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Singing yoga's mantra

Concordia experts weigh in on the growing significance of yoga
February 18, 2015
By Louise Morgan

"Aaa-uuu-mmm..." I was at my first-ever yoga class, in 2002. When I heard the group chant that opening mantra, I was a little skeptical. Why were we chanting? I thought yoga was just exercise. It turns out it’s a lot more.

What I discovered was a multi-faceted practice that includes stretching, strengthening, breathing, relaxation, meditation — even spirituality. After that first class, my body felt limber and I felt alive. I was hooked, and within three years set off to India to deepen my practice. I arrived at an ashram nestled on a tropical riverbank — with 150 other yogis from around the world, keen to learn more. That’s where my fascination with yoga philosophy began.

Yoga is many things to many people. For me, it’s been a journey of self-discovery, a welcome relief from the stresses of daily life and an empowering support in times of difficulty. It’s a vast subject that can be explored from many angles — which Concordia researchers are doing in greater numbers.

Yasmin Fudakowska-Gow, BA 04 Yasmin Fudakowska-Gow, BA 04, owner, director, teacher at Yasmin Yoga Loft

Yoga philosophy: tranquility and peace

Shaman Hatley Shaman Hatley

For many, the word yoga evokes images of spandex pants and bendy bodies. Yet yoga as a route to physical fitness is largely a product of the 20th century, diverging significantly from its ancient Indian roots. “The word yoga itself might best be translated as ‘discipline,’” says Shaman Hatley, associate professor in the Department of Religion, who teaches courses on the history and philosophy of yoga.

When the idea of yoga first came about — which records show was more than 2,000 years ago — it meant disciplining the mind through self-mastery techniques, primarily meditation.

“In the belief system of classical yoga, there is a fundamental duality between the spirit or core of one’s being and the material world, including one’s body-mind complex,” Hatley explains. “Yoga meant the discipline of isolating the spirit from matter, mainly through meditation, and achieving perfect tranquility and absolute peace.”

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Indian sage Patanjali defined yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of thought. A foundational yoga text, his Yoga Sutras are still commonly taught in yoga teacher-training programs today. While Patanjali refers to disciplining the mind, yoga has come to encompass a wide range of bodily disciplines.

“What we call yoga today, centred on physical postures, dates back to the 12th- to 13th-century tradition of hatha yoga. Before that time, the postures spoken of in yoga texts were almost exclusively sitting postures for performing meditation,” says Hatley.

In contrast to modern yoga, asceticism or self-denial had been a necessary component from ancient times. “There’s a pronounced aim in the yoga tradition to conquer desire, to conquer the need to experience bodily comfort and pleasure, to overcome all kinds of limitations.”

Attaining mastery over mind and body held metaphysical benefits, enabling the practitioner to distill spirit — one’s true, divine self — from the lesser material world, uniting the spirit or soul and god.

The business of yoga

Harold Simpkins Harold Simpkins

Yoga started in North America as 1960s hippy counterculture and has exploded commercially over the last 15 years. Today yoga is big business. Spending on related products is $27 billion annually in the United States. In 2012, 20.4 million Americans practised yoga, up 29 per cent from 2008.

Long-time celebrity advocates like Sting and Madonna have set an example. Yoga apparel retailers like Lululemon have made the practice fashionable. Star yoga teachers have themselves become brands.

The John Molson School of Business’s Harold Simpkins, BA 67, MBA 78, senior lecturer in the Department of Marketing and academic director of the Marketing Co-op Program, suggests one reason for yoga’s popularity today is our unprecedented attachment to electronic devices.

“Especially for young people who are hyper-connected or business people who are expected to respond to phone or text messages instantaneously, a yoga class is one of the few opportunities that allow them to legitimately disconnect,” says Simpkins. “Whether conscious or subconscious, yoga provides respite from having to be ‘on’ all the time.” He adds, “Increasing anxiety levels in society and a pronounced decline in religious practice may make yoga’s meditative and more neutral spiritual aspects an attraction for some.”

Simpkins sees a growing market for seniors as the baby boom generation ages. “The same generation that popularized running in the 1970s got hooked on gym culture in the 1990s and is moving into the golden years, when gentler forms of exercise are beneficial,” he says.

