by Wynne Hayes
In my youth (as in my 40s) when anyone suggested trying yoga, I politely answered with “I am a gym junkie. I will try it when I get older.” (Translation: “When pigs fly. Yoga is for wimps.”). Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I started yoga four years ago at 53. Had I understood the physical and mindful benefits of yoga, I would have started this journey much earlier. No regrets, though - better late than never.
So, what about yoga surprised me?
The long and short of it is, whether it is yoga or anything else…you’ll never know until you give it a try…and it is never too late or too early to start.
Wynne Hayes, a member of the Board of Directors of Retreat Center of Maryland, started yoga when she was 53 and values its physical and mindful benefits. As the Chief Information Officer of Howard County Government and a veteran of several other volunteer boards of directors, Wynne contributes organizational, strategic planning, and technology expertise to the RCM board.
by Kathy Donnelly
The word yoga is translated as union, yoking or joining. While I have often experienced that harmony between breath and body in my yoga practice, and between mind and heart in my meditation practice, kayaking is where I feel my union with nature. When the kayak slips into the water, I am part of the whole of the natural world. I am not a sport kayaker - I go for the smooth, glass-like lakes where I can paddle a bit, then just float and drift while looking for herons and muskrats. I also see turtles basking in the sun and beavers flapping their tails while I get up close and personal with water lilies and dragonflies. My favorite time of day is twilight when it seems like the natural world begins to wake up again. I have seen families of raccoons walking along the edge of the water and deer coming to the shoreline for a drink. One day the deer were standing in the middle of the water lily growth, eating all the flowers. How wonderful that must have been for them.
Retreat Center of Maryland will be hosting another day of Yoga and Kayaking at my favorite spot, Piney Run Park on September 30, 2018. We will practice yoga in a pavilion that overlooks the lake, then head to the lake for a guided paddle with the naturalist. Hope to see you there!
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Kathy Donnelly chairs the Program Committee on the Board of Directors of Retreat Center of Maryland. A Yoga Alliance Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher, E-RYT500, with over 20 years of practice, study and training in yoga and meditation, Kathy is devoted to kayaking and to fostering the integration of yoga, meditation and the natural world.
by Anne-Marie Botek
Why should serious athletes care about yoga?
This question is most often answered with a laundry list of research-backed physical benefits that includes:
This list, while impressive and important, fails to highlight the potential for a well-rounded yoga practice to help transform a primarily physical athlete - someone who plays sports and performs athletic skills with a certain degree of expertise - into a holistic athlete - someone who harnesses the full power of body and mind to become more present and proficient in life, not just in athletic endeavors.
Even though “everyone loves a winner,” the ultimate aim of athletics is to teach a person how to remain present, open, and willing to engage with whatever life places before him or her in that moment. Even Tony D’Amato, the hard-charging head coach in the gritty football drama Any Given Sunday, acknowledges the power of the present moment when he tells his players, “That’s what living is. The six inches in front of your face.”
By actively engaging with multiple aspects of yoga, not just the physical practice of asana (or “postures”), an athlete obtains the opportunity to practice the techniques that can help him or her make the most of those “six inches,” regardless of whether he or she is playing on the field or participating in the game of life.
Yoga’s unique physical benefits for athletes
Athletic training often prioritizes the sharpening of sport-specific skill sets as well as increasing muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. While these are essential elements of any practice regimen, a narrowly-focused training plan that emphasizes certain muscle groups and neglects others can cause dangerous imbalances in an athlete’s body. Sport-specific stretching routines are designed to combat these imbalances and help athletes stave off injury, but research indicates that the effectiveness of these programs is minimal.
But what happens when a well-designed asana practice is added to the mix?
According to a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga, male college athletes who were given a 10-week yoga practice to follow in addition to their regular training routine demonstrated greater increases in flexibility and balance than their teammates who followed a regular, sport-specific stretching routine. The authors of the study explain that a yoga practice is so beneficial because it requires an athlete to recruit multiple aspects of fitness at the same time (strength, breath, flexibility, etc.) as opposed to a more targeted training effort that focuses on an isolated area of the body.
Dr. Jay Paslgrove, lead author of the study and researcher at North-Eastern Illinois University’s Department of Health, writes:
"The physical practice of yoga consists of maintaining regular and steady breathing while changing the positioning of the body through a series of Asanas (static postures) during which all the targeted and supporting muscle groups are engaged (under tension). Connecting breathing mechanics to an engaged musculoskeletal system while performing the poses provides a holistic challenge to the whole body."
In addition to strengthening sports-related skill sets, yoga can be helpful in preventing injury in all sports, especially those that require athletes to perform frequent explosive movements. In addition, the greater body awareness that a mindful yoga practice cultivates increases an athlete’s ability to detect minor physical issues before they become full-blown injuries.
Helping athletes play the game of life
It’s clear that asana alone can bestow a wealth of benefits on a competitor, but is there anything an athlete can gain by exploring some of the other elements of a yoga practice?
