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Yoga helps minds as well as bodies, devotees say

April 30th, 2010 Posted in Arts and Life

By Kayla Woodring

LOGAN–From science to spirituality, healing to prevention, the practice of yoga has many benefits both scientifically proven and anecdotal. Cache Valley locals are discovering these benefits and their applicability to people of every gender, age and body type.

For Emily Bowen Stoker, a graduate student in biological engineering at Utah State University, yoga was at first nothing more than a engineering experiment. She and three of her fellow classmates in a bioinstrumentation class knew they needed to design a project around some sort of biological measuring equipment. Intrigued by the idea that they could measure their own brain waves, the group chose to work with an echoencephalography monitor, or EEG. To use an EEG for their project, they needed to come up with an activity that could potentially alter the frequency of their brain waves; Stoker suggested yoga.

“I had heard all these claims about how great yoga was for calming the mind, increasing inner harmony and things like that. It seemed kind of crazy and I wanted to know if it was true,” Stoker said. “I thought this experiment would be a great way to find out if those claims were true, so the three guys in my group and I decided to hook ourselves up to the EEG and do some yoga.”

The group conducted the experiment over the course of a month. They all submitted to EEG tests prior to the experiment and then continued to monitor and compare their brain waves over the course of one month as they engaged in yoga practice. The results surprised them all.

Other Cache Valley yogis don’t need scientific experiments to recognize the change that yoga brings to their life. Yoga instructor Dennise Gackstetter says practicing yoga can lead its followers to a heightened consciousness and a greater self-awareness for what the body and the mind need.

“Yoga makes your life so much better. I’m more kind to myself and more kind to others because by practicing yoga I become aware of the world around me and how I interact with it,” Gackstetter said.

Haley Hayes, another Cache Valley yoga teacher, echoes Gackstetter’s sentiments. She says she sees a moment of change in many of her students when their yoga practice helps them to finally let go of stress and tension they may be holding on to.

“Our lifestyle in Western society leads to a lot of stress. Even here in the small town of Logan we see it. People come to expect instant gratification, quick success and push themselves so hard to achieve that,” Hayes said.

“Yoga helps people to let go of that, because in yoga practice it’s all about figuring out what is right for your body and not somebody else’s. It may take some time to get your body into a certain pose, and that’s OK. That’s something people can take out into their daily lives. This idea that it’s all right to take your time and that there are different standards of success for each person.”

Students too find solace on the yoga mat. Mason Gates, a student in political science, found yoga last year through the campus “Fun, Fit, Forever” program. He says yoga provides students with an escape from the classroom.

“It gives you an hour or so where you don’t have to think about the stresses of school. You just focus on yourself and detoxifying your body,” Gates said.

Yoga doesn’t just promote peace of mind and tranquility; it also increases flexibility and reduces pain in their students, Hayes and Gackstetter say.

“There are just so many great things about yoga that I can’t even think of a reason why people shouldn’t do yoga,” Hayes said. “I’ve seen students increase their joint mobility, overcome insomnia and anxiety and lots who’ve been able to reduce chronic pain. That’s been so rewarding. It’s great when a student comes to me and says they don’t have back pain anymore. That’s why I teach yoga.”

Stoker and her fellow students found plenty of evidence to support these claims. Shortly after beginning their yoga practice, they observed increased alpha wave activity in their brains. Alpha waves signal creativity and productivity, Stoker said.

“As your alpha waves increase, you become more calm and can focus better,” Stoker said. “It makes it possible for you to absorb and retain more information. I think that should be a big draw for students. Based on what we saw, you could actually develop better study habits by taking up yoga.”

This increased focus maybe due to what Gackstetter calls the union of the physical body with the spiritual body, which helps people to channel their energy better because they are so much more in tune with it.

“The spiritual benefits of yoga are huge. And I want to clarify that there is a difference between spiritual and religious here. Spiritual refers to the person who is practicing and how the reach a state of completeness,” Gackstetter said. “I think of the word yoga as if it meant yoke. The yoke represents the union of the physical and the spiritual self.”

All agreed that yoga is a unique type of exercise. Stoker says her favorite part about yoga is that it’s so different from other physical activities.

“Yoga doesn’t always look like a workout when you first see it. It just seems like a bunch of poses, but it really does stretch your mind and body. I used to think that was a cheesy way of putting it, but it’s so true,” Stoker said. “It’s really something for everyone, not just those foresty, hippie-type people.”

Gackstetter and Hayes emphasized the universal appeal of yoga due to the many traditions that are available for individuals to practice. Both said people shouldn’t be discouraged if they go to one class and don’t like it because there will undoubtedly be a style of yoga among the other traditions that will appeal to them.

“Don’t be afraid to try it. Come to my class (http://yogawithdennise.com/), the first one is always free,” Gackstetter said. “You have to come do it and you can’t just watch. That would be like smelling food and not tasting it. You have to just get in there and do it.”

Hayes also likes for yogis in her class to feel involved, and shares a special thought at the end of meditation when she can. Her favorite counsel comes from something she read from a yoga instructor in New York City. The teacher said that it is not only important to do something you love for a living. You have to love what you do and do it with love. Hayes says she strives to bring that love to the classroom so that harmony and tranquility will abound there.

Stoker certainly feels the tranquility and so did her classmates. They showed increased senses of peace at the end of their study. Stoker was so happy with the results that she continues the practice today. Her final thoughts on yoga’s influence seem to be echoed by all.

“I feel the effects of yoga both during and afterward. I just feel better about myself and can better address my stress inwardly and the study helped me to discover that. I still do yoga when possible so I can continue to feel that way,” Bowen said.


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