From gentler hatha to more challenging Ashtanga, a wide range of styles of physical yoga appeal to different populations. Special classes target runners, expectant mothers and cancer survivors.

The market continues to grow as innovative new forms are emerging, such as aerial yoga, which uses acrobatic silks to aid body positioning and alignment, and stability building SUP yoga, performed on the water atop a stand-up paddleboard (SUP).

Is the business of yoga sustainable? With all its innovation, Simpkins believes it is.

Healthy aging: body and mind

Simon Bacon Simon Bacon

Physical inactivity costs Canadian taxpayers nearly $6.8 billion annually, or 3.7 per cent of healthcare costs. As the population ages, that number will likely grow unless Canadians get moving.

Physical activity and healthy aging go hand in hand, according to a study co-authored by Simon Bacon, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science, and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

“The good news is you can start doing physical activity at any time — even when you’re older — and you’ll still get a significant benefit,” says Bacon.

The eight-year study showed that while those physically active throughout their lives remained the most healthy — defined as free of major disease, depression, physical or cognitive impairment — even those who started exercising in their later years benefited significantly over those who remained inactive.

Looking at brain health, Bacon says exercise can slow the progression of cognitive decline in its early stages and reduce the onset of dementia. While Canadian guidelines call for 150 minutes of physical activity per week, Bacon suggests, “Something is better than nothing and more is better than less. The more active older people are, the lower the probability of falls.” He adds, “As we become more physically active, we grow muscle mass which helps support the body, and develop perceptual skills which improve balance.”

Exercises like gentler forms of yoga do just that — and more. “Breathing is a great stress reducer. A slow, methodical breath, like they teach in yoga classes, can have a very positive effect on our stress hormones,” says Bacon. “As you engage a number of muscles across the body moving through different yoga poses, your body is better able to do the things you do on a regular basis, like walking upstairs, putting the groceries away.” This keeps seniors autonomous and independent, maintaining a greater quality of life.

“All of these things combined can lead to feeling better overall,” Bacon says.

Connecting with our bodies

Vanessa Salvatore Vanessa Salvatore

The experience of yoga can help practitioners develop a direct and intimate connection with their physical selves and affect their approach to life on other levels.

Vanessa Salvatore, MA 13, studied social and cultural aspects of yoga in Montreal for her master’s research within the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “Yoga encourages practitioners to examine and be in touch with the sensations that arise in bodily movements, both external and internal. As we explore physical poses — or asanas — we discover an evolving relationship with our body,” says Salvatore.

She points out that as we allow ourselves to rest in a pose, we may notice the expansion of the lungs as we breathe. We may feel tightness in the hips or flexibility and ease. “It’s interesting how we choose to receive this sensory information emotionally — with frustration, delight or acceptance. Some call it a heart opening, when we release judgment and surrender to what is,” she says.

Visualization techniques can help deepen bodily sensation. “For example, a teacher might say, ‘Be light as a feather.’ That image allows you to open your mind to what that would feel like, which has a direct effect on your body,” says Salvatore.

“Sense experience varies from one culture to the next. In the West, inner body awareness is a sense that is often overlooked or limited to the experience of pain,” she says. “Yoga practitioners can eventually develop the ability to sense the exterior and interior body more expansively. Legends of master yogis tell of their capacity to sense and control their internal organs and bodily functions.”

Just as we observe what arises physically, mentally and emotionally in our yoga practice, Salvatore explains, we can also question how we respond to situations off the mat — at work, at home and in our relationships with others — which can have a transformative effect on how we see the world.

Dawn Mauricio, BComm 05, senior teacher at Naada Yoga Dawn Mauricio, BComm 05, senior teacher at Naada Yoga

Teaching stress reduction to youth

Lois Baron Lois Baron

Life can be stressful at times for all of us — even children. Hectic schedules, social pressures and exams are all contributing factors.

“As studies show, an increasing number of children are presenting with anxiety-related disorders. There is a need for them to learn stress management tools they can carry with them throughout their lives,” says Lois Baron, a professor emeritus in the Department of Education.

Relaxation training is an important element of school education, yet it is unclear how many teachers actually introduce it into their classrooms. “The key is to give kids the tools and skills that will help them deal with stressful situations to rebalance themselves,” says Baron. “Slow meditative movements like tai chi or yoga can be very helpful. The breathing involved in these or similar exercises is what is particularly important.”

