SAN DIEGO – While some people practice yoga to stay active, others have found yoga to be not just a good exercise but also therapeutic. 40-year-old Vu Dang is one of those people.
At the age of 17, Dang’s life as he once knew it changed in a matter of seconds. During a high school football game, he was tackled by a large group on the opposing team and was left with a serious concussion and long-term brain damage. The injury put him in a coma for six months and he was forced to relearn several activities he once took for granted. Dang found himself struggling in areas of his life where he once excelled.
“I knew I had to do something to turn my life around,” Dang said. “I needed to find myself and become grounded again.”
Dang explored many different techniques to help ease his pain and build back his strength. He said he found that yoga’s physical and meditative aspects helped him regain his sense of balance, improved his cognitive brain functions and reduced the pain he had throughout his body. Now more than 20 years since his injury, yoga has become a regular part of his life and is currently helping him as he battles Cancer.
MULTIMEDIA: Vu Dang explains how yoga and meditation has helped him get his life back on track and how others can benefit.
What makes yoga different
The National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health describes yoga as the combination of physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation. Yoga works on the physical imbalances of the body and each posture helps to break up physical congestion in muscle groups and soft tissue.
Danieli Gabardo, a yoga therapist at True Nature Therapies, says it’s important that people listen to their bodies and tailor their yoga practice to their individual needs. She suggests people ease into the practice and learn how the different asanas can target different muscle groups. Before becoming a yoga therapist, Gabardo practiced yoga to help recover from a serious back injury.
“I work with a variety of people dealing with different things starting from chronic body pain to more serious health concerns,” Gabardo said. “Not everyone is going to benefit from the same practice.”
She recommends yoga as a form of therapy over other forms of therapies because it works with the whole body spiritually, emotionally and physically while other therapies only target one muscle group.
SLIDESHOW: Yoga instructor Steve Hubbard explains the healing benefits of yoga on the body. More than 100 people meet at Pacific Beach every Saturday morning to take his beachside class.
While there are several different styles of yoga, restorative yoga is the most common style practiced for stress and injury rehabilitation.
According to Women’s Health, restorative yoga uses specialized techniques to direct the blood flow to the injured areas. In addition, strategically placed props including blankets and pillows are used in the practice to get a deeper stretch and help the person become more relaxed.
Miranda Hope, a registered yoga instructor teaches restorative yoga to the military population at the VA San Diego Hospital. The veterans suffer from a wide range of conditions, although Hope said her classes are often filled with veterans recovering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“One patient came up to me after class and told me that when he first walked in he didn’t believe in what I was preaching,” Hope said. “But then he said he hasn’t been able to smell in nine years and he could smell right after taking my 30 minute class.”
She also teaches restorative yoga to patients with missing limbs. Hope said every person is different and while some may see results right away, it may take others a longer time to see real changes in themselves and their bodies.
How meditation plays a role
In a study that tested the effects of mindfulness meditation, scientists found that meditation increases the grey-matter density of the brain associated with the area that targets a person’s memory and ability to comprehend information.
In addition, the scientists found that the participants of the study had reduced levels of psychological stresses including anxiety, depression and pain since incorporating meditation into their lives.
“I believe meditation is a crucial part of the yoga practice and I meditate at least once a day for about 15 to 20 minutes,” Dang said. “By meditating, I’ve found that I’m able to release all my negative thoughts and engage my brain in a positive way.”
There are several different forms of meditation including mantra meditation and mindfulness meditation. According to the NCCIH, yoga and tai chi are two of the most common physical activities that incorporate meditation in their practices.
“We have 80,000 thoughts a day and most of them aren’t even true,” Hope said. “Meditation helps us watch our thoughts, abandon our thoughts and decide which ones are true and need a reaction.”
According to Hope, yoga and meditation has the ability to completely transform people if they allow it to. She said yoga’s mental and physical disciplines is like nothing else but in order to reap the benefits, you have to fully commit yourself to it.