In yoga philosophy, “play” (or lila), is the source of the entire universe; everything came into being because The Absolute decided to play. As human beings, we are called upon each day to engage as skillfully as we can in the playing out of life. Through literal play, athletes learn to cope with the ups and downs of the lila of life. They acquire the skills to remain strong, resilient, and adaptable in the face of difficulty, and gracious, humble, and kind in the face of fortune. This is where the true value of combining yoga with athletics lies.
When it comes to sports, the attention is most often placed on win-loss records and championship trophies. However, this approach cheapens the true nature of athletics and the concept of “play.” A regular yoga practice can also help athletes reconnect with their playful sides and navigate the challenges of stress and performance anxiety.
Luxmi Sharma explains this connection in her article in the 2015 edition of the International Journal of Physical Education:
"The attention to breath during yoga can be considered one of the most important benefits to athletes. Learning to stay focused and centered through uncomfortable poses by concentrating on even inhalations and exhalations sets up the athlete to stay focused during a race or challenging workout. The mind-body connection in yoga is essential to helping athletes develop mental acuity and concentration."
In addition to asana and pranayama (breathwork), the yogic principles of focused concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) can be useful practices for athletes. Even just 10 minutes a day of silent contemplation can help an athlete more effectively regulate her or his stress response.
The details of specific competitions will fade, and the medals and trophies will collect dust, but the life lessons learned through a holistic approach to sport will remain vivid. Incorporating multiple aspects of yoga practice into life will ensure that the athlete has the strength and flexibility of mind and body to make the most of the six inches in front of his or her face.
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Anne-Marie Botek discovered her passion for yoga in 2005. After receiving a BA in Marketing from the University of Georgia, she spent several years in Florida as editor-in-chief of a website for family caregivers. Upon returning home to Maryland and attending a life-changing yoga retreat, Anne-Marie decided to switch careers, and she is now a teacher and coach at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md. After incorporating mindfulness exercises into her classroom routine, she decided to deepen her understanding of yoga so that she could better serve her students and athletes. In November 2018, Anne-Marie will complete her RYT 200 training, and she looks forward to using this knowledge to better serve the community of learners with whom she works. Anne-Marie is also excited to use her writing and marketing expertise to help Retreat Center of Maryland grow.
by Kimberly Flyr
As I write this, it’s the start of a new session at Yoga Center of Columbia. As I was planning my classes for the session, I started to think about why I teach yoga - what has yoga taught me that is so important that I want to share it with others? Here was my initial list of what I’ve learned and why I’m so grateful to yoga:
It’s not a bad list, really…I’ll enjoy sharing all of these themes with my students. But something happened this week that reminded me in a more personal way how I’ve benefited from yoga.
I was having a difficult day. I was arguing with not one, but two, family members, and I could feel all my old habits kicking in: shoulders tightening, stomach clenching, breath shortening, defensiveness building, etc. I wish I could say that my years of yoga allowed me to find nothing but peace and wellbeing and sail through this day with goodwill to all.
Suffice to say that was not my experience.
Still, something interesting did happen. I found myself able to be more aware of my habits, to witness myself, even as I fell into old patterns. I was still defensive, still worked up, but I could see it from some distance and even breathe into it a little. There was a part of me that could help the rest of me get through a difficult day.
While that didn’t fix everything, it was enough. It felt like a little miracle, actually, this ability to access a new form of self-care. I see so many of the benefits of yoga that I had listed as the seeds that flowered into this new way of being with myself, showing up unexpectedly just when most needed.
And so, I will be adding a #13 to my list: Help getting through difficult days. No small benefit… and well worth sharing.
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Kimberly Flyr, a member of the Board of Directors of Retreat Center of Maryland, is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher, RYT300, as well as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She also writes, and her reflections have been published in several local and national publications.
by Elizabeth Manne
The human body is an amazing vehicle, and we get to choose how we use it.
The answers to these questions are all based on the choices we make. As with all things, finding balance in the way we use our bodies is advisable. When I set out to explore the ways that the athletic energy we use when we run compares to the energy we use when we do yoga, I was surprised to learn that research shows many similarities between the two, physically as well as mentally and spiritually.
Both yoga and running help to build strong bones, strengthen muscles, improve cardiovascular fitness, improve self-esteem, fight depression, sharpen focus, improve mental stamina and boost the immune system. Yoga is union of body, mind and spirit. Running, swimming, bicycling, hiking and dancing also bring this kind of union.
There is a different kind of exertion used in yoga as opposed to running. Maybe one takes more mental effort to get you to commit to doing it. Maybe one of these activities causes you to sweat more. Once you make a commitment to exerting either kind of energy, however, the benefits will show up in your life. Each is useful in its own time and in moderation, each can bring joy and lasting good health.
