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Movement For Health

When Connor Asay, a pitcher for the Bellarmine University Knights, stands on the mound and stares down a batter, he breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth. He clears his mind. He blocks out all distractions. He focuses on that single pitch, that single batter, that single moment.

He didn’t learn this technique in spring training or from a high-priced trainer. He didn’t learn it from books or pitching videos. He learned this method in a yoga studio.

“I was always looking for an edge to get better at pitching, and at first, I thought yoga would make me flexible and strong. It took a lot of individual experience to understand that yoga focuses your mind as well as tones your body,” says Asay.

Like most kids, Asay started playing tee ball when he was 6 years old, and as a freshman baseball player for Lexington’s Lafayette Generals, he joined a group of seniors who wanted to improve their flexibility by attending a yoga class taught by one of their high school teachers. Asay felt an immediate connection with the centuries-old workout.

Although commonly associated with religious practices in ancient India, most Americans who practice yoga don’t see it as a religious act. Yoga provides stress relief, relaxation, weight loss, and muscle tone. There are more than 100 different schools of yoga, but the yoga mostly practiced in the U.S. is a type known as hatha yoga, which incorporates breathing, stretching, and balancing poses. In a 2012 study by Sports Marketing surveys regarding yoga habits, Yoga Journal reported that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga. Through slow-paced, gentle stretching routines coupled with breath awareness and meditation, yoga practitioners report enhanced feelings of calmness, contentment, and centeredness. Asay soon realized that yoga’s focus on breathing allowed him to prepare mentally for each inning.

“I would go in the dugout between innings and close my eyes, and breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, then nothing could phase me out there.”

Asay learned to focus by holding a particular yoga pose and developing a totally controlled state of mind that translated to mental endurance and single-minded-ness on the mound. Now, as a senior communications major at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Connor takes classes whenever he can and also practices yoga on his own.

“When you focus on a pose, nothing else comes to your mind at that moment. I relate that to the mound, focusing on just one batter at a time, one pitch at a time. Let’s say a hitter gets a double off me. Well, that was a minute ago; now this moment is a new thing. I’ve gotta get this guy out and get this pitch in.”

He experimented with different techniques and listened to his body to tell him what he needed and to develop the mind-body connection. His pre-throwing routine—a series of eight exercises done four times at different intensities to promote looseness and mobility—looks so odd that many of his peers aren’t interested in trying it. “I know it looks weird but it makes my body feel like a million bucks,” says Connor.

In March 2013, Asay was hit in the jaw by a 98-mile-per-hour line drive. Doctors secured his jaw with three metal plates and 20 screws and wired his mouth shut for 50 days. He mended at his parents’ house, and as soon as his doctor released him to do so, he found solace and comfort in a Lexington yoga studio. All the mental preparation he had used before the accident assisted in his recovery, and by late July, he was back on the mound, burning up batters.

While Asay came to yoga looking for an edge to improve his athletic performance, Michelle Fletchall was hoping she could just make it through a day without pain. At 25, she was diagnosed with colitis and decided to change her eating and exercise habits. While going from boxed mac and cheese to butternut squash was a slow journey, her love for yoga was immediate.

“I used to be a pretty anxious person and had a hard time sleeping,” says Fletchall. “After I started yoga, I started sleeping better, my weight started coming down, and I felt a lot stronger. I couldn’t see a reason why because it didn’t appear that I was working that hard when I was doing yoga.”

After enjoying the benefits of yoga for 16 years as a student, Michelle was certified as a yoga instructor in 2011. That same year, her husband landed a job with Amazon.com, they moved to Campbellsville, and she began teaching classes in 2012. Now she teaches one class per term to Campbellsville University students, one class per week at the Campbellsville Country Club, various private lessons, and four classes per week in the Community Room at the Taylor County Public Library. There is no fee for the library classes; Michelle asks only that practitioners put donations in the can on the way out if they felt the class was valuable to them.

Fletchall believes that all age groups and fitness levels can benefit from yoga. People who attend her classes range from 77-year-old grandmothers to Campbellsville University wrestlers and football players.

“One thing that happens in yoga as opposed to other kinds of exercise is that you learn to deal with your own limitations and see them not necessarily as a liability,” says Fletchall. “It’s about what you feel on the inside, about connecting your mind and body together using that breath to find that connection.”

Jennifer Hurst, owner of Pink Elephant Yoga in Bardstown, saw a need in her community for more connection for mothers-to-be and stay-at-home moms with young children. “When I had my first child five years ago, there was nothing offered in Bardstown, so I started my own.” She now offers yoga classes for all age groups, including a pre-natal class and a class called Mommy and Me, created for moms or dads that need to get out of the house and introduce their kids to other children. The pre-natal classes have been a big hit as the benefits are innumerable to an expectant, anxious mother: better sleep, reduced low back pain, and heartburn relief. Plus, Hurst maintains that yoga helps when the big day arrives. “When you are in labor, the breaks in between pains can be looked at as one big meditation practice!”


BASIC YOGA POSES

“It’s a myth that you have to be flexible to practice yoga,” says yoga instructor Michelle Fletchall of Campbellsville. “If you look at anyone practicing yoga in the mainstream media, they are so bendy, it’s super human. That’s not reality.”

