Exercise and mindfulness are key ingredients to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and yoga is an exceptional way to address both factors, say Birmingham-area yoga practitioners.
“Yoga is not just physical asana postures; it’s also meditation. Yoga is also prana, [or breathing],” said Sanovia Muhammad, 69, who has practiced yoga for 20 years. “Once you get your body ready through the physical process, meditation and breathing are where you really get real with what’s real in your life.”
Akasha Ellis, 49, owner of Birmingham Yoga in Forest Park and director of the facility’s teacher-training program, said it gives everyone who practices a way to “come back home to themselves.”
“When there’s acceptance—an acceptance of love and compassion for ourselves—then there’s peace. And that spreads out to everyone around us,” he said.
Alexis Ray, 36, a West End native, has spent 200 hours deepening her yoga practice under Ellis. She has practiced Hatha yoga—which emphasizes physical exercises to master the body along with the mind, as well as exercises to withdraw it from external objects—for the past four years.
“I love practice, but in the grand scheme of things four years is a very short time in my particular tradition,” Ray said. “I started teaching because I practice a very specific type of Hatha yoga that not many people in the area practice or teach.”
Yoga is mental and emotional self-care, Ray said: “Yoga practice helps keep my life in perspective. I feel steady since starting a regular yoga practice. I don’t feel as concerned with trivialities as I did before I started practicing.”
It’s also increased her ability to recognize and focus on what’s important.
“If you are in circles where people discuss or practice yoga for any length of time, someone is going to say yoga is a practice of awareness,” Ray said. “This is something I have found to be true in my own practice. The awareness I have gained has helped me eliminate thought patterns and behaviors that were not serving me.”
It’s not as much about negativity as it is about how you react to it, she said.
“The things that I haven’t been able to change have less of an impact,” Ray said. “Even though I may still have negative thoughts, I am better able to modify my reaction to those thoughts.”
Committing to a yoga practice is a commitment to self-care, said Muhammad, who teaches hot yoga at the downtown Birmingham YMCA every Wednesday; she also is the lead yoga instructor for Get Healthy on the Railroad, free exercise classes conducted on Thursday evenings from March through October at Railroad Park.
“It’s a discipline of self-awareness,” Muhammad said. “It’s a discipline of self-control. It’s a discipline of self-discovery, [a look] inside to all the self-language about how to care for yourself in the best way.”
Many believe self-care is more important now than ever. Research shows that constant exposure to negative news can affect your mental health over time. Data published in 2016 found that a majority of Americans are stressed about the future of the nation. And a Huffington Post article noted that cable news is banned from many fitness-facility screens because of the toll it takes on people. As a result, many are taking steps to find inner peace and wholeness.
“People are getting healing through Reiki Energy, [a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing]. People are bathing in minerals, like a good Epsom salt soak,” Muhammad said. “I go to Jeju Sauna, [a Korean spa in Atlanta, that offers] healing pods: one is crystal, one is salt, one is charcoal—all these elements detoxify and take away stress [from the body]. Jeju has a space for full-body steaming, a whirlpool, a coal plunge that opens up all the cells in the body, all of which are holistic healing practices.”
Muhammad understands why more people are searching for deeper spirituality through yoga.
“Black people, especially, have always been searching for that because of all the oppression and denial of our humanness,” she said. “We faltered in that growth. … We had to come into the knowledge of who we are and who we were before slavery. This is why [the celebration of] Kwanzaa is so important, because it’s a time for us to reconnect, reassess, and remember who we are.
“As African people, I think we are definitely on a path of connecting with spirit outside of religion and with spirituality outside the confines of religious doctrine. So, this is the best time, especially because of all the turmoil that’s happening in the world.”