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Conversations from the Mat


Yogawoman - Thursday, August 15, 2013

by Tari Prinster

What defines a strong body?  Is it having sexy, toned muscles, or is it the ability to walk to your 8th floor apartment carrying 30 lbs. of groceries?  Some people choose to build a strong body with weightlifting and cardiovascular exercise in the gym, but not with yoga.  The physics of strength building is based on the same principle of creating resistance, regardless of where one pursues it.  The difference between going to the gym and doing y4c yoga is the difference between using weights and using your own body.

Cancer treatments like chemo weaken the body in the act of eliminating cancer as a life-threatening disease.  We hope that treatments only attack fast-growing cells, but healthy cells, such as bone cells, muscle cells, and the cells of most organs, are affected by chemotherapy and radiation.  To reverse this damage, we use yoga in a precise, deliberate way to strengthen the bones, heart, muscles, and other body parts.

Bone Strengthening. Individually, bones are rigid organs; linked together, they form the skeleton, our internal support structure.  Bone is living tissue made of calcium and collagens, and it is constantly changing—just like all body parts.  New bone cells are always replacing old ones.  There are two proteins in bone cells that are responsible for maintaining proper bones and density known as osteoblasts (which build bone) and osteoclasts (which diminish bone).  As we get older, this balance gets disturbed and having thin, weak bones is considered an inevitable part of aging—especially in menopausal women.  An overlooked side-effect of cancer treatments is the thinning of bones, which happens because the balance of these proteins is disturbed, much like they are in the elderly.

When bones are not stressed by how we use them, they do not build.  Research has shown one of the common solutions for weak bones is weight-bearing exercise.  In a study conducted at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in China in 2004, regular participation in weight-bearing exercise was beneficial for accruing peak bone mass and optimizing bone structure.[i]  Weight-bearing research has been mostly limited to the kind done with barbells, so the common recommendation to build bones is to lift weights.  y4c yoga gives you better possibilities of doing this because to build bone strength your own weight is just as effective.

Yoga strengthens the bones because it stresses them in a precise, deliberate way.  In y4c classes, we create stress or bear weight on the bones through simple activities like balancing on one foot.

Cardiovascular Strength and Fitness. Along with lifting weights, popular forms of gym exercise to improve cardiovascular fitness are running on treadmills, cycling, and stair climbing.  The goal is to enhance the body’s ability to deliver even larger amounts of oxygen to working muscles.  Cardiovascular fitness results from the improved efficiency of a lower heart rate and from improved oxygenation throughout the body.  A regular yoga practice can provide both benefits, and you don’t need a treadmill, bike, or Stairmaster!  The repeated pounding from machines like treadmills also can injure joints.  Furthermore, heart disease can be reversed, or at least managed, through diet, meditation, and yoga, as reported in Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Ballantine, 1992).  Currently, Ornish is studying whether prostate cancer can be reversed by diet changes and yoga.

So, yoga helps keep a heart healthy and strong, and y4c yoga is different from other approaches to yoga for cancer patients.  It encourages patterned movement, ranging from slow and gentle to active, which sometimes may appear similar to cardiovascular exercise.  An example is the inclusion of simplified sun salutations, which is a sequence of yoga poses designed to move the spine, arms, and legs in precise directions combined with deep breathing.  The body moves, the blood flows, and the breath deepens—all to create a strong, healthy heart.

[i] P. S. Yung et al., “Effects of Weight Bearing and Non-weight Bearing Exercises on Bone Properties using Calcaneal Quantitative Ultrasound.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 39(8) (2005): 547–551.

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