An Introduction to Yoga with Sue Elkind

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

By Sue Elkind
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Sue Elkind, a specialist in Hatha Yoga, will be discussing how to practice yoga.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live. Today we are chatting with Sue Elkind, who will be presenting an Introduction to Yoga.

Sue Elkind has been practicing yoga for over eleven years and teaching yoga since 1995. Sue is co-owner of City Yoga, the immensely popular yoga studio in Los Angeles. Sue has done extensive training at Yogaworks, one of the most reputable schools in the USA, and has studied with most of the top senior yoga teachers nationally and internationally. Her most recent and on-going training is with yoga master John Friend. Sue has been interviewed in US Magazine (Dec 98) and E! Entertainment, and her studio was recently written up in the Hollywood Reporter as writer's top pick. Her open-hearted approach to teaching encourages her students to respect their individuality while exploring their potential through the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga.

If you would like to ask Sue a question, type /ask followed by your question (e.g. "/ask How are you?")

Sue, welcome to WebMD Live.

Elkind: Thank you.

Moderator: What is yoga?

Elkind: So let me begin by saying that I've been practicing yoga for 12 years and yoga has meant different things to me over that time. When I first began yoga, I was about twenty years old and I was in search of something metaphysical. I had already become a vegetarian and I was interested in meditation and the yoga at that time was very slow ... As I began to practice yoga more throughout the years, it became more about physically working out and I spent about four years just getting into it physically and as yoga became more a part of my life, I found that it was more meaningful than just getting fit. And so it changes over time, and it's a very personal thing and so for me, yoga is a way of being, a way of living, a way of life. It's how I am in the yoga studio and outside, so it's not just physically moving my body. 

Yoga actually, literally means "union." It is a balance between mental, physical and spiritual within each person. I think yoga is "becoming more sensitive to the world around you, and inside you." I want to clarify that yoga is not a religion, it's a philosophy. I own a yoga studio in West Hollywood called City Yoga ... I posed this question to my students, and the answers were all different. Yoga was a way of getting to know themselves, a way of physically and mentally life-changing ... a sense of community for many people. One of my students said, "It makes me a better person to be around."

Moderator: What are the roots of yoga?

Elkind: The history of yoga is actually very ambiguous. It's been around for over 2000 year, but nothing has been physically documented until only recent history. Other than the yoga scriptures of Patanjali  and the Baghavad Gita, besides those two written thousands of years ago, the roots of yoga have really been documented more since the late 18th Century. There are many different styles of yoga. The word yoga is very broad. There are a lot of different "siblings" involved.

Moderator: What do you think makes yoga so popular today?

Elkind: Well, I think the desire for physical health gets many people involved in yoga, though that is not it's main goal. People are trying to get fit, but on an unconscious level it becomes more meaningful than regular activities. People have a lot of stress and people are more stressed than before. I think people are looking towards yoga to relieve the stress in their lives. They come to yoga to stretch and relax, and what happens is the longer you practice yoga, the more you begin to notice something more meaningful. You learn to relax and become more sensitive and to tune in to the more subtle parts of who you are, and to become more in tune with your surroundings.

Moderator: What are the physical benefits of yoga?

Elkind: The physical benefits are enormous. Yoga basically strengthens all of the systems in the body. It opens and strengthens the body. Working with the physical posture of yoga is meant to create balance, so you'll build muscles, but you'll lengthen and open your spine, becoming more flexible. Your spine is like the highway to all your organs, so it really affects every part of the body. Even mentally, it affects you by stimulating the glands, the pituitary, creating more clarity.

Moderator: I see how yoga can help with balance and flexibility, but how does it strengthen the body?

Elkind: Yoga can be very physically demanding. You want to draw your muscle energy into the body whenever you want balance. It's important to be in touch with your body, so each part of the body gets affected. Your legs, arms, upper body. I've seen bodies physically change through the practice of Hatha Yoga.

Moderator: What different types of yoga styles are there and what type of yoga do you teach?

Elkind: So there are many different styles of yoga...Hatha, Kundalini, Bhakti, Jana, Karma, Ashtunga, Ayengar, etc. Hatha is what is generally being taught in the US. It's the most popular form of yoga today. I teach a style of Hatha yoga, called "Anusara." Anusara means literally from the flow ... from the heart. It's inspiring, but grounded in universal principles of alignment for both the inner and outer body. By getting your body aligned, you allow the energy to flow more freely. It's more than just a physical practice. You can get in touch with a more meaningful part of who you are. It's a more integrated style of yoga that involves the heart and principles of bio-mechanics.

