change you—it brings you back to who you are

One style that’s popular with celebrities and making its way into the Valley is the intense “hot” yoga, which is done in a room heated to 90-95 degrees. “The idea is to detoxify your body,” explains Jacqueline Porterfield, owner of Lehigh Valley Yoga, the only studio in the Valley to offer this type of course. “You build up an incredible amount of heat and drip with sweat. You’re getting a deeper range of motion and stretch in the hotter room. It’s not for everyone—you have to be at a certain fitness level to try it. But it’s very challenging and intense. It pits you against yourself, and it puts you in this moment of stress and teaches you to quiet down and let it pass.” Porterfield says that hot yoga is popular with athletes, who use it as part of their strength training, and also with arthritis sufferers because the combination of the heat and deep stretching help to relieve chronic pain.

Despite its rise in popularity, yoga is still widely misunderstood. People are still hesitant to try it because of a few persistent myths. Contrary to popular belief, yoga is not sitting in a Lotus position and contemplating your navel while chanting. That’s meditation. Although there are some similarities, they’re very different. Meditation is more internal, where mindfulness, quiet, and self-reflection are the main focus. Yoga is physical, with the mental and emotional elements added. It’s also not connected to any particular religion as some believe; rather, as Porterfield explains, it’s more of a philosophy that can bring you fulfillment from your religion, whatever it might be. You also don’t need to be all that flexible when starting out—you build up your strength and flexibility through regular sessions.

Just like any physical activity, it’s important to do some homework on a studio and the styles of yoga they offer prior to signing up for a class so you can find the one that’s right for you. Depending on your fitness level, you may want to start with gentle yoga. If you’re in good shape and up for the challenge, something more intense like hot yoga might be a better choice. It’s a good idea to meet with the owner of the studio you’re considering before registering for a class. All new students who come to Olde Mill Yoga consult with the studio’s general manager who will then suggest an appropriate class.

People who are open to trying yoga will be amazed at what it can bring to their life. “It makes everything you do easier,” Porterfield says. “Even if you sit at a desk all day, it will make you feel better. It helps you build strength and flexibility; it can help you lose weight if you choose. It helps a person learn mindfulness, and love and compassion for other people. It will also change and sculpt your body.”

Though people try yoga for various reasons, it quickly becomes a part of their regular routine. It provides a much-needed escape from the hectic everyday pace, and more than a few people say that it has made them better versions of themselves. “It helps you get through the ‘layers’ of physical, mental, and emotional strain or stress,” Miller says. “Yoga doesn’t change you—it brings you back to who you are. I think that I’m a better mother, a better friend, and a better sister because of yoga.”

Sara Hodon is an English professor and graduate student based in Schuylkill County.

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