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Not Just Muscle and Bones...

People see yoga as exercise, a way to burn calories, a way to tone body tissue and relieve stress. What people don't understand is the effect that a consciously designed yoga practice has on the biochemistry. The ability to affect glandular function and involuntary systems is a door to emotional balance, improved digestion and restorative sleep.

"Not just muscles and bones... "

The benefits of a daily yoga practice range from physical refinement to energetic awareness. While athletes may refer to the benefits of stretching muscle and increasing mobility, avid yogis will discuss subtle body responses regarding chakras and nadis. Between these two valid viewpoints is a rarely discussed effect of regular practice. It is yoga’s impact on involuntary functions.

For decades people were taught that food contained calories and that those calories functioned like fuel in a gas tank. People counted, fitness meters counted and scales often didn’t add up evenly. Diets like Atkins’ and “The Zone” introduced a different understanding of nutrition. Types of calories created predictable responses in one’s biochemistry. Suddenly, the Western mind respected food’s pharmaceutical potential.

In a parallel way people measure exercise. “How much, how long, how intensely did I work out?” It doesn’t take long to realize that counting the calories burned doesn’t always add up either. Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m built big,” or “I’ll never be slim with the size of my bones.” It’s true that there are different body types, and that some are more prone to solidity while others are positively waif-like.

Regardless of your body type, however, there are ways to enhance the efficiency of the inner systems. Respiration, digestion and elimination have much to do with the success of maintaining the body’s healthiest potential.

Unfortunately, Americans often interpret leisure as inactivity. Having completed our obligations for the moment, we flop down! We watch movies, eat through sporting events and loll away time during happy hour. We take for granted that bile will be secreted, adrenaline will be regulated, insulin and glucagon will be balanced, and metabolism will be active.

Asana and pranayama, postures and regulated breathing, facilitate our bodies’ internal work. Glandular functions are enhanced with compression and extension found in “pose and counter-pose”. We know that blood sugar influences our performance and disposition, but we forget that our blood chemistry is the formula for our emotional outlooks and our psychological motivations.

For example, too much adrenalin incites anxiety and stress (as in flight or flight response). Too little thyroxine creates a sluggish metabolism. Although the hypothalamus prompts the pituitary gland to direct hormone production, we can consciously participate in our endocrine activity. Conscious and generous breath helps to oxygenate every system of the body. Movement encourages blood exchange.

Yoga requires us to identify personal limits in mobility and endurance. A disciplined practice stretches us into more depth than we casually access. As we extend our physical participation into deeper reaches of our connective tissue, we stimulate activity. The body doesn’t need to work against our inertia.

Even beginner yogis learn the wonders of working with compression and traction of the spine. The central nervous system receives a chance to tune up every time you participate in a simple dog/cat vinyasa. Inhale and roll through each vertebra as your back arches, then exhale and round from the tailbone to the crown. As the supportive tissue becomes more elastic, the neurological conduction is enhanced.

How can we tell? Did you notice your breath suddenly deepen? Perhaps you heard some gastric juices wake up? Maybe you’re not constipated anymore? Where did this extra energy come from? These responses are signs that your inner systems are connected to your practice.

The more regularly we interact with our vital functions, the more readily we can interpret our involuntary responses. Coupling breath with mindful movement creates an opportunity to listen to our essential, organic processes. Imagine being able to palpate lymphatic drainage... pure magic! Ever heard the gurgling tune of your pancreas singing?

Unless we are measurably ill, we may not hear the call to refine. Eastern approaches to wellness intervene at levels of health rather than at signs of illness. Are my systems working with natural vitality or are they struggling? If you’re stressed, chronically tired and impatient, your systems are struggling. The call is sounding, “Yoga will help!”

“Use it or lose it!” is a common mantra of the workout mindset. Again we measure - inches at the waist, pounds on the scale and sizes of our clothes. We largely look at form.

Try recognizing function as well. How much energy do I have? How content is my moment? Is it easy to smile? Am I refreshed from a natural night’s sleep? A simple shift toward leisure as play can keep our hearts pumping and our body processes tweaked.

by Toni Zuper
Alternative Healing
Center City, Philadelphia

published in PhillyFit Magazine -- January 2006 issue