The motto “No pain, no gain” holds a strong presence in our culture, often leading to the belief that anything worthwhile must be intense and challenging. However, through my 20 years of studying and teaching body-mind practices, I have discovered that simple and accessible practices are not only highly effective but also bring forth a multitude of benefits that may not be immediately apparent.
Within your library, you will find carefully selected practices that offer profound impacts on your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. In this section I’d like to provide some background information on their potential effects on our physical health and emotional well-being. Click on a topic below to learn more.
What are the benefits of gentle movements? (Or, do easy movements really do anything??)
A Treat for Your Body
Each time we engage in active movements, even gentle and simple movements, our muscles come into action, leading to increased circulation throughout the body. This not only benefits our cardiovascular system but also holds great healing potential for areas prone to tension and stiffness, such as the back, hips, neck, and shoulders. Often, muscles in these areas become dehydrated due to excessive tightness and contraction. By incorporating simple and repetitive movements, we enhance blood flow, provide hydration, and deliver essential nutrients, facilitating the healing process in these specific areas.
Moreover, gentle movements offer additional support for our posture, bone density, and overall strength. They serve as a wonderful means to improve mobility, allowing us to experience a greater sense of freedom in our joints. This becomes particularly significant as we age, as maintaining mobility becomes crucial for enjoying an unrestricted range of motion.
In addition to the significant physical benefits, it is important to highlight the stress-reducing aspect of movement and light activity. As discussed in the section on breathing, our body instinctively prepares for action during the fight-flight response when faced with a stressful or threatening situation. It is ingrained in our nature to either flee or attack in such circumstances. However, many everyday life situations do not warrant this intense physical response. For instance, consider receiving a letter from your landlord informing you of a significant rent increase. While this may be perceived as a survival threat in our modern culture, running away or attacking the landlord is not a viable solution.
Nevertheless, during a fight-flight response, our body is already primed for mobilization, characterized by higher blood pressure, faster breathing, release of glucose from the liver for increased energy, and elevated heart rate. In this context, movement can be crucial in allowing the discharge of built-up energy, metabolizing stress hormones, and restoring balance to our nervous system.
Movement for Alertness and Attention
A few easy movements are a great way to shake off tiredness or heaviness, especially after waking up or before a demanding day that requires focused attention. It is important to note, however, that intense and chronic fatigue may be your body’s way of signaling depletion and burnout. In such cases, you may benefit more from restorative and relaxing practices rather than attempting to override fatigue with excessive activity.
What are the benefits of breathwork? (Or what’s with all the deep breathing??)
Regardless of the video you choose—whether it’s an active or relaxing, seated or floor-based class—you will notice a strong emphasis on breathing. I may invite you to focus on your breath while engaging in postures or coordinate your breathing with repetitive movements. At other times, you may primarily focus on your breath and practice different breathing techniques.
Understanding why we place such importance on breath can be helpful. Here are some explanations:
Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System
Our breath is an incredibly effective tool for reducing stress and tension, creating either an energizing or relaxing effect, and helping us be more present and focused. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for controlling many functions in the body, including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and the immune system. While most of these functions are involuntary and controlled by the ANS without our conscious effort, our breath is unique in that it is both involuntary and voluntary. We can choose to slow down, speed up, hold, or deepen our breath, and by doing so, we can have different effects on all the functions governed by the ANS.
The ANS can be thought of as having two main branches:
• Sympathetic Nervous System
A certain amount of sympathetic activation is natural and necessary throughout the day. It helps us feel alert, awake, and focused, ready to take on our daily activities. However, stressful situations or feelings of being unsafe can trigger a more intense survival reaction known as the fight or flight response. This mobilizes a significant amount of energy and leads to increased stress hormones, muscle tension, quickened breath, elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and emotional responses like anxiety, fear, anger, or frustration.
• Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic response is the opposite and is focused on energy preservation and restoration. Like many aspects of life, there is a natural balance between opposites. When we sleep, rest, or engage in deep relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system is highly engaged, promoting regeneration and healing. However, there is also a certain level of activation when we feel at ease and engage in fun activities. During this state, stress hormones decrease, the body relaxes, heart rate slows down, inflammation decreases, breathing slows, and we experience emotional calm, relaxation, and a sense of safety.
There are numerous ways to regulate our nervous system and positively change our experiences, such as movement, stretching, guided relaxation, massage, meditation, prayer, singing or chanting, visualization, and, of course, our breath!