Breathing slowly and rhythmically from the lower abdomen is a basic relaxation technique. It has physiological and psychological effects, reducing the heart rate and producing a feeling of calm.

“Progressive relaxation — a guided tightening and releasing of body parts through the entire body — as well as visualization exercises have led to enhanced feelings of well-being,” Baron explains. “For example, have the children feel they are soaring in the sky like a bird or sense they are on the beach with their feet in the sand and warm sun on their skin.”

Because the spectrum of anxiety disorders is so large, Baron points out the importance of finding a technique that works with each individual child. “Other options may include a ‘meditative’ time out, reading, even using a ‘worry jar’ where youth can park their anxieties momentarily.”

Integrating relaxation and physical activity has been shown to increase concentration and attention as well as enhance mood, which ultimately can translate into improved achievement. “Children who learn these techniques early in life can incorporate them throughout their lifetime as they manage themselves and respond to stressful situations,” she concludes.

Mindfulness and chronic pain management

Nicole Crouch Nicole Crouch

As someone who has learned to manage chronic pain, Nicole Crouch, MA 14, set out in her master’s research in creative arts therapy to examine the relationship between body and psyche. The two work together and affect how we make meaning out of our experiences. “At some point in their lives, 70 per cent of Canadians experience chronic pain, and many don’t understand how their emotional life affects their perception of pain,” says Crouch.

Therapeutic expression through art is used to explore experiences that are suppressed or difficult to talk about. “The stories and emotions around these experiences can stop us from releasing tension in the body, stopping the natural healing process. This can lead to chronic pain,” says Crouch.

Mindfulness-based approaches are increasingly integrated into therapy to help patients delve deeper into their experiences and perceive them differently. As her own research subject, Crouch engaged in regular 30-minute mindfulness meditations: sitting still, observing her breath, sensations and thoughts. She then spontaneously made art, observed the art and described what she saw and how she felt.

“Investigating body sensation and seeing how it links up with the content in the artwork helps me to see what kind of meaning I ascribe to some of the pain in my body,” she says. “This is very useful for helping patients develop a conscious awareness of how they relate to their own body experience, whatever it is,” she explains.

Studies have shown that mindfulness can help people face life with a focus on the present moment without judgment. “In difficult circumstances, this may include facing and taking control of one’s experiences and accepting one’s limitations. It can be particularly effective for patients dealing with chronic pain, palliative care and end-of-life situations,” Crouch says.

“Mindfulness helps free up space that had been focused on negative thoughts and sensations. We are able to interrupt and adjust our perception of pain stimulation by controlling the attention we give to it. That’s powerful.”

Madan Bali, BA 80, founding director at Yoga Bliss Madan Bali, BA 80, founding director at Yoga Bliss

The power of the yoga space

Lauren Bird Lauren Bird

Yoga studios often aim to evoke the practice’s Eastern roots to create an air of authenticity and add a dimension that’s not available in a gym or fitness centre. For her master’s thesis in the Department of Art History, Lauren Bird, BFA 12, MA 14, set out to explore the space of the yoga studio.

Bird focused her research at a popular downtown Montreal studio, adorned with statues and images of Hindu deities, depictions of chakras and the spicy aroma of Indian chai sweetening the air.

Most students Bird interviewed hadn’t consciously thought about the space, yet when prompted, “They felt there were certain visual clues that their yoga practice had a lineage or history beyond their everyday experience,” she says. “A few were turned off by the mystery or perceived Indian religiosity, while it made others feel they were engaging in something more than just stretching and breathing.” Bird adds,

“Being transported into another space or time when you enter the studio can help bring about a spiritual experience felt on a psychological level.”

New meanings are associated with religious and cultural symbols as the practice evolves. “Modern yoga is actually a product of a complicated colonial exchange between India and the West in the last 100 years or so, with a past much messier and less linear than its modern image would lead us to believe,” says Bird.

“In their nationalist fight against British colonial rule, Indians combined the physical culture of bodybuilding and gymnastics — very Western ideas — with their own history and religious traditions, developing the practice of postural yoga,” she says. “Yoga as we know it today is very much a hybrid of East and West, ancient and modern, spiritual and secular.”

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