While the physical – and, many may add, spiritual – benefits of yoga have long been known (think lower blood pressure, increased strength and denser bones), there is an ever growing body of scientific research that the practice, along with mediation, may actually rewire our brains and enable us to better think.
A study published last April in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease by researchers at California University pitted two groups against each other: the first group undertook a well-known brain-training programme, while the other took up up yoga and meditation. While both groups benefited from greater mental dexterity, brain scans showed the yoga group also gained better mental health, with improvements in such things as mood and visuospatial memory – which is important for balance and depth perception.
The yoga group also saw greater gains in their language and communication skills.
While the brain-training program was food for thought, the yoga training was a veritable feast. Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A., who oversaw the study, admitted that her team were surprised by the magnitude of the effects.
Yoga was born in the north of India more than 5,000 years ago, and has been mentioned in ancient Hindu texts. It was soon incorporated into Jain and Buddhist philosophies, but, for thousands of years, the practice was less concerned with poses, and more with finding inner peace through mediation and sensory withdrawal. And it was only practised by religious men.
The oldest known yoga manual was written 1,500 years ago by a sage know as Patanjali, and his methods were developed by various disciples of the practice throughout the ages. Yoga poses are known as asanas, and some centuries-old texts name there to be upwards of eight million of them – one for every animal species on Earth. Among the most well-known and widely used ones today are ‘downward dog’, ‘crow’, ‘cobra’, and ‘pigeon’.
Before you even get to those, however, it can be just as confusing just trying to decide which type of class to attend, so Verve caught up with some Auckland yogis to find out more…
I began doing meditation when I was younger, then studied naturopathy and the philosophy of yoga, and metaphysics. Later, I wrote a book about meditation, which was published by HarperCollins Australia, and I wrote for some magazines.
After taking a break to raise my kids, I began practising Bikram, and combined with my studies, began to realise that it brings people present very quickly – which is the whole point of yoga. I did my teacher training in San Diego. The opportunity just arose to open this studio, I wasn’t planning on it, and it’s been incredible.
How is Bikram different?
Hatha yoga [the most common] uses 84 main poses and Bikram Choudhury [Bikram yoga founder] took the 26 postures which are most suitable for any body type. Then he added the heated room, because, aside from the fact it is hot in India, it is helpful in allowing the muscles to relax, reducing the risk of injury, while also enabling detoxification benefits. It also makes you focus on your pose, because if you don’t focus then you become obsessed with the heat and the environment, you’re all in your head, your monkey mind. The trick is to breathe and focus on your postures and alignments and forget about everything else.
We do have 60-minute sessions, but most are 90. The 90-minute sequence is the same the world over, so you can go to any studio and know that you will have your foundational practice.
Can anyone practise Bikram?
We have yin classes here and also an intermediate and advanced series. We require people to have done their foundation with the beginners series before inviting them to advanced or intermediate class to reduce the risk of injury. The Bikram foundation practice concentrates on strength and flexibility, it’s a great base for all yoga. People who have never done yoga before receive amazing benefits.
Do many men visit the studio?
Yes, it’s around 40%. Bikram is especially popular with men because it’s so physical, and it heals injuries. We have a lot of runners for example because they still get the endorphin-hit of going for a run. It’s also perfect for those who work long hours and are in need that mind-body connection. It is for everybody, we have every different walk of life and really, anyone can do it.
Do your kids practise?
I really encourage kids to practise yoga, and the sooner the better! Of course, you have to watch the heat, so generally they will practise in a normal room. Each child has different constitutions. My son can easily go into a Bikram class and did so at the age of six. My daughter has not been ready to practice in the heated room. I also teach at their school as part of their PE lesson.
Tell us about the One Fire festival you recently attended?
It’s an international yoga festival held in Joshua Tree, California, and lasts for five days. Joshua Tree is incredible, so spectacular visually and energetically, too. It’s a vortex of positive vibration. I was invited to speak about the best practices for a studio, and how to run a successful yoga business.
