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Using yoga to better your health and reduce stress


We are often obsessed with the next great diet or approach to health and fitness.

This piece, however, takes a look at the physical and psychological benefits of a holistic approach to health that has been in existence for more than 3,000 years.

Yoga, a practice classified as a “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” by the National Institutes of Health, was championed by Catherine Woodyard, a UM exercise science professor who practices and promotes yoga due to its healing benefits.

The exact definition of yoga is difficult to articulate due to its age and the nature of its origins, so today we’re going to focus on “flow yoga,” which is the rhythmic practice of holding different yogic postures while slowing the breath and focusing on the present.

“This practice lowers breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure and cortisol levels and increases blood flow and nutrients to vital organs,” Woodyard said. “During yoga, the joints are taken through their full range of motion, squeezing and soaking areas of cartilage not often used and bringing fresh nutrients, oxygen and blood to the area, helping prevent conditions like arthritis and chronic pain.”

Yoga does more than increase flexibility and help the body “breathe.” It also helps condition the practitioners psychologically to better respond to stress.

“Yoga shifts the balance from the sympathetic nervous system and ‘fight-or-flight’ response to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response,” Woodyard said.

According to Woodyard, the practice helps relieve stress by “inhibiting the areas (in the brain) responsible for fear and aggressiveness, while stimulating the rewarding pleasure centers in the median forebrain and other areas, leading to a state of bliss and pleasure.”

Though it is recommended that one begins his or her yogic practice with the help of a more experienced practitioner, the practice will eventually become an incredible autonomic tool for physical and mental conditioning and recovery.

Even if you are not currently recovering from a physical or mental ailment, the stress presented in everyday life eventually winds up taking a toll. 

“Evidence has shown that stress contributes to the etiology of heart disease, cancer and strokes, as well as other chronic conditions and diseases,” Woodyard said. “Evidence has also shown that yoga produces a physiological sequence of events in the body that reduce the stress response.”

In spite of the empirical data that shows the physical and psychological benefits of yoga, detractors of this ancient practice do exist — the loudest currently is perhaps Albert Mohler, a Baptist theologian who argues that yoga is incompatible with Christianity.

In Mohler’s own words, “The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying His Word. We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.”

But Woodyard — a Christian herself — said the ancient practice of yoga can help “connect” one spiritually, regardless of his or her religious tradition. The nature of this connection is solely dependent upon what the practitioner wishes to be connected to.

“Yoga has done so much for my spirituality,” she said. “In that hour when I’m practicing yoga I could be meditating or in prayer — but there is always a spiritual connection.”

Yoga classes are free to students every week upstairs in the Turner Center, and the session last about an hour. Classes begin at 11 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. on Mondays; 12 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. on Wednesdays; and 11 a.m. on Fridays. Mats are provided.