Fast Confession – founder of the yoga studio chain Dům jógy Věra Vojtěchová: After two years with the coronavirus, people are in worse health
In today’s world, the yoga phenomenon is a well-known staple. Yoga studios have sprouted in every city and town just like mushrooms after the rain. Yet there are still an awful lot of people who have problems. Whether these are medical or mental in nature, yoga could be the solution. In an interview for LP-Life.com, we talked to Vera Vojtěchová, founder of Prague's yoga studio chain Dům jógy, about people, their lifestyle and the impact of yoga on it. Not only yoga as an exercise, but especially the effects of proper breathing, which is the alpha and omega of all problems.
Breathing, lungs, and health (mental or other) have become completely new concepts nowadays. How is the coronavirus reflected in today's society mindset about yoga?
I think it was already very popular before the pandemic, and I think its popularity will keep growing. The lockdown period has certainly brought a lot of negative things with it, but on the other hand, we have been forced to stop the hectic pace of our lives and re-evaluate our priorities, our outlook on life and consequently our breathing. If you look at yoga as a conscious movement, as a way of seeing ourselves and the world around us more in-depth, many people may have become yogis without even knowing it. If I were to talk about attendance at classes though, I guess like all mass events it is understandably weaker, I don't see any changes in that side of things. Unfortunately, I do perceive that people are much worse off health-wise and movement-wise after these two years.
A lot of people have breathing difficulties after the COVID. They look for various alternative ways to improve their breathing and overall mental and physical well-being. Have you seen any new clients in that regard?
You are right that interest in breathing exercises is definitely growing, because through them you can achieve not just better physical health, but breathing is very closely linked to our psyche as well. And yoga has literally been honing these exercises for thousands of years. You have to realize that yoga and its techniques have been with us for hundreds of years, it's not like jogging or aerobics, which was popular for twenty or thirty years, and then they actually found out that it was destroying knees or joints. Hatha yoga has been practised basically for several centuries, breathing techniques for several millennia, and if it didn't work, it would have been figured out a long time ago for sure.
But the truth is that it is not a quick or easy way. Nowadays we prefer to solve every problem with medication; we want to achieve everything immediately and without effort, that's understandable... However, problems with our breathing, with our mental state or with the coronavirus recovery have no quick, simple and permanent solution. So either people will take the longer, harder route, which many don't want to do, or their condition will remain worsened. There's nothing wrong with medication, of course, but if you have frequent back pain, for example, and you're fighting it off with Ibalgin, you can't expect that to solve the cause of your problems. The cause lies in a muscular imbalance, which one pink pill logically has no chance of doing anything about. The pain will usually come back and get worse, and you either start exercising and changing your movement patterns or prepare to spend the rest of your life with it. Of course, especially when we are young, our body has a tremendous regeneration capacity. Often you just need to give it some time, go on holiday, go for a swim, get rid of stress... But as the years go by, such a restart becomes more and more difficult and to get back to the topic of breathing, most of us were already breathing wrong before the COVID. After a serious illness, this condition certainly did not improve, and we can hardly expect any miracles in a few days. It's a long haul and not even yoga can offer any shortcuts.
In the fast confession, you said that no one can breathe properly anyway. Can you elaborate a little more?
The proper breathing pattern in its ideal form is complete science fiction for most of us today. The problem is mainly related to the faulty posture of our body, and this is due to wrong movement habits, poor lifestyle, or even being overweight. If you have hyperlordosis in your lumbar spine, for example, you can't breathe properly until you get your back a little straighter - it's simple biomechanics, but such correction has to be done consciously and over a long period of time. It's not about attending two yoga classes.
The other side of the matter is the enormous stress that the current events often exacerbate even more. But even leaving aside our COVID times, we live in an awful "information smog" and everyday stress, unprecedented in the whole history of mankind. Stress, without us realizing it, automatically affects the contraction of muscular structures; the body perceives mental tension as a consequence of a possible threat from outside and subconsciously tries to protect the most important internal organs, contracting the intercostal muscles to form a protective corset around the heart. And this armour we've built up over the years literally prevents us from taking a deep breath.
