WHAT IS YOGA?
When most people think of yoga, they imagine people twisting themselves into pretzel shapes or chanting in an incense-filled room. Those things can be a part of yoga, but the true purpose is to learn how to look inside and find peace. College life can be stressful, with new living situations, critiques and deadlines, and negotiating friendships and relationships. Yoga can help us find stillness amid the chaos.
HOW CAN YOGA HELP ME RELAX?
Our nervous system can be classified into Sympathetic and Parasympathetic divisions. The Sympathetic system controls the “fight or flight” response. In high-stress situations, when you feel like you want to scream at someone or run away and hide, this is the Sympathetic Nervous System at work. The heart rate rises, the blood rushes into the muscles, the breath quickens. The Parasympathetic system controls the “rest and digest” functions. The breath calms, the pulse lowers, and the blood returns to the organs so the body can do its job.
When the Sympathetic Nervous System is dominant most of the time, those stressful effects build up in the body in the form of physical and mental tension. The breathing, stretching and meditation exercises that yoga gives us will help strengthen the Parasympathetic Nervous System and keep the body in balance.
Yoga also helps us become more aware of our bodies. When we notice tightening in the shoulders, gritting of the teeth or shortening of the breath, it’s easier to take a moment and address those feelings. It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do!
WHAT’S UP WITH THE SANSKRIT?
The Sanskrit names of poses connect us to the roots of yoga. But yoga isn’t Sanskrit, so don’t worry about it too much! Many teachers will use English names, and you can always just follow along with the other students in class. Quick glossary:
· Namaste: The light in me bows to the light in you.
· Om/Aum: The sound of peace, the humming sound of all things in the universe.
Sit in a comfortable upright position, rooting the sits bones into the floor and lengthening the spine all the way up through the crown of the head. You can sit on a blanket, in a chair or with your back against a wall if the floor is uncomfortable. Bring the hands to the knees or thighs, palms facing up to receive inspiration or down to find a grounding quality. Close the eyes and simply observe the breath. Try to “watch” the breath traveling in through the nose, filling the diaphragm and lungs, then leaving the way it came in. If the mind wanders, simply bring it back to the breath. If it’s still difficult to quiet the mind, try counting slowly from one to five then back to one. Repeat for as long as you can comfortably sit still – even three minutes of stillness will help clear the mind!
Q: I live in a small dorm with a roommate (or an apartment with my partner, two-year-old son and two cats.) I don't have anywhere I can dedicate as my regular meditation spot. Any tips?
A: If you have the space, it's great to have a spot that you can reserve for meditating. But it doesn't need to be a whole room. A corner of your bedroom will do; some people even meditate in their closets! Once you get used to the practice, you'll find that you can drop into meditation outdoors or even on a bus or subway. But when you're establishing a practice, the quieter and more private your meditation place—no matter how small or ad hoc—the easier it will be to catch the current of meditation. Check out the residence hall lounge or the Fox Commons for a quiet time of day to get a few moments of stillness!
Belly Breathing Exercise
1. Place one hand just above your belt line, and the other on your chest, right over the breastbone. You can use your hands as a simple biofeedback device. Your hands will tell you what part of your body, and what muscles, you are using to breathe.
2. Open your mouth and gently sigh, as if someone had just told you something really annoying. As you do, let your shoulders and the muscles of your upper body relax, down, with the exhale. The point of the sigh is not to completely empty your lungs. It's just to relax the muscles of your upper body.
3. Close your mouth and pause for a few seconds.
4. Keep your mouth closed and inhale slowly through your nose by pushing your stomach out. The movement of your stomach precedes the inhalation by just the tiniest fraction of a second, because it's this motion which is pulling the air in. When you've inhaled as much air as you can comfortably (without throwing your upper body into it), just stop. You're finished with that inhale.
5. Pause. How long? You decide. I'm not going to give you a specific count, because everybody counts at a different rate, and everybody has different size lungs. Pause briefly for whatever time feels comfortable. However, be aware that when you breathe this way, you are taking larger breaths than you're used to. For this reason, it's necessary to breathe more slowly than you're used to. If you breathe at the same rate you use with your small, shallow breaths, you will probably feel a little lightheaded from over-breathing, and it might make you yawn. Neither is harmful. They're just signals to slow down. Follow them!
6. Open your mouth. Exhale through your mouth by pulling your belly in.
8. Continue with Steps 4-7.