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Yoga and your wellbeing

By  AAMI

Yoga isn’t just good for your body it’s good for your mind too. Here’s what you need to know about yoga and your wellbeing.

With the hustle and bustle of modern life, it’s important for your health and wellbeing to regularly take time out to relax and de-stress. Yoga can help.

“Yoga really helps self-regulate our stress response, so it has a very calming effect,” says Paul von Bergen, founder of Billabong Retreat, a yoga, meditation and mindfulness haven designed to help people find ease, happiness and health within their lives. “Secondly, the physical side of yoga, the poses (or asana), is becoming increasingly popular because people are living such sedentary lives, particularly in office environments, so the actual physical movement becomes really important as well.” Here’s what you need to know.

What's it all about?

You’ve probably heard friends raving about their latest yoga class, their mindful practice and something called shavasana, but what does it mean? “Yoga is about mindfulness,” says Paul. “In fact, the first word of the Yoga Sutras, one of the earliest writings of yoga compiled around 300BC, is ‘ata’, which means ‘pay attention’. And the word yoga comes from the root word ‘to yoke’, or ‘to join’. Yoga is all about connecting or joining the disparate aspects of your mind and body to be a holistic being.”

Classes focus on the power of the breath, and breathing rhythmically throughout the various postures is key. Paying absolute attention to what you’re doing (in short, practising mindfulness) and not letting your mind wander is an important aspect of yoga. Mindfulness is a powerful stress relief technique and it’s a great way to help you relax. “Yoga wasn’t about the physical postures for about 4000 years,” Paul continues. “The whole focus on the physical postures is something that’s only come about in the last 30 or 40 years. Yoga is really about the mind and learning how to train our brains to relax.” 

Benefits of yoga

If you practise yoga regularly, you can expect to reap rewards. According to Paul, one of the best things yoga can do for you is teach you how to relax and how to cope with stress. “One of the main benefits of yoga is self regulation, so learning how to regulate the stress response,” he says. “Improved digestion, improved immune function, lower blood pressure, a calmer heart rate and improved respiratory function can all come out of managing stress response or managing the sympathetic stress response.”

Similarly by taking time out to relax and recuperate, you can also get a calmer and clearer mind. “This allows you to really consider the decisions that you’re making and ensure those decisions are in line with your heartfelt values and intentions for your life,” says Paul. And there are physical benefits too, like improved physical strength, balance, flexibility, posture and energy levels. “All the benefits you get from twisting and moving the inside of your body. It’s not just about the muscles and the bones. When you’re doing twists you’re giving your insides a good squeeze out.”

Types of yoga

Kundalini, Ashtanga, Hatha, Hot, Bikram and more. There are so many different types of yoga listed online it can be hard to figure out which one is best for you. “While there are definitely different styles of yoga, there’s really just yoga. Everything else has been invented,” says Paul. “What’s happened over thousands of years is people have developed different disciplines.”

Hatha isn’t actually a style of yoga, says Paul, “Hatha yoga is just a description of physical yoga. Hot yoga, Kundalini yoga and Ashtanga yoga are all part of Hatha yoga – they’re just more recent developments.” Here’s a quick breakdown of the different types:

  • Hatha: If you go to a Hatha class, you can expect a focus on the physical postures and breathing. Hatha classes are usually slower paced and provide a range of options regardless of skill level, so they’re a good place to begin your practice.
  • Hot and Bikram: Both of these styles of yoga are practised in heated rooms. Classes are generally large and the higher temperature gives an endorphin rush and can encourage people to push themselves harder, which can be difficult for beginners. “Bikram yoga is Bikram Choudhury’s brand of Hatha yoga, where they’ve labelled 26 postures and branded it and commercialised it, and the same with Hot yoga,” says Paul.
  • Ashtanga: “This style was developed by a chap called Pattabhi Jois about 80 years ago,” says Paul. It’s a series of physical postures that are repeated and you work your way up as you master different sequences. It’s very regimented and it’s designed to teach discipline. Classes are physically challenging, so it’s a good idea to master the basics of yoga before moving on.
  • Kundalini: Like Ashtanga yoga, Kundalini is another variation of Hatha, but with a different series of sequences that have been developed. “The focus of Kundalini yoga is to try and arise the energy within your spine,” says Paul. “So a lot of the exercises in Kundalini yoga are focused around opening up the spine and the back.” Classes are intense and generally recommended for experienced practitioners looking for a new challenge.

Advice for beginners

If you’re thinking of taking up yoga, it’s important to get it right from the get-go. “The problem with group classes is that we naturally compare and look at the people next to us and think that we should be doing the same,” says Paul. “Yoga should be personalised. So my advice to beginners is to try and find a yoga teacher that will do an initial one-on-one consultation with you. They’ll look at your needs and requirements and design a yoga practice that meets your objectives. Then by all means go to classes but only do that after you’ve got some very good one-on-one advice.”

Yoga is good for the soul and your overall wellbeing. Once you’ve got the basics right, it’s time to start heading to classes. But remember: go at your own pace, be present and engaged, and always give yourself the opportunity to take time out and relax. Namaste!