Going to the Mat

For the mind, body and spirit, yoga improves wellness

by Robert Zukowski

yoga pose[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n my time in the field of complementary and alternative medicine, I have often heard a variety of practitioners remark that good health and healing is partially a state of mind. If I look at this theory from a conventional, western point of view, I am inclined to agree. How many times have you had a bad week or gone through a particularly stressful period in your life and found that you have become ill? It makes sense. In general, stress has a negative physiological impact on the body and the way our assorted systems function. But stress also releases hormones into the body that suppress the immune system.

In our quest for greater wellbeing we may seek out options that strengthen the body. Whether you lift weights, run, engage in sports or partake in any athletics that bring about physical strength and stamina, it is often for the sake of enhanced health. In addition, we may delve into practices that nurture the spirit and the mind, that bring about relaxation and erase anxiety. I can safely say that many of my own clients see me for stress and anxiety reduction. But whether you use massage therapy, meditation, or any other means of relaxation, we often do so in pursuit of good health. In yoga, we find a practice that encompasses both the building of the body and the mind.

Yoga is rooted in ancient Indian philosophy. It is a form of complementary and alternative medicine that falls under the heading of mind and body practices. Yoga is a very popular practice and growing. In 2007, the National Health Interview Survey found that yoga is one of the top ten complementary and integrative health approaches used among U.S. adults. According to the analysis of data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, yoga users reported the most positive health benefits, compared to users of natural products and spinal manipulation. The analysis by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health was published in a National Health Statistics Report by the National Center for Health Statistics. Yoga users were much more likely than users of other approaches to report specific wellness-related outcomes, such as feeling better emotionally. They were also the most likely to report exercising more, eating better, and cutting back on alcohol and cigarettes. While the analysis did not show why yoga users reported greater wellness, more than seventy percent of yoga users reported a “focus on the whole person—mind, body and spirit” as a reason for practicing yoga. Specific findings of the analysis included that nearly two-thirds of yoga users reported that as a result of practicing yoga they were motivated to exercise more regularly, four in ten reported they were motivated to eat healthier and more than eighty percent of yoga users reported reduced stress as a result of practicing yoga. Yoga is something that people living with HIV may practice to promote wellbeing for the body, mind, soul and spirit. Having the ability to take control, of these aspects of yourself is a positive and empowering experience for anyone, especially individuals dealing with a chronic illness.

There is no shortage of yoga options and there are many different styles of yoga that one can practice. In fact, there are yoga studios that offer classes specifically for people living with HIV. Although the styles will differ in some ways, they all tend to combine physical postures, stretching, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation. There is a popular opinion that yoga is an ideal exercise for people living with HIV. Not only does it help to build muscle and energy, but it also reduces stress. Some opt for forms of yoga that challenge the body and others believe that gentler forms of yoga, which focus on simple poses and breathing techniques, versus exercises that overly tax the body, are the best course of action.

I had the opportunity to talk with Paul Adam Sanchez who is both a yoga instructor and personal trainer. Paul explained that the most important thing about yoga is breathing and learning to breathe properly is paramount to good health. Emotions get stored in the body and can have an impact on health. Shallow breathing is a defense mechanism; a means to anesthetize ourselves. When we learn to breathe properly it can get the bodies energy systems working, and with a proper flow of energy and our systems working at their best, we can start to heal from longstanding issues. Many people live in a sympathetic nervous system state, or in a “fight or flight,” stressed state. Proper breathing, at a slow and relaxed pace, helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest and digest” response. This is a healing state that aids in sleep, circulation, digestion, elimination of waste and toxins and helps the body to achieve a homeostatic balance. Balance itself is another important concept of yoga—balancing the body helps to balance the mind and spirit.

Should you decide to explore yoga, there are many studios and organizations that offer free classes. Of course, as with any undertaking to enhance your health, it is important to seek out qualified practitioners, speak to your medical professionals, and partake of practices within safe and healthy limits for your individual experience.


After a lengthy career in the arts and LGBT activism, Robert Zukowski pursued his goal of a career in complementary and alternative healthcare. He is a New York State licensed Massage Therapist, a Certified Medical Massage Therapist and is certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. In addition to his hands-on work, he is a writer and lecturer in the field of therapeutic massage therapy.