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  • Sarah L Hicks

What Is Yoga Therapy: Ancient Techniques for Thriving In the Modern World

Updated: Dec 23, 2021


When we hear the term Yoga we often find ourselves imagining either a class at the local gym or perhaps a contortionist in a turban. Here in the west I venture to guess the majority of us these days think about how we look in their namesake pants.

This is a Western approach to an ancient science. One would be surprised to learn that yoga asanas, or poses we attribute to these fine fitting pants play little role in the scientific and philosophical roots to this ancient technique for ultimate wellbeing.


In the literature that is the basis for all of Yoga there is but one single reference to asana. It is translated as any movement or posture that improves ones ability to sit still for minutes and ideally hours engaging in what is traditionally known as Yoga in its native tongue, literally "Union."


Try marketing that in a western consumerist culture. One can begin to see why the slim fitting pants won. As we move through the global collective experience of the pandemic we are all learning more about ourselves than perhaps some of would have liked. The pressure of a society misaligned with its virtues is pressing everyone to reconsider their relationship to themselves. Or simply watch Netflix instead.


For the former audience I would like to present a new facet to this enigmatic inspiration beyond fashion ware and into the soulful experience of existence and the nature of consciousness. These can sound like lofty or even heavy subjects. To put you at ease, the framework for this ancient science and art is meant for a child to resonate with as much as any scholar. It is said that the soul knows truth when it is heard and right now it seems our world could use some ancient truth to help the alarm bells to stop ringing and remind us that suffering is as much the human condition as bliss.


Unique concept, I know. When was the last time you felt infinite bliss? No, how about ever new joy? Not the kind from a item like makeup or a new car which can run out or breakdown. Ever new implies that it consistently brings joy, joy that cannot be tarnished or taken. Back in ancient times, before cell phones and iPads, before television and sports games in giant arenas people did still lived out their daily lives and it was not all toil in the sun. Thousands of years ago the scholarly and philosophical of the human race considered much as they do today, what is this all about? It was not good enough to go through the motions of everyday life, they required meaning. While this was not for everyone, there was a culture that valued these members of society for their sensitivity and insight and although they owned nothing, they were revered above kings. These were the rishis and sages of ancient India.


Their quest for answers were not met with the constant need for survival, work, bills, family and consumerism. These individuals made a lifetime study of why are we here? What is our purpose? Their answers are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. The simple answer is divine bliss and ever new joy. It is our genetic legacy. So, why do we find ourselves so far removed from this state of being? That answer is also unchanged for thousands of years as well. While divine bliss and every new joy are our birthright and our legacy, so are the forces that create the spectrum of experience and that means suffering too.


When realizing the state of things it was natural for these great minds to consider why do we suffer? Again, the method of dress and transportation may have changed but humans not so much. It has everything to do with what we do. We are biologically designed with the capacity to experience the highest states of consciousness when we employ specific habits of daily life. Just the same we are prone to suffer if those habits fall into an unconscious programing and we run on automatic. What has happened in rapid fire is the technological age created such a powerfully enticing boom along with the culture of a workaholic mentality that we did not stop to notice we lost something along they way. Sometimes we can feel the separation and we try to find something that looks shiny and inviting to make the feeling stop. We know it is temporary but we figure we will find something else when this loses our interest.


What we lost as a culture was the quietude in which we have found ourselves for thousands of generations. It quietly disappeared while we were raising kids, going to school and paying bills in an unsustainable system of scrutiny and commitments. Soon quiet became something many people avoided. We did not know what to do with our thoughts when they were not drowned out by needs or wants. This separation becomes a positive feedback loop, meaning the more it occurs the more it will occur. Soon silence was lost and with it, our cultural sanity.


Now that many of us were forced into our own minds with the sequestering there is a pandemic of anxiety and depression. All the years of unfinished business that silence would have normally brought us around to insight was now backlogged and the burden began to feel too large. Without a framework for managing these backlogged emotions and experiences we see people behaving as toddlers when they don't get what they want. I have not personally verified, however I am willing to make the guess these individuals throwing tantrums are not happy, no divine bliss or ever new joy there. Just a list of demands and resentment when they are not met with specificity.


We collectively recognize these behaviors as wrong and misguided, however we are seeing more and more of it. This comes down to simple brain chemistry. Again, what we do habitually does leave an imprint on our brain. Habits directly influence the wiring of the brain and is reflected in the mind, our seat of reason (or complete lack there of). When one lives in a state of fear it triggers the Amygdala, the oldest part of our brain, relatively unchanged from that of an alligators brain. It is designed for the most basic behavior. Emotions like greed, lust, anger, pretty much any emotion that has a air of entitlement to it, are all wired within the Amygdala. Reflecting on our culture we can see areas and collectives where fear is the driving force for the group.