Moderator: Can yoga help with various sicknesses?

Elkind: Yes! Absolutely! I believe that yoga therapy is going to be extremely popular in the near future. Just like I was saying about getting the body in an optimum place of alignment for energy flow, that will be yoga therapy. We look to see where the body is not in alignment, and look for exercises of strength and opening. There are specific routines and postures...again, yoga is a way of living. The more you get in touch with the parts of you inside that need to change, the easier it will be to change outside.

Moderator: How important do you feel diet is in the practice of yoga?

Elkind: I think diet is important. Let me say that there is nowhere in the ancient teachings that says you must be a vegetarian to practice yoga. It's a preference. For instance, I've been a vegetarian for 17 years, and it makes me feel better not only physically, but mentally. My advice is to eat what makes you feel good. If you're thinking, "This is really bad for me," chances are it is. Food has a vibration. It affects your brain in certain ways. Eating a McDonalds hamburger might affect you differently than eating a gourmet meal. Hormones and pesticides affect the body, and they affect our state of mind, so that's something to consider, too. Because I've been a vegetarian for so long, it's changed for me. When I was seventeen, I wanted to be a veterinarian so it didn't make sense to eat meat, it was about not wanting to kill other life. Then I learned that food was very processed, so I began to look for organic food, and to support smaller, organic farmers. It's better for the environment. All of the cattle crops have affected the environment. There's an awareness to being a vegetarian. A sensitivity to the environment.

Moderator: How long does it take to learn yoga?

Elkind: After 12 years I'm still learning. I've been teaching for five. You just take it one step at a time. Just like there's progress, there will also be setbacks. It's a very personal thing. If you're excited about learning, you may put in more energy, you'll have more passion and get into it. When I first started, I did it three times a week, then stopped, then twice a week. Eventually a routine happens because your body enjoys it, and you miss it when you don't do it. Don' t get attached to the goal so much, but enjoy the process and enjoy it along the way. 

Moderator: Do you feel that children are being left out of learning techniques like yoga and holistic healing?

Elkind: I think that if more children were doing yoga, the planet would be a more aware place in the future. Most people that do yoga wish they had started at a younger age. Yoga is incredible for opening their minds and bodies, becoming more sensitive to the environment, to what they eat. It fosters creativity. Overall, they become more well-rounded and happy.

Moderator: At what age can someone start learning yoga?

Elkind: They have classes called "Mommy and Me" and you can bring your infant to class. Obviously the infant won't remember, but if a parent has the time to take a child, from pre-school and up. For children, you make it fun and creative. Their attention span is small. I'm beginning to work with teens that are troubled, and it's incredible to watch them tap into their inner energy, and how excited they are about it. Yoga has supported other areas of their growth. Whatever age it comes to you, or you're a parent that can give it to a child, all the power to you. The key is to not push it on anyone, kids or adults.

Moderator: Is yoga a solo exercise or can people have partners?

Elkind: Funny you should ask, (laughs) My partner and I at City Yoga just finished a Valentine's Day workshop with couples, and it was the most powerful class we've ever taught. There are stretches you can support each other doing...there's a lot of partner contact yoga....being creative with the poses you do individually, and allowing someone to support you in it, and you them.....

Moderator: Where is City Yoga?

Elkind: City Yoga is located in Los Angeles , in West Hollywood. We are a fairly new studio in the neighborhood that has found tremendous success already. We offer 43 classes a week, and many workshops and retreats. We do yoga for teens, and offer back to the community in different ways -- lectures, half-price classes, etc.

Moderator: What physical dangers are there in yoga?

Elkind: When I spoke about the alignment of the body, if you don't pay attention and get sloppy, you obviously can hurt yourself. It's important to have a teacher, someone who can guide you so when you practice you can get it right. Pranayama is the breathing. In the ancient texts, they say you can go crazy if you hold your breath too long without a guide/teacher, so in the past it was thought of as being very dangerous, but actually as long as your breathing is with awareness and from your heart, I have found that it's really not that dangerous. The only danger I believe there is in stretching, is for those people that push themselves too far without being in the proper alignment. As long as your body is in that flow, you'll heal, it's therapeutic. Some doctors say yoga is dangerous, but what they don't realize is that those that get hurt are not in the proper alignment. So I say be with the right teacher. Ask a lot of questions.

Moderator: What would you recommend to someone that doesn't have full use of his or her hands or limbs?

