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An Introduction to Yoga

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:49pm
DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Welcome to our webcast. I'm David Folk Thomas. If you belong to a gym, chances are you've looked through the glass at the aerobics room, and at times you've seen people in there stretching, meditating, being very quiet. What's going on in there? Chances are it's a yoga class, and if you haven't taken one before, we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what yoga is. Joining me today are a couple of experts on the subject. On my left is Dr. Ben Kligler. He's the medical director of the New Beth Israel Center for Health and Healing in New York City. Sitting next to Dr. Kligler is Deborah Matza. She's the clinical coordinator for Beth Israel Center for Cardiac and Pulmonary Health. She's also a nurse and a certified yoga instructor. Thanks for both of you joining us.

Right off the bat, what's yoga?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: Yoga is a discipline that comes from India. It's a very ancient tradition, and it basically teaches how to use positions of the body and the breath to promote health, in a nutshell. How's that?

DEBORAH MATZA: I'll just elaborate a little bit. What you talked about is there are several aspects of yoga, and you referred to what people are most familiar with, which is Hatha, which is the series of the physical poses. That's what people think of when they think of folding up into a pretzel. Then there's also breathing practices, and it also includes meditation and often deep relaxation. Some yoga styles include chanting, and there are a number of other aspects. So it's really very comprehensive, but most people, when they think of yoga, just think of the poses.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: When I think of yoga-- and it's something I have been meaning to do-- I've never had the nerve to get in there because I always start thinking, "I'm not limber enough to do yoga." What do you say to people like myself who think you have to be able to put yourself into a pretzel?

DEBORAH MATZA: That's exactly why I was mentioning that, because yoga can be adapted for really almost any individual. There are certain conditions where it's not recommended, but they're very few, and the idea is it helps to promote flexibility in the body. So if you're not limber, it's a perfect place to start. It helps to stretch and tone the muscles of the body and it helps to align the joints and the spine, and it really is excellent for flexibility.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Dr. Kligler, as far as whether it's good for health, can it cure what ails you?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: The most typical place to use yoga has been, in our country, as kind of a general stress reduction strategy, physical toning, increasing your inner harmony kind of approach. It's also really useful for the treatment of specific conditions. Deborah, in particular, does something called restorative yoga, which is a particular type of yoga teaching that I think is even more suited to people with certain health problems.

DEBORAH MATZA: A lot of people don't know about restorative yoga here in the West. It's based on the work of someone named B. K. S. Ayangar, who was a very revered yogi in India, and he actually started the Yoga Therapy Institute for Healing in India. It's a style of yoga where we use bolsters and pillows and blankets to position people in poses so that they don't need to hold themselves there. So it's very gentle and very safe, and this enables people that normally couldn't participate in yoga, such as older people or people who have certain disabilities, so they can actually do some of these poses because they're very well supported and it's very, very safe. So it has a lot of clinical and therapeutic application as a form of yoga.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Give an example of some condition somebody might have where yoga would be recommended for them.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: You might have an older person who had some fairly significant arthritis that was limiting their mobility, and a gentle but sort of ongoing yoga approach might help them maintain flexibility and deal with their pain problems. I've been sending a lot of my patients when they are pregnant for prenatal yoga classes, because it helps with dealing with the increasing burden of carrying a pregnancy and, it seems to me, it also helps people have an easier delivery if they've been practicing yoga and practicing the breathing during the pregnancy. A whole range. There are actually very good research studies looking at people with asthma and learning some yoga breathing techniques and showing that you can decrease people's medication needs. So there's a whole range of specific conditions that you might use it for.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Chakras. I've heard this term. How does that relate to yoga, Deborah?

DEBORAH MATZA: In yogic science there's something called prana, which is believed to be a subtle energy that flows throughout the body. It's very similar to, in Chinese medicine, the principles of chi that flows along certain meridians. So the chakras are believed to be focal points of energy, sort of energy vortexes that are aligned throughout the body. So that's how it relates to yogic practice. It's believed by doing some of the asanas and some of the breathing practices that you can actually release some blockages in the chakras or in the prana so that it can flow more freely.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: In the yoga classes I mentioned before, what does a typical class consist of? If I were to take that step and walk in and take a yoga class at my health club, what could I expect?

DEBORAH MATZA: There is a fair amount of variation, and it does depend on the setting. Health clubs, more often than not, use yoga as a very energizing, almost aerobic practice, and often they will have some meditation at the end. So it depends on the style. The yoga practice that I teach, we start with doing the physical poses, which are called asanas, and then we lead people through a deep relaxation, through meditation, and also through breathing practices.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: Is your question, really, "Do you have to stand on your head right away?"

