The Experience of Yoga in the Body

What makes yoga such a powerful experience? How does it work? Betsy Kase, the owner and director of Yoga Haven, explains why the union of breath and movement can transform and heal.

Yoga Haven is a studio partner for The Mental Health Association of Westchester's mega-yoga event, "Get On Your Mat For Mental Health" to be held on summer solstice, June 20, 2012 on Court Street in White Plains at 5:30 p.m. Pre-register ($10) at www.mhawestchester.org. All ages and experience welcome. The first 500 registrants receive a complimentary yoga mat and gift bag.

By Betsy Kase, Owner/Director of Yoga Haven

Every yoga class at the studio begins with five to ten minutes of "centering." This time is for everyone in the room – including the teacher. Most have rushed in to class from a very busy day. All sorts of things have just happened (i.e: quick trip to the supermarket, dropped one of the kids off at school, last minute phone call, the traffic getting there was horrendous, and the Bronx River Parkway was closed and you are going to be late!).

The process of taking a seat and sitting quietly is a necessary step in the process of a yoga practice. The teacher says, “Sit up tall, stretch your spine long, relax your belly and close your eyes.” She continues with something like, “Notice how the body feels right now, what is happening inside of you?” As the student, I say to myself, “Why can’t I take a deep breath or why do my eyes keep fluttering? Why doesn’t my body respond quickly to the calmness within the yoga studio?”  As encouragement, the teacher continues, “Watch your body inhale and exhale without any effort. Notice how the breath moves in the body. Try not to pass judgment on yourself regarding what is happening right now.”  I think to myself, “How did she know I can’t take a deep breath. And I am the owner of this yoga studio?” How CRAZY is this!

The teacher knows this because we all have these experiences. She is going to lead us through this class encouraging us to keep focus throughout.  As we progress, the directions from the teacher become more interactive. We are instructed to take deep breaths into our body: “Consciously, take a deeper breath in and allow for the breath to move to all parts of your torso. As you exhale, consciously, allow the breath to leave, squeezing out the last bit of breath, by drawing your belly button back towards your spine.”  She continues with something like, “Allow the thoughts and events of the day to pass through you. Start the practice of coming to the present moment.” In my head, the voice is saying “Don’t do that! You have to keep thinking about what already happened today and how are you going to continue to obsess about it!”

The teacher here is the guide and her prompts and suggestions slowly quiet me a bit. But now, I have to move. Sitting is too hard, my body is getting achy and I am tired. So the warm-ups begin. Thank God!

As the class moves through the warm up, directions are given: When to breathe, when to monitor your body, etc. My brain says something like, “Wow are you stiff!  When was the last time you did yoga? Can’t you get to class more often? After all these years, why does it still feel like we keep starting at the beginning again?” I then say to myself, “This is a serious mind-trip!” Gratefully, the teacher reminds me to breathe in and then out, and I allow myself to close my eyes and experience the sensation of the stretch. Ok, now I am out of my crazy thoughts and into it. This is finally feeling good.

In yoga, the physical postures are called ASANAS. Asanas are standing and balancing poses, backbend and forward bends, twists, hip-openers, and inversions. This part of every class lasts about 45 minutes. Throughout the whole class the teacher continues to remind me where we are moving to, how to do it, what parts of my body to focus on….and don’t forget to breathe! During these 45 minutes, my mind probably goes on vacation 20-30 times. I can’t even recall where I go, but the body moves and the mind has no idea how this is happening. You know, it is like driving a car somewhere and you have no idea how you got there, but you did! Between those “interludes”, there are times when I am focusing on my big toe, stretching my fingers, opening up the back of my knees, allowing my head to hang heavy along with 1000 other instructions that are said to keep me focused. 

Some days are easier. Some days are harder. 

But, the longer I’ve practiced, I do find that there are increasingly stretches of time when I am able to sense my whole body, completely integrated and present. No pain, no stiffness, a great ability to breathe, a sense of ease, so much so, that I feel I might even be able to hold this pose forever. A lightness comes and everything integrates…mind, body, breath.  Was that a little bit of full consciousness I might have been feeling? Some may call it a connection with everything in the universe, or a total and complete awareness that brings every cell of your body into full alignment. Some even say they feel a palpable feeling of energy pulsing through the body. Who knows? But I must say, I sense a fullness of experience reaching out to my fingers and toes and a slowing down of  thoughts moving through the mind. I am absolutely content. There is a feeling that all is perfect.  Is this what my teachers from many moons ago spoke about?  I watched it on their faces as they practiced in front of me. Teaching me not with their words, but with an intimate display of the essence of what practicing yoga is for them.  And that is…pure joy.

Betsy Kase, Director/Owner of Yoga Haven has been practicing yoga since 1991. She began a consistent practice at Integral Yoga in New York City during a personally difficult time in her life. With encouragement from her teachers, she entered the yoga teacher training in 1995 with no real intention of teaching yoga! However, with her background in patient education in hemophilia, HIV/AIDS and reproductive technologies, teaching was second nature. Today, she is certified in Hatha Yoga and Prenatal Yoga. In 1995 Betsy moved to Westchester County where she began to teach full time in gyms and colleges, corporations and not-for profit organizations, as well as to private clients. While never intending to run her own business, Betsy always wanted to be involved with an organization that was based on holistic intentions and a sense of community.In 1998, with the encouragement of her family and students she rented a small space in Tuckahoe, New York where she began holding yoga classes. Friends and family showed up to help renovate the space and over the opening weekend over 200 students attended; showing their support and encouragement for the first yoga center in their area. Over the last eleven years, Yoga Haven has grown to double its size. Yoga Haven offers over 50 classes per week, including multiple levels, prenatal and postnatal and restorative yoga, along with monthly workshops. Serving over 2000 students per month, Yoga Haven has over 22 teachers on staff and provides massage and acupuncture. Betsy is thrilled with the community Yoga Haven provides, not only for the students and staff but, for herself as well. She has expanded her understanding of Yoga by studying a range of styles including Anusara, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kripalu, Viniyoga and Jivamukti yoga leading to a teaching practice that combines flow, breath and alignment, with a sense of lightness and laughter. Her pleasure is directing and teaching Yoga Haven’s 200 hour teacher training yearly.

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