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Spiritual benefits of yoga among key aspects of personal fitness

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Morgan Jones Johnston, an artist and the owner of Woodlawn-based clothing store Club Duquette, is an avid yogi. (Provided photo)

By Monique Jones

The Birmingham Times

Morgan Jones Johnston, an artist and the owner of Woodlawn-based clothing store Club Duquette, is an avid yogi. (Provided photo)
Morgan Johnston, an artist and the owner of Woodlawn-based clothing store Club Duquette, is an avid yogi. (Provided photo)

Looking for a way to kick-off 2017 with a renewed commitment to fitness? It’s best to start with what fits your lifestyle, said Becca Impello, physical therapist, therapeutic yoga instructor, and owner of Embody Practice Center in Mountain Brook.

“I think it’s really important to consider what makes the most sense for you, your level of physical shape, and your condition at the time,” she said. “We may zoom in on thinking, ‘I just need to lose weight’ or ‘I just need to start getting some cardiovascular activity for my heart,’ but it’s important to consider your whole being.”

Instead of creating an aggressive exercise regimen, add an activity that balances your schedule and current stress load, Impello said.

“Maybe for some people it’s going to be a gentle-to-moderate yoga class that helps them breathe deeper, relax a little more, and calm down their nervous system,” she said. “Maybe it’s going to be a fun dance class that helps them let off some steam.”

There are several ways to begin the new year fit. One key way is to pay attention to your mental health, said Marion Wallace, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry.

Often, mental health is neglected in New Year’s fitness resolutions.

“We don’t take goals and steps to prioritize mental health like we do physical health,” Wallace said. “Researchers and clinicians know that there’s a direct link between how you feel emotionally and how behaviorally activated you are. When you feel better, you do more. And when you do more, that directly relates to your physical health and physical wellness. … I think we need to discuss them conjointly because they’re so intertwined. We definitely need to prioritize mental health because it is important.”

Here are a few ways you can get and stay fit—inside and out—in 2017, including with yoga, self-care and by volunteering.

Yoga

Yoga is a practice that improves the mind and body and provides benefits across the whole spectrum of our whole being, Impello said.

“Many consider there to be spiritual benefits, too. They feel it enhances whatever spiritual state they have, or maybe it helps them cultivate a better relationship with a divine force,” she said. “It deepens your own connection to yourself and the world around you.”

Morgan Johnston, an artist, the owner of Woodlawn-based clothing store Club Duquette, and an avid yogi, can attest to the benefits of yoga.

“My first exposure to yoga was more than a decade ago,” she said. “My practice fell dormant for years, and then I returned to it after a life-threatening illness in 2014. I started going to restorative classes at Villager Yoga [in Birmingham] and found that it gave me a safe space to explore the sensations and emotions I was experiencing in my mind, body, and spirit. Yoga played a huge part in my healing journey, and I became a certified alignment yoga teacher in 2016.”

Yoga has allowed Johnston to “go inward.”

“Through intention, practice, asana [yoga postures], breath, exploration, and its application on and off the mat, there are so many benefits,” she said. “I am a big believer that we each need to shut off and go inward from time to time. Yoga is an invitation to go inward, to explore your mind, your body, your spirit, your breath.

Lauren Rae Brown, yoga instructor at Embody Practice Center with client (provided photo)
Lauren Rae Brown, yoga instructor at Embody Practice Center with client (provided photo)

Self-Care

Fitness also includes taking care of yourself emotionally.

“Most of us feel a certain elevated level of stress from the demands of everyday life, and prolonged periods of stress are really bad for our bodies. We have to exercise self-care,” Johnston said. “To do all the things we want to do in life, our bodies, minds, and spirits must be taken care of, nourished, tuned up. Remember that the tools are right within you, and every moment is a new opportunity to do that thing you really have been wanting to do.”

It helps also to check in on our emotions, which should be as automatic as brushing our teeth, Wallace said.

“I think we should always do a check-in—this can be at night or in the morning. Ask yourself, ‘How do I feel? Am I sadder than usual? Do I feel heavy? Do I feel any sense of pride, joy, or purpose? Do I feel fulfilled?’” she said. “What goes hand-in-hand with checking our emotions is asking, ‘What am I going to do differently? How am I going to make today better than yesterday?’ If yesterday was great, ask, ‘How can I keep that going?’”

Proper self-care also means avoiding the temptation to compare yourself with others, Wallace said.

“We tend to do upward social comparison. We compare ourselves to people we perceive as more attractive, more financially stable, people we perceive as funny or healthy. We always do that,” she said. “The idea is that we’re doing it to motivate ourselves, but really we know it makes us feel worse because we’re just comparing ourselves. We’re always finding someone to compare ourselves to, and that makes us feel bad about ourselves. I think one thing we can be conscious of is to just observe and describe, not judge.”

Volunteer

Another way to stay fit: volunteer.

“When we give back there is a really good reward. It helps us feel better about ourselves,” said Amanda Carmichael, assistant director for domestic violence services for the Central Alabama YWCA. “Practicing gratitude is one of the ways that has been shown to be helpful even with depression and anxiety. … A lot of those feel-good endorphins get released, and there’s usually a positive outcome not only for the beneficiary of your service but for you as the volunteer, too.”

The YWCA provides many opportunities for volunteers.

“We strive to provide holistic services to the folks who seek our services, and we encourage that in our staff, as well,” Carmichael said. “Healing holistically and being a whole person make you feel better, and those are things we all strive to attain.”

She also added, “To be grateful and to look at ways of giving back are two additional important ways we can reduce our stress and live more holistically.”