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Elizabeth Manne, vice president of Retreat Center of Maryland, is a devoted runner. A Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher, RYT500, she has been teaching yoga for four of the 10 years she has been studying yoga.
by Nancy Kochuk
Yoga can be most effective in places that you might consider the least friendly environments for a such a practice - in prisons, for example. But if you are a yoga student, yoga in prison makes perfect sense. In your yoga practice, you’ve already experienced that shift from a ramped-up, vigilant state (that's our sympathetic nervous system responding to stress) to a calmer, less reactive state (the parasympathetic nervous system controls our rest-and-digest functions). That state of equilibrium in both the body and the mind that yoga produces can be enormously helpful to the men and women incarcerated in our prisons and jails. So many of them have already experienced trauma (think homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and more) in their lives, then they experience even more trauma and stress living in harsh, overcrowded prison environments.
Research studies confirm the positive impact that yoga can have on the men and women who participate in prison yoga classes. But for an up-close and personal view, all you need to do is listen to what incarcerated students tell their yoga teachers:
When prisoners are released back into our communities, we want them to be healthier people, in body, mind and spirit. Yoga is a tool that can help people become their best selves.
In any yoga class, when we focus on the experience we are having on our mat and in our body in that moment, we give ourselves permission to let go, breathe and create those little moments of peace, clarity and empowered choice that are essential to our wellbeing. That’s a practice all of us - incarcerated or not - can use in our daily lives.
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NOTE: Retreat Center of Maryland sponsored a daylong “Replenish the Well” retreat in early July 2018 at no cost for yoga teachers and meditators who volunteer in Maryland prisons.
Nancy Kochuk is a volunteer teacher and coordinator for the Maryland Prison Yoga Project. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Retreat Center of Maryland and editor of the RCM newsletter, Moving Forward Together.
Here, to balance our earlier quotes about what yoga is, are 11 statements about what meditation is. Which ones resonate with you?
by Linda Nansteel Lovell
Have you ever walked a labyrinth as part of a meditation practice? Full-size WALKING LABYRINTHS are popping up all over the Central Maryland area, and smaller FINGER LABYRINTHS are as a close as your next Google search or even a pencil and paper.
With this blog post, we begin a series about labyrinths – their history, their creation and their uses as tools for achieving inner balance and peace. Before we embark on all those topics, however, we need a bit of clarification.
The terms “labyrinth” and “maze” are used interchangeably more often than not. Although their shapes may be similar, their purposes are completely at odds with one another. They embody two different concepts. Make no mistake: they are not interchangeable terms.
To wit: the labyrinth provides the user with a smooth path to a goal so as to free the mind to turn inward. The maze sets up constant obstacles and demands the user make choices at every intersection. In the labyrinth, there is one single way to the center, and the same path is followed back out. In the maze, there is usually a single starting point and a single ending point. However, the user faces a choice of many paths leading to different places, most far removed from the ending point.
The purpose of a labyrinth is to offer the user an opportunity for introspection, to soothe the soul, to provide the mind a place of refuge from the constant barrage of choices the user faces each day. The purpose of a maze is to challenge the user at every turn, to thwart and (pleasingly) frustrate the user with so many blind alleys.
In short, the purpose of a maze is to get the user lost; the purpose of a labyrinth is to allow the user to find him/herself.
Watch this space for a future blog post about the history of labyrinths.
by Linda Nansteel Lovell
Here are 11 “Yoga is…” quotations. Which one resonates the most with you?
by Linda Nansteel Lovell
A Google search on the word “meditation” yields an astonishing 250 million results in a half a second. Who knew…or even suspected? The annotated list of nine sites which follows is not meant to be the best or the most popular of those sites. These are simply sites which have something of interest to offer a beginning meditator, whether it's about the science supporting meditation or guided meditations to use online or anything in between.
Tara Brach is a popular teacher whose website offers a library of guided meditations as well as an interesting set of links in Resources. Look for “Talks for Beginners.” Free, with a button for donations.
Sharon Salzberg is another popular teacher. Behind the About tab: bios of teachers who’ve influenced her, a Glossary, and recommended Resources (including meditation centers around the country). Free, with a button for donations.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is part of the National Institutes of Health. These pages present a good summary of many of the scientific aspects of meditation and its effects on the body and brain.
This New York Times site is both a “how-to” and “why-to” meditate manual, written in a straightforward manner for people who have no experience. It offers a number of meditations to download. Of particular interest: “3 Ways for Children To Try Meditation at Home.”
The popular magazine Psychology Today groups quite a wide range of links into three categories: Meditation Basics, Recent Posts on Meditation, and Meditation Essential Reads.
Yoga Journal magazine has created a “hub” of tips and guided meditations. Favorite sections: “Get Started Guide” and “Meditation Basics.”
Alice G. Walton goes into considerable scientific depth in this Forbes magazine article. The science is fascinating – but the illustrative story of a woman in chronic pain brings it all to life.
The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers a list of resources and free guided meditations to download.
The Mayo Clinic offers a free, 7-minute guided meditation using a candle flame as focus.