Elkind: Yoga will be different for them. There is a lot of yoga that involves quieting the mind through the breath, and truly that is what yoga is meant to do, so you don't actually have to be physically moving the body to practice yoga. There are wonderful breathing techniques and other creative visualizations for meditation that you can use. If you can move your body even a little bit, you can work with someone who will help you move your body and stretch, so one on one would be perfect.

Moderator: Can one practice yoga without a teacher?

Elkind: Yes, but I also recommend if you do yoga regularly on your own, check in with a teacher once in a while. It's important to know that you're doing the proper poses so you don't aggravate or over-stretch that place. Yoga in the classroom is a tool, so you can bring that home and create your own yoga practice, but traditionally it's meant to have direct contact with a teacher. You grow through the teacher's experience beyond just the physical.

Moderator: Do you still take instruction?

Elkind: Absolutely! My teacher is John Friend, and he has developed a new paradigm in yoga called Anusara and I am absolutely still a student. I think that makes someone a better teacher. Even today I am constantly learning new things from John and bringing them back into my studio. Yoga's been around a long time and there's a lot to learn.

Moderator: ... other ways in your life can affect you ...

Elkind: I think yoga can affect every activity that you do....I remember a funny story when I went bowling for one of the only times I bowled ... (laughs) I remember thinking, "Okay, I'll use my yoga breath and focus," and I kept hitting strikes. It was awesome. Rock climbing ... my yoga helped me get up until I kind of panicked realizing how high up I was, then I used Ujaii breathing to calm myself down... People that golf find that it changes their game by relaxing them, by opening their spine. Many athletes practice yoga. Yes, it's physical, but it's very mental, learning how to connect inside and they bring that experience to all of their activities.

Moderator: Can yoga improve my sexual life?

Elkind: Absolutely!! (laughs) Well, yoga makes you feel better, and feeling better about yourself is a big part, I think, of being a sexual person. I think the techniques of breathing are helpful, not to mention an open body is more comfortable....

Moderator: How does yoga improve the way someone looks?

Elkind: When you look at yoga practitioners, there is a vibrancy to their body, an inner radiance that comes from opening the body and from connecting inside. When you begin to tap into that source inside, it does shine through. Yoga relieves stress and stress affects us physically, how we look, how we hold ourselves, our posture, our expression. Not only does it physically allow your body to become more balanced, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually it uplifts you.

Moderator: What do you feel during meditation?

Elkind: There's a deep feeling of peace in meditation. A feeling of connection. Not only connection to the earth, to nature, but also a connection to something greater. What I feel, is like I've just been plugged into a light socket, and when I'm really deep in meditation it's a lot of space, open, vast ... it's bright ... it's calm.... When you really connect to that place, there's really no place like it. So meditation is really why ultimately we want to practice yoga. To connect more to that divine, to that universal part of who we are, to that vibration that's in us...

Moderator: What tips do you have to make yoga a more positive experience?

Elkind: Do what feels right, and let go of judging the process. If it doesn't feel right for you, back up a little bit. Breathe a little more and just kind of relax yourself, and maybe your body will prompt you to move a little more. Let it come from the inside instead forcing your body into a pose. Your body has intelligence, just let yourself connect to that intelligence ... make it fun, keep it light.

Moderator: Is there a best time of day to practice yoga?

Elkind: Different times of the day affect you differently when you practice, but there is no one right time to practice. Some people connect with the morning, the freshness. The body may be a little stiffer then. So some people like to practice in the middle of the day when their body is open and they feel more alert and awake. If you're unable to practice during the day, the evenings are okay too. There are certain postures that are exhilarating to the system, like back bends, so it probably wouldn't be a good idea to do a lot of them, or head stands at night, it might keep you awake.

Moderator: What preparations are there for meditation and yoga?

Elkind: Well, finding a very comfortable place to meditate. A place that's quiet or private, even maybe creating a small sacred place in your home and going there each time. Allowing yourself to get grounded, allowing your mental activity to get a little more quiet through the breath. Just keeping the body elongated, the spine elongated is optimal. You can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, or sit cross-legged on the floor. I like to connect to something inside that is meaningful as I connect with the breath, maybe an image of beauty or something that makes you smile. It's easier to meditate when you feel more connected to your heart.

Moderator: Thanks for joining WebMD Live. Any last comment?

Elkind: When we allow ourselves to quiet the mind, we can connect more fully to our true source of power, creativity and intuitive wisdom, we bring harmony and balance into our life and open up to the true practice of yoga.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Sue. Please join us again next Friday at 1 pm EST here in the Body Beautiful Auditorium when we discuss You Don't Have to be Thin to Win, with Judy Molnar.

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