Yogis are commonly thought of as people who use yoga techniques to help them withstand such exotic ordeals as reclining on a bed of nails or walking on hot coals. While such feats are interesting, few people see any practical application in their everyday lives.
But according to one local yoga instructor, some standard exercises found in Hatha yoga (the type of yoga most commonly taught in Western countries) can help average folks recover from the stresses and indulgences they are likely to experience.
Ulla Kafaloff, a yoga instructor for 12 years and co-founder, with partner Joni Rivas, of Yogasize in Studio City, admits to being a little frightened by the fast pace of American life. That is why she began taking yoga lessons almost immediately after her arrival from Finland in 1972.
Others manage to stay out of the hospital but face life in less than peak health.
She says some people are so determined to live the good life that they overwork and overstress themselves. Other people are undermined by a very different perception of the good life: sitting in front of the television chain-smoking while consuming large amounts of food and alcohol. As a result, "Our systems get clogged and we get the blues," Kafaloff says.
Recently, she led a dozen of her students through a number of yoga exercises, called poses, that she says take little athletic ability to perform, can be done almost anywhere and have a beneficial effect.
Breathing. Like most yogis, Kafaloff is something of a connoisseur in the area of breathing. Says an old yogi proverb, "Life is in the breath; therefore, he who only half breathes, half lives."
Kafaloff says most people don't breathe correctly. "Most people are reverse breathers--they pull their stomachs in when they inhale," she says. "It should expand like a balloon."
She says bloating while breathing can increase one's oxygen intake threefold. That, in turn, improves the quality of one's blood, complexion and general health. She recommends a couple of moments of deep breathing each morning and evening.
She also suggests that people breathe through their noses since that is what it is for. Without the filtering effect of the nose, she says, mouth breathers have a tendency to get colds, infections and sore throats more easily than do people who breathe correctly.
Head Rolling. Letting the neck go limp like a rag doll and rotating the head from side to side is a quick way of doing what yogis perform headstands to do: Send more blood to the brain.
"That prevents headaches and makes you more alert," Kafaloff says. "You remember where you put things, you have better concentration and are less likely to be depressed."
Deep relaxation. Deep relaxation is a technique that is especially useful for combating insomnia, Kafaloff says.
One should lie flat, back on the floor, eyes closed and hands at your side. Breathe slowly and quietly while allowing all muscles to go limp.
Kafaloff says persons having trouble sleeping should also make sure the room is well-ventilated and not too warm.
Forward Bend. The forward bend is an exercise that massages the abdominal muscles and relieves constipation. In a sitting position, "Stretch your legs in front of you and your arms over your head," she says. "Bend down, take hold of the legs, relax the neck and do deep breathing."
Shoulder Stand. Persons feeling run-down and listless may want to try the shoulder stand. "It reverses the pull of gravity," she says. "It is energizing."
Kafaloff's directions for the pose are as follows:
"Lie down on your back with your feet together. Slowly inhaling, raise your legs to a 90-degree angle. Lower them slightly over the head, and support your waist with your hands. Roll back out of the pose vertebra by vertebra."
Cobra Pose. "When we overeat, the kidneys become exhausted," Kafaloff says. "The cobra pose is very good because it relaxes the lower back muscles and the kidney area."
To get into the cobra pose, lie face down with feet together, forehead on the floor and hands under your chest. Inhale and raise the head and chest while keeping the stomach on the floor.
As a side benefit, Kafaloff says, the cobra pose is believed to make a person feel fearless.
Camel Pose. The camel pose is good for reducing stress in the shoulders and neck, Kafaloff says.
To get into the camel pose, "You are up on your knees," she says. "You bend back, placing your palms on your heels." The head flops backward loosely, the pelvis is thrust forward and the weight is slowly transferred from the knees to the arms. The pose should be held for about 10 seconds.
Kafaloff advised pausing for a moment between poses. "In yoga, you rest a little after each pose to judge the effect not just on your body but on your mind."
She says just about anyone with a willing mind can benefit from the techniques she outlines. "Anyone can do this," she says. "All it takes is the willing mind."