A new year comes with resolutions, but after a tumultuous 2020, perhaps self-care in the form of the ancient practice of yoga is what we really need. As we hunker down within our homes, the importance of a positive mental and emotional outlook is paramount. Few other exercises are better suited for these times than yoga, which invites us to be still and breathe.
The practice of yoga can be traced back 5,000 years. Its influence on American culture began in the 1960s among Hollywood elite and counter-culture youth, but as its health benefits became more widely accepted, Americans embraced yoga as a fitness staple.
By the 1990s, yoga studios were popping up as ubiquitously as Starbucks, and yoga became a fitness lifestyle and even a brand. For the uninitiated, yoga may bring to mind difficult poses, high-end leggings, and chanting, but in fact yoga requires no special equipment and is accessible to and for anyone.
Meet local yogis who share their journeys and the benefits available to improve the physical, mental, and emotional health of the whole family.
Teens With A Purpose Offers Yoga for All Ages
Join Dierdre Love at Purpose Park in Norfolk
Deirdre Love is the executive director of the Norfolk based non-profit Teens with a Purpose. It is no surprise that she has been practicing yoga for the majority of her life, as love radiates from her.
“My yoga journey started in high school,” said Deirdre. “I was a very introverted student and felt like I didn’t fit in. One of my teachers introduced me to yoga as something to help me feel more connected, and it was a gift! I’ve practiced yoga ever since.”
Deirdre’s life mission is about empowering people in different ways. Since yoga was the tool that helped her the most, she began inviting yoga instructors into the Teens with a Purpose space weekly. Yoga was the perfect fit to address the anxiety and concerns the teens had, teaching them to use their breath to control their heart rate.
Deirdre began to see these benefits move off the yoga mat and worked towards her own certification. “Yoga gives us the space to just be quiet, particularly in this partisan world,” she said. “Yoga allows us to be a mirror to someone that has an opposite belief. It all boils down to love.”
Deirdre taught yoga first to senior citizens, helping with their strength, flexibility, and sense of community. As Deirdre witnessed the teens embrace yoga, she started a Saturday morning practice in their local community garden. There 15-year-old boys can be overheard leading poses, initiating breathing exercises, and telling each other to reach to the sky.
Everyone from toddlers to grandmothers attend this community practice. “It’s amazing to see these teens just step up [and] volunteer to lead sessions,” said Deirdre. “It’s transformative.”
“My hope is that people who never would have stepped on a mat will know that it’s not an exclusive place,” she continued. “It’s there waiting to meet you where you are. Yoga is for every body and everybody!”
Weather permitting, Community Yoga is free and open to the public every Sat. at 10:30 at Purpose Park, 801 Church St. in Norfolk. Find out more about Community Yoga and Teens With a Purpose at www.twp-themovement.org
Make Yoga A Family Affair
Invite The Whole Family To Destress on the Yoga Mat
Mother-daughter team Jivani Lisa Drago and Sarah Willacker know yoga can bring a family together. Jivani is a Virginia Beach-based yoga instructor with an extensive background in fitness who introduced her daughter, Sarah to the practice at an early age.
“I was nine when I first started joining my mom in yoga,” Sarah recalled. “I remember being very interested in the poses and wanting to learn more about them.”
Now away at college, Sarah has found this past year of quarantine and uncertainty the perfect time to recommit to yoga practice. “I got the most benefit out of yoga as a kid. To this day I can still do so many poses because of my early exposure to it,” she said. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve been able to appreciate the mental aspect of it. The fact that I would accompany my mom as a child and have kept it in my life all these years later is amazing.”
Jivani started teaching yoga in 2000, around the same time she became interested in meditation. “Both are about being present in the moment,” Jivani said. Sarah would accompany her to class and quickly joined in with the poses.
“Yoga is a great family activity,” Sarah said. “It’s wholesome and puts you in a good headspace. When you’re doing it with the people you love, it becomes a bonding experience.”
Because yoga requires no special equipment, it’s the perfect exercise to do at home with whatever props you can get your hands on. Jivani teaches at Old Dominion University and had to shift her classes to Zoom meetings in March 2020.
“People don’t need a lot of space. They can use a towel or blanket, and because students are home, they invite family to join in,” Jivani said. She’s had students say their parents tried yoga for the first time because it was virtual.
Yoga doesn’t require an invitation. “I want people to know yoga is for everybody! As long as you are breathing, you can do yoga,” said Jivani.
As a student of Jivani’s, I can attest to how well she has adapted her classes to the virtual environment. I even cajoled my husband into some sessions in our living room.
“We can all fall into ruts as far as family dynamics go, but yoga gives us space to be quiet together,” said Jivani. “It’s especially great for children to have a place to destress and center themselves. Even young children learn the names of poses like happy baby, pigeon, or tree. They know they can settle into that space.
“We are all overstimulated,” Jivani continued. “Yoga is the opposite of that. It’s okay to be quiet by yourself.”
Even at college Sarah has started a regular practice with her housemates during the pandemic. “It’s just good self-care and ‘me time,’” said Sarah. “There’s no such thing as being bad at yoga. You’re just getting better each time you come to it.”
Yoga Offers Lifelong Benefits
Practicing Yoga Increases Cortisol and Reduces Inflammation
Pamela Smith, M.D., is an OB/GYN practitioner in Chesapeake who has been incorporating the benefits of yoga into her medical care for years. As a longtime yoga participant and certified instructor, Pamela found herself “prescribing” yoga to her patients regularly, particularly in pre-natal and family care.
“There are so many general advantages to practicing yoga: gaining strength, stamina, increasing balance, as well as relieving tension in the back and shoulders,” Pam said. “Emotionally, it calms the nervous system. Just doing the breathing associated with yoga increases your good blood markers of cortisol and reduces inflammation.”
Yoga is the perfect pandemic exercise. “You can do it by yourself,” Pam said. “It calms your breath and stops your mind from ruminating on the things you can’t control. The techniques you learn in a yoga class can carry out into your life.”
Pam is an advocate for minute meditations practices, especially for children. Teaching families the simple act of counting breaths can reduce stress and calm children. “Children enjoy the challenge of standing on one foot for 30 seconds,” explained Pam. “Every member of the family can find something they are good at it, and it unplugs them for that moment where they are just focusing on their body-breath connection.”
While the medical community does not have long-term studies on the benefits of yoga, there are studies that show a correlation between increased strength, flexibility, and balance. “We have evidence that chronic and low back pain are alleviated through yoga, and those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis use less pain medicine with yoga practice,” Pam said.
Even online, yoga can create a sense of community, “Just taking 30 minutes to set an intention and take care of yourself helps connect and nurture your family,” she said. The old adage of counting to 10 and breathing is rooted in yogic principles.
“People who say they don’t want to try yoga because they’re not flexible is like saying you’re too dirty to take a shower,” Pam said. “You go to yoga to improve flexibility. There are benefits for everyone who tries it.”
Virginia Beach yoga teacher Emily Wells-Perritt, owner of Wells Therapeutics, says yoga brings her self-awareness. “The longer I practice yoga, the more deeply I fall in love with it,” she said. “Yoga gives me the space to discover how to occupy my own body, mind, and spirit in ways that feel good and right for me.”
February 22nd marks World Yoga Day, so if you do nothing else for your body and mind this month, check out a yoga video, sign up for an online class, or take five minutes on or off a mat to practice some breathing exercises. Don’t we all deserve to be kind to ourselves?
Editor’s Note: Find gentle yoga online at Wells Therapeutics M, W, & F 10:30-11:30 a.m. Visit www.wellstherapeutics.com for the link. PayPal payment accepted.