Yoga increases flexibility by loosening tight muscles through slow, restorative stretches and poses. To brush up on your yoga pose know-how, check out some of the most basic poses:

Downward Facing Dog pose: This pose is the centerpiece of most yoga classes as it provides a stable position from which many sequences start or retreat. Start on the mat on your hands and knees so that your back forms a flat table. As you breathe, raise your hips in the air, then extend your spine, legs, and arms so that your body forms an “A” shape with your feet and hands solid on the mat, and your head hanging naturally between your shoulders. This pose both strengthens and stretches your entire body.

Child’s pose: This pose creates relaxation for your entire body as well as a gentle stretch for your lower back and arms. Start from a kneeling position on the mat, and drop your bottom toward your heels while stretching your arms out in front of you and resting your chest on your knees. Your forehead should naturally rest on the mat. This pose is a great go-to position for any class.

Mountain pose: As an active standing pose, this pose creates the foundation for all standing balance poses. Stand on the mat with your feet together, distributing your weight evenly across the heels, balls, and toes. Your arms should be at your side. Slowly inhale deeply through your nose as you lengthen your spine and raise your hands over your head, palms facing one another. Feel the alignment of your knees, hips, and pelvis center beneath your chest and shoulders. Exhale as you pull your shoulder blades back a little bit and raise your chin to expand the chest and align the spine.

For more information on yoga and poses, go to:
Yoga Journal: www.yogajournal.com/poses
Yoga Glo: www.yogaglo.com/poses.php
Michelle Fletchall’s Web site: www.michellefletchall.com
Jennifer Hurst’s Web site: www.yogabardstown.com/index.html


 

WEB EXCLUSIVE

Move with balance

Two major areas connected to overall health that are too frequently overlooked, particularly for those aged 65 and older, are visual capability and social connectedness, says therapist and charity innovator Karen Peterson.

“Physical and mental attributes are intimately connected, and what many do not realize is that balance is 20 percent based in vision. There are multiple ways of testing this, but perhaps the most simple is to stand on one leg, and then try to do so with your eyes closed—when your eyes are closed, your vestibular system, which controls your body’s balance, begins to work overtime,” says Karen Peterson, a therapist with multiple certifications, and creator of the new book and video series, Move With Balance: Healthy Aging Activities for Brain and Body, (www.MoveWithBalance.org). She’s also the founder and director of Giving Back, a nonprofit organization that grows and spreads programs that support senior health.

“Seniors of all ages—55 to 105—need to continually work on improving their balance, coordination, strength, vision, and cognitive skills,” says Peterson, who has been teaching vision, brain, and kinesiological modalities to children, businesspeople, athletes, classroom teachers, and adults of all ages since 1987. “When they do, they’re less likely to fall and more able to enjoy life.”

In 2005, Peterson expanded her program to focus on elders; specifically, to encourage active and younger seniors to buddy up with frail elder seniors for exercising eye-brain-body connections.

“Some folks reach a milestone age and recognize that they need to get active and, after only a short while, they actually feel younger. It’s these folks who we’ve encouraged to mentor other seniors who haven’t taken that step,” Peterson says.

“Members from different generations have partnered in training, and it’s an interesting learning experience for both parties.”

Peterson reviews the benefits of paring with a training buddy while practicing exercises that facilitate eye-brain-body cohesion:

• Independent study: Performed by a registered nurse and Dr. Lorrin Pang, director of the Maui District Health Office, the Moving With Balance program, headquartered in Hawaii, has provided plenty of positive data. The objective is to reduce the number of falls in elderly who are institutionalized, many with cognitive deficits. The study was designed to compare the number of falls in the group doing the Move With Balance exercises to the number of falls in those serving as controls (no exercise). The Hawaii Journal of Medicine and Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal, published a Move With Balance study in their November 2013 issue. Results show an efficacy of about 66 percent reduction in falls in a randomized controlled study.

• The importance of vision exercise: Vision gives the nervous system updated information about the position of body parts in relation to each other and the environment. With that information we judge distances, avoid obstacles, and control our balance. Visual information goes directly to the midbrain, where it becomes part of the sensory motor pathway. This information lets us know and control where we are in space. When people get old, they tend to lose their control of this seeing-based system that provides spatial orientation. With one in three seniors experiencing a significant fall this year, visual-spatial exercises are an important measure for prevention.

• One example of a visual integration exercise—the arrow chart: With a partner holding the chart, look at the arrows and call out the direction indicated by each individual symbol. Then, thrust your arms in that direction; in other words, say and do what the arrow indicates. A partner can verify or correct movements. For an additional challenge, do the opposite of what the arrow indicates.

• Help from your friends: Working with a partner is tremendously beneficial for many of these exercises. Not only does it help with structure, consistency of schedule, and morale, many of Peterson’s exercises call for coordinated movements and fast reaction times, including ball tosses. Partners can help cue and coach, and they provide security for seniors afraid to challenge themselves for fear of falling.

Successfully executing of these exercises indicates good brain processing ability, which is necessary for cognitive skills and balance, Peterson says.

KAREN PETERSON is founder and director of Giving Back, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of elders through intergenerational mentoring. She has multiple certifications, including as an educational kinesiologist, natural vision improvement instructor, Touch for Health instructor, and a massage therapist. For 28 years, Peterson has been teaching these modalities to children, businesspeople, athletes, classroom teachers, and adults of all ages and occupations.

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