Health: The Home Stretch

Amidst the family, friends and festivities that the holidays bring, an unwelcome aspect of the season always seems to creep up. In a season that is supposed to bring good tidings to you and your kin, why does it also bring stress?

You need to relax. You can choose from countless methods of relaxation out there, from massage to happy hour, but yoga is the whole package. It can help calm things down, even if you think you’re about to lose your mind. After all, yoga literally means “union,” as in the union of mind and body, so your mind can’t run too far away. When your to-do list is looking intimidating this December, try yoga to add a little more relaxation in your life. It invigorates the body, focuses the mind and leaves you feeling alive, yet mellow.

The physical practice of yoga is a good way “to become freer and more at ease with ourselves so we can live in greater harmony in the world,” according to Nancy Footner. Footner is an Iyengar yoga teacher at Friendship Yoga, located on Gilbert Court in Iowa City.

Iyengar is a style of yoga characterized by slower movements and strong attention to the form of poses. Other styles are more powerful and faster, such as Asthanga. But there are some types of yoga that focus on flowing between poses, chanting in certain poses, Western fitness culture, or even yoga done in rooms more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There are so many styles out there,” Marcie Evans said. “Everyone can find a style for them.”

Evans is a Yoga Alliance certified yoga teacher, and owns Serenity Yoga & Pilates Studio on the east side of Iowa City. She feels that anyone starting a yoga practice should really focus on finding the right style of yoga for them, and then finding the right certified, qualified instructor.

Evans highly recommends working with an instructor as you begin your yoga practice. If you can’t afford to spring for a private session with an instructor, attend an introductory class (or maybe ask Santa for a nice gift).

Having a teacher instruct you through the poses can help prevent injury and show you how to properly get in and out of poses so you get the maximum benefit. An instructor can also prepare you for your own personal practice if you don’t dig the classroom scene.

Footner is also a big advocate of instructor’s guidance. As a teacher of Iyengar, she is very focused on the individual needs of her students and helping them get the most out of their practice.

“We start by disciplining the body, but what we’re really after is disciplining the mind,” she said. The physical practice of yoga challenges the body and gets rid of those schedules and to-do lists that drive stress. “Your mind becomes clear of all of that chatter, so you can face the challenges with a little more equanimity.”

But yes, the holidays often leave time at a premium and stress still high. Need a quick fix? Try what the yogis call pranayama, or breath control. Focusing on your breathing is an important component of yoga that fights stress by shutting off that fight or flight stress response in the body and turns on the more relaxed part of your nervous system, according to Evans. This simple transition can lower blood pressure and heart rate and release muscle tension. Breathing is one of the reasons why yoga is so good at relieving stress.

“Yoga gives you something to focus on,” Marcie Evans said. She noted that yoga is especially good for more active individuals. “They need to focus on breathing. They need to focus on a pose to get into that relaxed state. It gives them something to get to that point where they can relax.”

Try and take a little time for yourself this holiday season and fight that nagging stress with a little yoga. Or if you just can’t squeeze it in at all, you can always save it for one of those pesky New Year’s resolutions.

Take 5

Got five minutes? Whether you are at the office, making dinner, or whatever, take a break for a little stress-free me-time. Marcie Evans, owner of the Serenity Yoga & Pilates Studio, gives a quick guide for de-stressing off the yoga mat.

1) Sit on the edge of a chair with your back straight and hands on your knees avoiding tension in the shoulders. Try a smooth, controlled three-part breath: first breathe into your stomach, then middle chest and upper chest. Exhale in the opposite order (upper chest, middle chest, stomach). Keep it going for a minute or two.

2) Moving with your breath, try a simple side-bend. While inhaling, raise your right arm up toward the ceiling. On the exhale, try to lift your ribcage away from the pelvis into get a gentle side stretch. Release your arm and repeat on the left side. Note: your abdominal muscles should be engaged and the spine shouldn’t be bending much at all! Repeat, alternating sides, for five breaths on each side.

3) Try a little seated cat and cow pose. Place your hands on your knees again, face forward and move slowly with your breath. While inhaling move into a seated cow pose: open your chest (move your shoulders back and your chest out), and gaze up toward the ceiling without putting pressure on your neck. Move into a seated cat pose on the exhale: tuck your tailbone under your body, bring your navel to your spine, round your back and gaze gently toward the floor. Repeat for five to 10 breaths.