Energizing or Relaxing
Exploring whether a particular breathing practice is energizing or relaxing is a fascinating inquiry. While there are general guidelines, please keep in mind that this is not a black and white approach, and individual experiences can vary. One interesting fact that helps explain the different effects of breathing practices is that each inhalation is associated with a slight sympathetic activation, while each exhalation is associated with a slight parasympathetic activation.
Breathing practices that emphasize inhalations (such as lengthening inhalations, holding the breath in, or inhaling multiple times before exhaling) tend to have an energizing effect. These practices can be helpful when you are feeling tired or when you need to increase focus and attention, such as at the beginning of a yoga practice or before certain tasks.
On the other hand, focusing on longer, conscious exhalations deepens the parasympathetic response, leading to relaxation. This can be beneficial at the end of the day to wind down, release built-up tension, prepare for confronting stressful situations, or enhance sleep readiness. As you focus on your breath in this way, you may notice physical and emotional changes, such as a slowing heart rate, relaxation of the body, and an overall sense of being settled and at ease.
Cultivating mindful attention
In addition to altering our breath for different effects, I cannot emphasize enough the usefulness of being aware of our natural breathing. When we spend time on the mat, we may occasionally get distracted. Memories or feelings from our day may arise, or we may become absorbed in planning. While this is quite normal, focusing on our breath as something happening in the present moment can help us stay more present and mindful.
The fight-flight response can be triggered not only by actual situations but also by scenarios we remember, think about, or imagine. While it is important to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings, we want to be mindful of not getting too caught up in our thoughts. Our breathing can be incredibly helpful in anchoring our attention back to the present moment. Being aware and mindful of your breathing can be useful in many life situations when you are looking to stay grounded, present, and calm.
I hope this provides you with some context as to why I repeatedly remind you to notice your breath during practice 🙂 And perhaps you feel inspired to explore the many benefits of breathing for yourself!
What are the benefits of stretching?
Reducing Tension and Soreness
Stretching is indeed a wonderful practice for self-care. Our bodies can accumulate tension, stiffness, and soreness due to various factors, such as prolonged periods of inactivity (like during a long car ride), excessive physical activity or overuse, stress, and the natural process of aging. The familiar saying “Use it or lose it” not only holds true for strength and stamina but also applies to the connective tissues in our bodies.
Connective tissues, such as fascia and ligaments, are dense layers of tissue that hold muscles and joints together. However, over time, they can become tight and stiff. Stretching plays a crucial role in maintaining the pliability of these tissues, promoting greater comfort and ease in our bodies. By regularly engaging in stretching exercises, we can increase flexibility, and reduce feelings of stiffness and discomfort.
Stretching for Relaxation
Stretching can be incredibly relaxing! Stretching poses are typically done in a seated or reclining position, which provides a more relaxing and supportive experience. As you explore the sessions in the ‘Stretching’ section, you will notice that they move at a slower pace, encouraging you to linger in postures for longer periods of time.
This slower pace allows for a more effective stretch, giving the connective tissues an opportunity to release built-up tension. Further, these longer holds invite you to slow down, turn inward, and by engaging your parasympathetic nervous system will gradually help you transition into a state of relaxation. In our fast-paced lives filled with constant change and movement, a slower-paced practice that incorporates deep breathing and long-held, soothing postures can be a truly amazing treat for both the body and mind, especially at the end of the day. Enjoy 🙂
What are the benefits of deep relaxation?
Deep Relaxation to Restore and Recharge
Understanding how the nervous system functions allows us to appreciate the crucial benefits of rest and relaxation. Many of us experience some degree of chronic stress that keeps our sympathetic nervous system in a heightened state, leading to elevated blood pressure, increased tension, inflammation, and eventually fatigue and exhaustion. However, the reassuring news is that our bodies possess remarkable abilities to handle challenges and have a dedicated system specifically designed for regeneration and restoration—the parasympathetic nervous system. This vital component of our nervous system is most active during sleep and deep relaxation.
Considering all the responsibilities many of us juggle, it can often feel like a few hours of sleep are insufficient to balance the demands of our daily lives. If you find yourself feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed, burned out, or experience difficulty sleeping, engaging in soothing and healing restorative yoga sessions or relaxation practices can be especially beneficial during such times.
Receptivity and Surrender
Beyond the remarkable physiological advantages we gain from deep rest and relaxation, such as lowered blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and the release of tension, these practices also invite us to let go and receive. Restorative Yoga requires no active effort or doing; and instead, allows us to simply surrender and immerse ourselves in these healing practices, we create a nurturing space to unwind, let go, and give our bodies space to restore and renew.