And what’s key?
Obviously you must love what you do. I enjoy the environment so much, it’s not even like going to work. Everyone else here feels the same. I made a decision to be a yogi first, and that comes before anything else. You can forget why you start a businesses. It’s very difficult to teach others something you are not doing, enjoying, or practising yourself. You never stop learning with yoga. It’s a lifelong path and you just have to enjoy the journey instead of getting caught up in all the details.
Gitavali Fisk, Yoga Instructor at the Loft
Favoured Yoga: Hatha
How did you discover yoga?
Back in 1998 I started getting interested in Eastern thought. I took a class at college called ‘An Intro to Hatha Yoga’. Over the next few years I practised here and there for fun, mainly sun salutations, and I loved it. It made me feel light, strong and energetic. Later, I started coming to the Loft and developed a real interest in wanting to share my love of yoga with others.
How did yoga change you?
Growing up, I wasn’t a very active girl. As a young child I was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) so my body was pretty stiff but when I found yoga it made me feel so relaxed and more supple. Yoga has a way to make you look deep inside of yourself and go beyond the mental boundaries that we place upon ourselves. It gave me a sense of empowerment that I can be healthy, strong and happy.
Have you studied yoga abroad?
I practised in Montreal, where I’m originally from, and did my teacher training in Melbourne. I started off learning about hatha yoga. Then I was inquisitive about a stronger yoga style: ashtanga, which is a more rigorous training, but my heart came back to my roots in hatha. It is more suited to my personality: spontaneous, fun and fluid.
Should yoga be approached as a spiritual or physical endeavour?
Yoga in essence these days is practised as a physical endeavour to strengthen the body, become more supple, and to help the mind focus in the present. You become more peaceful, free of stress.
Yoga means to link or connect. Traditionally, it was a spiritual practice meant to focus the mind and connect with the supreme source, by practising physical postures. It was a form of discipline. But, these days, we have taken the spiritual aspect out of the picture and just focus on the physical benefits, which still has its place. The benefits indeed are numerous.
What makes a good yoga instructor?
It varies from person to person. What I’ve found over the years is that people will come back to a yoga teacher they admire. One who inspires his or her students to become better versions of themselves, not only on the mat but off of it as well. Good yoga teachers have a great presence, a sense of humour and the ability to connect with their students.
What do you wish more people knew about yoga?
No matter what your age or fitness level, you can do yoga. It’s not a competition. And it’s not just for women. My cousin once told me that she quit after one session because it was too painful the following day. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I call it ‘growing pains’. Yoga allows you to go deeper, push boundaries that you never thought possible, and feel really good. We have to be patient with ourselves, be kind to our bodies. Too much pressure is not good but taking it too lightly will prevent you from moving forward. In essence, if you have tried yoga and didn’t like it the first time, maybe seek out a teacher who you can relate to and who inspires you. Don’t give up. The benefits of yoga – whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – are too worth it to miss out.
How does the Loft differ from other studios?
What I love about the Loft is that it not only offers a different range of physical yoga classes but also introduces people to a meditation practice, kirtan yoga, which is the chanting of mantras to music. There are also philosophical discussions on genuine happiness based on the ancient yoga texts. And one of the best thing is that every time you come to an event at the Loft, you get a delicious vegetarian dinner cooked with love. Discover a taste of bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion.
Click Here to read the interview with Amber Stevens, Owner of Barre Yoga.
More Yoga at a Glance
Restorative yoga: A fine choice for beginners, or those nursing a niggle. This practice is all about relaxing and restoring calm to the body and mind.
Ashtanga yoga: A yoga that’ll get a sweat on, poses are held for just five breaths and changed at pace.
Vinyasa flow: Not for beginners. As the name suggests, expect much movement and little time for teacher chatter. You need to know your moves for this one.
Iyengar yoga: Known for its use of aides such as belts, blocks and bolsters, Iyengar concentrates on the nuances of each pose to make sure the posture’s perfect. Another good one for beginners.