Health & Wellness
Yoga class offers deep relaxation, health benefits
By Tara Nelson
It is a cold, snowy day in December and a group of about six students are huddled inside a small studio in yoga clothes and wrapped in blankets.
For many, the exercise of the day is harder than it sounds: To simply lie on the floor and relax.
Carefully placed pillows support the students’ knees and provide a comfortable rest for elbows while instructor Sue Dunstone, of Blaine, provides cues and reads from a book of guided visual meditations. The meditations invite students to let go of their thoughts as they come and go and focus solely on their breathing.
The class is one of Dunstone’s deep relaxation classes offered at her new home studio in Blaine in addition to daily Iyengar yoga classes.
This particular type of yoga closely resembles classical styles of yoga that focus on breathing, meditation and mindfulness. Because Iyengar yoga uses props to maintain a person’s position, it is possible to maintain proper symmetry and alignment for longer periods of time and allow time to develop a state of focused calm. It is also more gentle than other styles such as Bikram, which is practiced in heated rooms, or Ashtanga, which is a preferred choice for athletes because it helps develop strength.
Dunstone said she became interested in yoga at an early age and began practicing as a teenager in England. In the early 1980s, Dunstone moved to Chicago, where she started a family and began attending Kriya Temple of Yoga.
She earned her certificate to teach yoga in 1984 and has been teaching yoga in the area for more than 10 years at various places such as the senior center and Whatcom Fitness.
She most recently opened her own small studio in the back of her home on Blaine Avenue.
How did you get into practicing yoga?
I was always very active when I was young so I really clicked with the physical aspect of yoga as a young woman. There was no spirituality or philosophy taught, it was just a straight yoga class, but it really changed how I felt in my body and I learned to breathe.
I felt very energized, flexible and really healthy. I just remember feeling really great when I was practicing yoga so I would keep going back to it.
What are some of the benefits of your style of yoga in particular?
Some of the benefits include developing flexibility, strength and balance; the ability to develop your consciousness about your body: Finding out what areas are flexible and what’s not, what’s strong and what’s weak and bringing it back to a balance. There are bodily systems that depend on you moving in order to function properly and without movement, you get stagnation and your health suffers. For example your lymphatic system, which filters dead blood cells and bacteria from your blood, depends entirely on muscle contraction and relaxation to work properly.
The production of synovial fluid – which lubricates your joints, is stimulated by movement. Yoga effects you on many levels, physiologically and psychologically, when you feel good you have a sense of well-being, you’re loose, you’re flexible, your body is functioning and you feel healthy. It helps lessens pain and reduces stress. And it’s self-reinforcing, the more you practice, the better you feel.
You said during one of your classes that we are a culture that doesn’t give ourselves space to relax in all sorts of ways. What did you mean by that?
I don’t think this is a culture – neither in England, nor here – that embraces periods of time for yourself to relax, when you just say no to everything. It’s a society that is geared up for production. There’s a proud mentality of “work hard and play hard,” with no one encouraging us to relax and regenerate. Most of us have grown up our whole lives with people telling us “get out there and be productive, work hard,” you never hear anyone saying “go take 10 minutes out to relax or put your legs up the wall and breathe.”
It seems as there is an irony there being as we move away from a manufacturing-based economy and into a highly-skilled economy, we are more heavily dependent on our mental well-being to perform our jobs efficiently. Do you agree?
Yes, totally. And there are many studies focused on the effects of stress on our mental well-being and how it’s a huge health problem in our society. Stress-related diseases are at epidemic proportions in this and other ‘westernized’ societies.
We still have the same bodies we had a gazillion years ago but the environment we’ve created for ourselves requires very different responses from us, which our bodies are not effectively doing.
Our bodies react on a physiological level to stress, releasing a huge surge of chemicals and hormones into our system. Having a constant level of those chemicals flowing through your body long-term has serious consequences on our health.
They’re studying ways to break the cycle of our response to stress and one of the ways is deep relaxation. In relaxation there is no movement, no effort and the brain is quiet. Your muscles relax, blood pressure drops, your heart rate slows and levels of stress hormones in your system decrease. The cycle of the stress response is broken.
It seems so simple, but relaxation is extremely difficult. Why do you think that is?
There are two components of your nervous system that are engaged in keeping you active and non-active. Your sympathetic nervous system, with eight major nerve systems, is your activating system, your fight-or-flight system that helps you participate in life.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is your quieting nervous system that calms you down. There are only three nerve systems to deactivate.
So just with that balance you can see how easy it is to stay active and overloaded. It’s very difficult for your deactivating system to overpower your active nervous system. So there are triggers we use during relaxation to stimulate your deactivation system.
And because relaxation is not a place a lot of people have embraced, there is even a little fear factor to relaxation - a lot of people stay busy so they don’t have to address certain aspects of their lives – some deep emotions, memories, some things we push away or keep hidden because they are painful or difficult and we avoid addressing them.
We do a lot of hiding. So given a little quiet space, some of these thoughts, emotions or memories come to the surface. Quieting your mind is difficult and in the beginning your mind stays quiet for just few breaths before thoughts pop in, but as with asana or anything – the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Can you recommend a few easy ways people reading this at home might try to relax?
1. Give yourself permission. Finding the right place and the right time is important. Especially if you’re a mom or a dad and you work all day and come home to make dinner and make sure your kids have their homework done, you‘ll never get it done unless you take yourself outside of that and give yourself permission. There will always be a million excuses for you not to do it.
2. Get in a completely comfortable position such as laying on your back on the floor with legs resting on a chair or laying on the floor with a pillow under each knee for support. Use props such as cushions and blankets to hold your body in place and make sure all muscles are relaxed and fully comfortable or your mind will continue to focus on those areas.
3. Get warm. Cold skin activates your nervous system and prevents full relaxation. Practice in a warm room with blankets available to cover you.
4. Darkness. Light is a stimulus to your nervous system, turning down the lights or covering your eyes helps reduce this effect.
5. Pressure on the bones around your eyes stimulates a response to slow your heart beat. Cover your eyes or wrap your forehead and eyes lightly with a towel or an eye bag. It needn’t be pressing on your eyeballs.
6. Stay in the pose long enough. Ten to 20 minutes or more is required for some of the poses to effectively work.
7. Take a class. Practicing relaxation at home as a beginner can be very difficult because people are convinced they do not have the time or space to relax. Most will go home and say ‘my lifestyle doesn’t allow me to do it or I don’t have the space’ so to break that pattern of behavior, I would recommend they go and take a class.
Dunstone offers several classes at her home studio and at Whatcom Fitness and Physical Therapy. For more information or a complete schedule, call 332-8169. She added she will soon be scheduling a deep relaxation class on a regular monthly basis.
For further reading on relaxation and meditation check out these books:
• Judith Lasater’s Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times
• Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now