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Uniting Body, Mind, and Spirit

by Susan Shaw

I gathered my legs underneath me to get off the floor, like a minute-old foal finding out what her body is for. Emotionally, I was flying. And, unexpectedly, I had been crying. I had discovered how to live inside my body with gentleness.

How did this happen? At the beginning of a one-on-one therapeutic yoga session, my instructor pointed out that I was breathing only into my upper chest in fight-or-flight style, as if I didn’t feel safe. I closed my eyes and allowed my belly to rise and fall gently with my breaths. My instructor then encouraged me to explore the images that came to mind. At first, I saw the annoying pain in my right shoulder as a sharp, metal plate — and then, suddenly, I began to feel long-forgotten grief and loneliness from a relative’s suicide. While I lay motionless and listened to an internal voice say that the death was not my fault, my stiff hips and shoulders actually moved, like doors pushed ajar by the wind. My right hip felt open and bursting with light, my shoulders as if they had melted and dripped down my spine.

I was thunderstruck, and delighted. I had reached a new level of understanding about yoga, my body, and my life, and all I had to do to get there was breathe.

The experience described here may sound dramatic, but it is in fact commonplace within the context of a therapeutic yoga session. Therapeutic, or restorative, yoga is a new form gaining popularity among medical practitioners such as physical therapists and nurses. It is a combination of gentle traditional yoga, guided meditation, breath work, and hands-on healing. Practitioners create an environment where students feel safe enough to deeply sense the emotions held in the body. The images that come to mind during guided meditation can lead to insights about what makes a person feel the way he does.

These days, it’s not uncommon for diabetes care providers to encourage people with diabetes to use yoga for stress management. Yoga provides this benefit and much more; it is a practice that enhances health through a heightened awareness of the body–mind connection.

Only through doing yoga is it possible to understand all that it has to offer. Yoga is not straightforward exercise. “You may get fit through yoga,” says Arturo Peal, a certified yoga therapist at Yoga Soup in Santa Barbara, California, “but make the intention of going to yoga to feel more of yourself, bring peace to your life and your heart, and radiate that out to your family. That’s what yoga is.”

The evolution of yoga

Yoga began as a spiritual practice thousands of years ago in India. Yoga asanas, or postures, were done to prepare the body for meditation. However, the postures are only one “limb” of eight areas of learning in yoga: The others are yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). Self-observation, personal ethics, and a state of awareness called “mindfulness” are all part of yoga.

As yoga moved West and evolved into dozens of different styles — some far removed from the original spirit — the American fitness industry began to market yoga as a quick route to increased flexibility and a sculpted physique. Classes that emphasize these goals are not hard to find at gyms or even at some yoga studios. However, this approach to yoga is not desired by or suitable for everyone. People with diabetes who have complications, limitations, or additional chronic illness; have had amputations; or experience pain and stiffness are more likely to find physical and emotional relief through the practice of restorative yoga, which may or may not be offered in a gym setting.

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