For beginners, yoga may feel like a battle to bend your body into various pretzel-like positions, but for longtime yogis, the exercise is about much more than that. Yoga at its essence offers a way to prioritize our wellbeing when we feel overwhelmed by the world around us, believes Joanna Colwell, founder and director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury.
“We’re all looking for some stability and spaciousness in our bodies right now,” Colwell said. “Yoga is always a way to ground ourselves before making change. Through yoga postures and breathing exercises, we’re carving out time for ourselves.”
Yoga, meaning “unite” in Sanskrit, is a type of exercise that originated in ancient India. It began as a spiritual practice, used to achieve union between body, mind and spirit as well as between personal and universal consciousness. Today, yoga has become a popular way to practice physical and mental wellbeing. Individuals are typically guided through the exercise by certified instructors, who lead students through physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation.
Once a person learns the practice they can often do it on their own.
There are different styles of yoga, ranging in difficulty level and focus. Colwell specializes in Iyengar yoga, a style that focuses on the alignment, sequence and timing of different postures. Regardless of style, the yoga postures and breathing exercises individuals learn in class are tools they can use off the mat, bringing strength and renewal into their lives outside of the studio.
“In my yoga classes we spend a fair amount of time standing up as tall as possible to bring length to the spine. We feel the earth under our feet, and we press our heels down to stabilize ourselves,” Colwell said. “All of these simple actions help us feel more calm and spacious, and we can take a moment wherever we are to lengthen our spine, to come back to our breath, and to steady ourselves.”
Sansea Sparling, a yoga instructor at Otter Creek Yoga and Bristol’s Open Sky Studio, echoed the role yoga plays in refocusing a practitioner’s attention on the power of breathing well.
“If a thought is bothering you or if you feel suddenly anxious or nervous people say ‘take a deep breath,’ but it’s a good idea to take more than one. It’s a good idea to breathe well all the time, whenever you can possibly remember it,” Sparling said. “Yoga fosters that habit of breathing well.”
Yoga can be used to target specific physical goals for the body as well. Sparling said regularly doing yoga can help individuals strengthen their body and heal physically.
“It’s really not about getting buff, but it is a way to get stronger, to get more resilient and especially it’s a way to heal. It’s a way to heal from surgeries or injuries,” said Sparling.
Otter Creek Yoga and Open Sky Studio both have lingering COVID-19 safety protocols in place, offering additional peace of mind to students who are wary of attending classes in person during the pandemic. Otter Creek Yoga has a general mask policy in place for everyone entering the building, though individuals are free to take off their masks at their mat. Colwell also offers hybrid yoga classes, available online for people wanting to join in from home.
Colwell said many students have been taking advantage of this Zoom option, though her in-person classes remain relatively well-attended and offer students a space to build community in a world that is figuring out what that means two years into a pandemic.
“One basic thing we are doing in our studio is practicing together, as a community, moving and breathing together, and knowing that we are all trying to support one another,” Colwell said.
Whether for a greater community or for ourselves, Sparling said she encourages anyone interested to reap the lasting benefits of the exercise.
“It’s worth maintaining or starting a practice however you can,” Sparling said. “Yoga is a lifetime journey with lifetime benefits.”
Key Yoga Terminology
Instructors commonly use Sanskrit words in yoga practices, which may be challenging to follow for beginners. Below are some common terms to know before you step into the studio.
Namaste: A traditional Indian greeting, often used to end a yoga practice. Commonly translates in Sanskrit to, “the divine light in me bows to the divine light in you.”
Om: A sound more than a word. Often chanted in yoga classes and used as a mantra to settle into meditation.
Asana: The physical postures taken in yoga. Each pose name ends with “asana” in Sanskrit.
Yogi: Someone who practices yoga.
Heart center: A common way for instructors to refer to the center of the chest.
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