Healing Yoga emphasizes the qualities of yoga practice and lifestyle that lead to the lessening ofobstacles to healing. While specific poses do have specific effects on your body, heart and mind, the healing of yoga occurs most powerfully over time as the obstacles to your body’s potent healing mechanisms fall away. These obstacles manifest as stress, unexplained fear, anxiety, muscular tension, distress, lack of energy and avoidance of the very things that will help. The obstacles themselves (kleishas) are deep beliefs that manifest in behavior that thwarts our healing systems: mistaking ourselves for our activities, forgetting our deepest connection to self, fear of death, attachment and aversion.
Yoga is first and foremost a practice, which is the first principle: this is something to include in your daily routine, not as a way to pile on or scourge ourselves when it falls through the cracks, but as an important compass reset nearly daily. One recent article noted that the people in the study who experienced significant abatement of anxiety, distress and negative experiences and increase in resilience and positive experiences were practicing an average of just 12 minutes per day, so it’s not impossible to include in your existing routines.
The practice of yoga asana (yogasana, poses) relies on and helps to reframe our relationship to sensation. Internal bodily sensations must be processed through brain structures that are like switching stations between the fight or flight and the rest-n-digest responses (sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system). Focusing on, rather than turning away from, our embodied sensory experience is a key feature of how yoga heals.
Core is yoga is accessed from the deepest layer of the abdominal and thoracic structure, the only 3 lateral soft tissue structures in the body: pelvic floor, respiratory diaphragm and the vocal diaphragm. When learning to sense and engage these structures, you’re connecting to the deepest structures your body uses for support and navigation. In fact, you can work your “abs,” (outer muscles of the abdomen) all day long and never make this connections, but by connecting to these deepest layers, your “abs” automatically engage. That’s why I call this feature, referred to as the bandhas in Sanskrit, “True Core.”
Breath observation leading to organic change - aka, pranayama - is the fourth principle of healing yoga. During asana practice, movements are coordinated closely with the breath and the breath is either relaxed or slowed by engaging muscles of the soft palette in a process called “ujjayi” that has many powerful effects including increase of a compound in the nasal passages that dilate blood vessels, strengthening muscles of ventilation, creating a sensory focus and strengthening the neck core. In addition, after practicing regularly for 4-6 weeks, a practice of pranayama alone is added to the end of asana practice, during which you engage certain muscles to experiment with the four phases of the breath: inhale, pause, exhale, pause.
Meditation naturally arises from breath observation over time and is the fifth principle of healing yoga. Meditation is the opposite of stopping the mind or thoughts: it is an observation that does eventually lead to their slowing and sometimes ceasing, but it relies on the mind being the mind and bubbling up the thoughts like gasses from a hot tub. In observing this off gassing, without attaching to any particular off gas, we gently dissolve habits of attention and begin to turn our focus not the contents of our mind but on the power that enables them, awareness, which is one definition of our true self, and one we share with all other sentient beings, at the very least.
Finally, healing yoga practice responds to - and doesn’t disregard - the rhythms that undergird our body’s ability to heal, circadian rhythms. Recently documented mechanisms for our circadian rhythms have brought them back to Western medical science’s attention with the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine to researchers who identified how they work, but yoga practitioners have recognized their power for years. We adjust our practice to time of day, time of year, even time of life by allowing for and supporting mobility and making practices accessible and sustainable.