The fact that stress affects our breathing is probably known and perceived by everyone; even in popular sayings, we hear that something took our breath away or that we had our breath knocked out of us by something. We just don't usually realize how incredibly complex the devastating effect of prolonged stress on our bodies is, and breathing is just the beginning. On the other hand, breathing is also what can help us reverse it.
What is proper breathing? Into the abdomen?
That's hard to say, though we often advise it that way in layman’s terms. When you are nervous, when you need to release some tension or fear or pain, we recommend breathing into the abdomen - we can watch the abdominal wall rise and descend and that alone calms us down. Of course, in reality, one cannot really breathe into the abdomen, because your lungs end at your rib cage and the movement is only transmitted to the lower torso by intra-abdominal pressure.
I would just like to point out here that when standing or walking, the abdominal wall should be rather firm, as the deep stabilization system is engaged to keep us upright, so the abdomen should not be moving significantly. Rather, we should see the breathing in the area of the back ribs and hips. The opposite indicates pathology.
It seems to me that yogic breathing is not just about having good lungs, not smoking etc., but it is more about helping the rest of the body than the lungs themselves. Am I saying that right?
Not entirely. In yoga terms, the breath is our most important nourishment; yoga sees the breath not just as an intake of oxygen, but as an intake of prana, which literally animates every cell in your body. The better the quality of your breath, the better, healthier or more cultured your life is, the better the quality of the prana your body absorbs.
You can help yourself physically with better breathing, because the postural level of the breath, that is, the role in which you use the breath to straighten your back, straighten your hips, and stretch the entire backside of your body, is irreplaceable. That's the basis. On the other hand, when you breathe in properly, so to speak, "into the abdomen", not only does this result in good oxygenation, but at the same time the breathing movement should project into our backs and gently stretch them, engaging the pelvic floor, all the internal organs should be stimulated, so that they are better regenerated, and each breath also promotes proper digestion and bowel peristalsis and has an effect on the parasympathetic system in the body, and therefore a certain calming effect.
And then there is the psychological component. Yoga and breathing techniques take you to places you normally don't get a chance to go. Did you know that holotropic breathing can get you in an altered state of consciousness, like drugs? You can bring about such a tremendous change in your bodies, in your minds, just by using your breath. We have no other means that can affect our whole body as powerfully as our breath, even though we pay so little attention to it most of the time.
Do you have clients who are so "fast-paced" in life that they find proper breathing unnecessary?
I have a room full of them; that's all of us. It's about realizing things as they are. And, forgive me for repeating myself, that's what our breathing leads us to do again. Exercise is important too, of course, and if we learned to breathe properly and breathed properly all day and all our lives, we might not need any more health and corrective exercises. Everyone notices this when they come to a yoga class. There we have a chance to stop. The teacher guides you to watch your breath, to practice it consciously, to be aware of how we breathe and where we breathe, how our body works. We bring our attention to the breath, suddenly everyone sees for themselves how they calm down, relax, how they feel better, how important the breath is, how it is central not only to physical but also to mental health. I think every person who has been going to yoga for a long time sees it, feels it, and starts to use it for themselves.
You said you had clients in their nineties. How long can a client this age practice yoga?
As long as they can manage! Seniors are the most heterogeneous group of people. When we're in our thirties, we're all able to get some exercise, but as you start to get older, the gap between people who are physically well and those who are physically unwell start to widen tremendously. You get people who are on disability at 50 and people who are still doing yoga at 90, standing on their heads and capable of quite a lot of physical feats.
It's about a lifetime of work. Maybe it's also about genetics, I believe there are some people who are lucky enough to drink, smoke, do nothing all their lives and still get to enjoy a healthy, happy and contented old age. Such people are very few, I assure you. But most people who live this way are already lost by the age of seventy. When some of my clients come to me, they say that they thought they would enjoy life and not bother with any exercise, but that they had no idea that they still had so many years ahead of them. You figure that out right in your 50s or 60s, when something hurts every time you wake up. Of course, your journey is much more difficult then. But it's never too late to start.
However, to start doing something is the key. To not look for excuses why it cannot be done, but, on the contrary, ways it could be done! Life is movement; nothing in life is static. The only thing you can count on in life is that everything is constantly changing and everything is in motion. If your body doesn't stay in motion, that's the beginning of your end.