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Or all of that. Do I have to take a flexibility course?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: Do you take a yoga class?

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: I have to admit that I have done it in the past. I haven't recently.

DEBORAH MATZA: We'll work on this.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: What's holding you back?

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Can kids start out with it, or is it more of for adults?

DEBORAH MATZA: Not for very young children. Usually we start with children age six and above, but we kind of make it fun for them. A lot of the poses are based on animals and different postures that animals do in nature, and that's actually how some of the poses were derived originally, so the kids love to do those kinds of things, have fun with that.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: My kids have gone to yoga class with my wife and really loved it. They found it really funny and fun.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Give a typical pose-- you've mentioned a couple-- and what's a more popular pose or common one that one might do in relation to other poses?

DEBORAH MATZA: I think you were joking about it, but the shoulder stand is one that I think people have seen a lot, which is an inverted pose where the legs are lifted in the air and you're supporting the back with your arms, so it helps to promote circulation of the blood return back to the heart, and also promotes circulation of the lymph fluid in the body. It's actually a very powerful pose.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: I assume it's very calming, very quiet and meditative. What do people usually say when they've just had a yoga session? How do they feel after as opposed to before?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: I think I want to recognize that there are a lot of different strategies, and there are some yoga practices that are very vigorous and you come out sweating and really feeling like you had a workout. There are others that are more meditative, as Deborah was describing, so to some degree-- Everybody who has had a good experience with a yoga class is going to come out feeling more relaxed, more connected to their body, more like their feet are on the ground and they're fully connected to themselves. I think that's what you're striving for, and that, in a lot of cases, is where the health benefits are going to derive, from that experience. It's the same as some other practices, though, in that you go to a yoga class once a week and that's a good start, and what you really need to do is learn how to incorporate it into your daily practice, the way you brush your teeth and you do other things that are important to your health. That's where you really see people experiencing very, very significant benefits, when people are able to bring it into their life from day to day.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Brushing your teeth can be done in a yoga way. Is that how you would say it?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: I guess if you're really pressed for time you could do it that way.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Deborah, you're a certified yoga instructor. How does someone become certified? What do you have to study to reach that?

DEBORAH MATZA: Again, there are a lot of different schools of yoga, and the school that I became trained in was a six-month program where we met several times a week and often on the weekends, and went away on a retreat, a silent retreat, for a weekend, and we study anatomy and physiology as well as the poses and their benefits, contraindications, and we went deeper into the philosophy of yoga, where it goes beyond just the physical practice. It gets into spiritual aspects. A lot of people do practice yoga as a spiritual practice.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Who is instructing you when you are becoming certified?

DEBORAH MATZA: A certified institution. A recognized, certified school.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Do different states have different regulations?

DEBORAH MATZA: No, it's more dependent upon the different schools and different styles.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: It's not regulated like some of the disciplines are in the sense of-- there's no licensing. There are reputable schools depending on what type of yoga you're practicing, and that's where you go for your training. You're getting trained by someone who has been trained to teach and certify people, basically. Occasionally these are people who have gone to India to study and come back. Sometimes they are people who have just studied here for an extensive period of time.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: All the benefits that yoga has, would a simplification be that it is, as we've mentioned, in the meditative form very calming, so if you are stressed-- and obviously people who live in New York City, it's a stressful city to live in-- would you say that yoga would be a great way to bring that stress down?

DEBORAH MATZA: Absolutely.

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: There are some places that are offering yoga classes at lunch hour as a way to kind of-- from the company's--

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Yoga and yogurt?

DR. BENJAMIN KLIGLER: Yoga and yogurt.

DEBORAH MATZA: That's a catchy title. Also, there's a lot of interest in office yoga, or workplace yoga, where there are stretches that you can do in a chair, on the floor in your office, that are very practical and really help to relieve the stress of the day, very simple things that you can do.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: We appreciate both of you coming by and informing all of us about the benefits of yoga. Dr. Ben Kligler and Deborah Matza. She's a certified yoga instructor in addition to being a nurse. Thanks to both of you for coming by.

We hope you've learned a lot about yoga. Get out there and check the schedule at your health club, and I'll do it if you do it.

DAVID FOLK THOMAS: Thanks for joining us on this webcast. I'm David Folk Thomas.

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