There are many reasons why yoga has kept people calm and centered for thousands of years.
Known for its numerous physical and mental benefits, yoga’s slow paced, meditative and restorative nature also makes it the ideal exercise to do when fasting.
Below, Pem Fassa, yoga instructor and former owner of The Hot House Abu Dhabi, explores why regular simple bending and stretching can help you go through Ramadan feeling happier, healthier and more balanced than ever before.
“I believe that yoga and meditation, coupled with appropriate medical care, can help a person navigate out of a dark place. When you are feeling lost, it can be difficult to find proper help. But, if you take a look at the structure of any yoga class, there are poses that are challenging for everyone. The purpose is simply to get through them the best we can. This reminds us of the law of impermanence — that everything changes. When we struggle to complete a pose and feel relieved when it’s over, this brings to light that everything changes. Sorrow can be followed by instant joy, and a moment of weakness can quickly turn to strength. For someone struggling with depression, yoga can help shift their perspective and reinforce the belief that there is a way out, that there is hope.
Furthermore, meditation enables us to identify our feelings and acknowledge them. When we are in a state of discomfort or ”dis-ease,” our first instinct is to run away. But meditation encourages us to feel our emotions and sit with discomfort. By doing so we don’t solve the root cause but we diffuse the strength of the emotion that we are trying to evade. I see more and more people gravitating towards yoga because they think it can help them cope with the anxieties of modern society, including stress, disconnection and mental illness. However, it’s important to highlight the importance of maintaining a consistent yoga practice. It is not a quick-fix solution that can just be tried during Ramadan or any other period. Healing and recovery take time.”
To reduce anxiety during Ramadan, I recommend yoga classes that focus on breath awareness, meditation and slow-paced and restorative moves. The simple act of conscious breathing can reduce the impact of stress and anxiety on the mind and body. When we experience anxiety, we breathe faster, our body produces stress hormones, our heart rate rises and our blood pressure increases. The body intuitively prepares itself for the worst-case scenario in a fight or flight response.
Taking deep, abdominal breaths can reverse this effect and bring the body back to an optimal level of functioning. A physical (asana) practice can help relieve muscle tension. Adding to that a mantra such as “I am at peace” can lead you into a calm and peaceful state of mind.
Depression is a disease that permeates all layers of modern society without regard to age or class, race or profession. As a mother of two teenagers, it grieves me to know that they have already experienced the loss of a friend to suicide. In my late twenties, I lost my childhood friend this way. He was a wonderful person who, it seemed to me at least, was leading a meaningful life. A father of two little boys, he had a beautiful wife and a stellar career. It haunts me to this day that we were clueless to his suffering.
I read recently how a suicide can have a ripple effect on family members, friends and communities and can be a precursor to feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression. I myself first turned to meditation and yoga to help me address my grief and process it. I remember being drawn to fast-paced and physical practices that required total focus on breath and movement, and stopped my mind from wandering elsewhere.
I’ve had students talk to me after class and tell me how much yoga has helped bring them back from the depths of despair, grief and hopelessness. Recently I had a student tell me she had been struggling with depression for years and that practicing yoga regularly had saved her life. One of my closest friends discovered yoga during rehab after struggling with addiction and depression, and they have maintained a consistent practice for five consecutive years.
Depending on the severity of a person’s suffering or inability to cope, I would definitely suggest they seek medical advice before trying a yoga class. Stepping into a yoga class for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially if a person is experiencing feelings of isolation and feels uncomfortable around others. I would suggest maybe starting with one-on-one classes, before gradually moving into a group setting. An experienced teacher will prescribe poses that naturally calm the central nervous system and make the practitioner feel at ease. I would also encourage them to give more than one yoga style a try. One size doesn’t fit all, but there is a style for everyone out there. I would also highly recommend downloading a meditation app that allows you to track your journey.
Reconnect with yourself
Ramadan is a time for deep connections, and yoga is an effective way of reconnecting with what’s inside us. After all, in today’s world, we tend to disconnect from everything around us, including ourselves. We spend countless hours connected to our phones and plugged into other people’s lives through social media.
We are always ‘doing’ rather than just ‘being’. Putting so much focus on the world outside our own is bound to have a negative impact on our mental stability.
But yoga is an introspective journey of re-connection. Combining fluid movement with mindful breathing, it induces a sense of calm and sharpens the mental focus. Creating a state of calm minimizes our emotional reactivity and enables us to cope with every stressful situation that life throws at us.
The owner of The Hot House studio in Al Zeina, Pem has been a yoga teacher for more than 20 years, training extensively, first at the Sivananda yoga school in Geneva, and later through Bodhi Yoga Academy and Bryce Yoga. She's also a certified Anti Gravity yoga instructor.
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