On the other hand, or side of the brain, there is the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain, when actively involved brings a sense of collaboration, ingenuity, selflessness and inclusiveness. This part of the brain is thought to be the house of the genius or saintlike qualities. We likely all know someone either personally or in the media who is either Amygdala driven or Prefrontal Cortex inspired. Can you imagine a day in the life of either one of these individuals? If you could go home with them, what would their daily habits be like? It is here that we begin to understand the role of where we put our focus. The small decisions we make everyday lead us further into a mentality that is either driven like an alligator or inspired like a saint. We have the power to choose who we want to be, not matter how much suffering we come from or have endured. No matter far down the path of reptile mentality one can always choose to be different. However, the further we go in life and the more patterns we build, the more challenging it can be to attempt our transition.


So, what does this have to do with Yoga Therapy you ask? Well, everything, Yoga Therapy is the study of ancient scientific methods for enhancing stimulation of the prefrontal cortex and regulating the input from the Amygdala. With intention and focus we can enhance the joy in our life by letting go of our animalistic impulses and encouraging growth in our genius mind. Small price to pay for infinite bliss I would say.


Currently our culture is so far removed from the framework of a healthy and balanced life it requires an investigation into the areas of our life that have become problematic. From diet and breathing to posture and sleep habits. There is a jungle of issues that have been normalized and it is time to reconsider just what we accept as normal. After all, we are the gate keepers for what is normal in our lives. We may have forgotten this and may even struggle for some time to accept and believe it. But, I guarantee you that if you are reading this you have the ability to rewire your brain into you your strongest ally and your greatest healer.


The first step is the willingness to commit to yourself that you deserve ever new joy. It is where you came from and it is where you will ultimately go. This may be more challenging to relate to for some than others for a myriad of reasons from genetics and/or life story to current events and physical health. These barriers are more of an illusion than we know. If we can control our breath we can control our thoughts. If we can control our thoughts we can control our habits. It is the control of habits that improves our outcomes whether it is health, career or any other facet of life.


That being said, if you are interested in an experiment to find a reflection of your current mental space, tune into your breath. Is it shallow, just in the upper few ribs. Is it choppy... are you breathing? Many of us create a habit of breathing shallow after trauma. That is a normal response, what is not normal is living a life that is so full of distractions and needs that we never regain our own breath back. That is one of the most essential first steps to balancing our nervous system and regaining control over our lives.


TIPS FOR HEALTHIER BREATHING:

  1. Simply bring your awareness to your breath without control or judgement and slowly invite your breath to be more steady, full and consistent. This is done by checking in throughout the day, especially after events that can begin a stress response.

  2. Gradually being setting time aside to practice breathing techniques to help retrain the muscles that control breathing. Just like a piano player learns to play music or a dancer trains to dance, muscle memory is the key to success. There are dozens of intercostal muscles between the ribs that expand, scalene in the neck that lift the rib cage in inhalation and the diaphragm that draws downwards making room for a deep breath. If these muscles are untrained then they are not doing their job and they need to gently be retrained.


BREATHING TECHNIQUES FOR BEGINNERS:

  1. Find a quiet space to lie down. If this is a challenge due to children in the home have them join in. It is excellent for them at any age. Lie down comfortably for 5-10minutes. Make sure you are comfortable (pillows under knees or head). Place your right hand on your belly over your naval area and your left hand on your chest. Place bolsters in the form of pillows or folded blanket and towels under the elbows if this allows the arm placement without having to hold them up. The goal is to assist your body in experiencing a deeper relaxation.

TO INHALE

Inhale through the nose and draw the breathe down to the naval area allowing the

stomach to expand away from

the spine.

Continue to inhale till the ribs expand outwards.

And finally the left hand over the chest should feel the chest lift.

TO EXHALE

The chest will lower.

The ribs will relax inwards.

The naval will relax back toward the spine.


Once you have practiced this exercise for the Full Diaphragmatic Breathing you can begin to try it when seated or standing. You can practice this at work or at home when you recognize you want to collect your thoughts, release anxiety or just relax in general.



MEASURED COUNT BREATHING: To Reduce Anxiety, Frustration or Anger and Induce Relaxation

Measured Count Breathing is an excellent resource to manage you emotions when you are nervous, anxious or simply want to change your focus to relaxation. When we are relaxed we tend to respond more to our environment (Prefrontal Cortex) and react less (Amygdala).


  1. This is done in a similar manner to the Full Diaphragmatic Breath. It is best when learning breathing techniques to lie down fully supported. This is to encourage full relaxation throughout the body which will provide less distractions and encourage deeper breaths.

INHALE

As with the Full Yogic Breath, inhale through the nose and count to a measure of 4, 6

or 8. It is best to begin with a smaller number and work up to the larger numbers.

Inhale to the number counting mentally.

HOLD

Hold the breath for the same number.

EXHALE

Exhale for the same number.


REPEAT


Inhale immediatly and repeat the same process again. This techniques is best down for

5-7 minutes in the beginning with the option to increase the number and the time.


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