Health & Fitness

Carla Moukarzel: Yoga for the Mind, Body and Soul

While it may not be the very latest exercise technique to emerge, one could reasonably argue that it is perhaps the fastest growing.  Yoga, the ancient practice of postures, breathing and meditation, has gained widespread popularity in the West with everyone from celebrities and sporting legends to the girl next door raving about it.  Not only does yoga help ward off an array of health problems that arise as we age, but it also provides a holistic approach to unify the mind, body and soul.  It helps to calm the spirit, tone the muscles of the body, and increase physical strength.  Today’s Outlook sat down with yoga instructor Carla Moukarzel to find out just what it is about this ancient practice that has everyone swearing by it and why its popularity in Lebanon is increasing.  
What is Yoga?
The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word "Yuj" meaning to join or to unify. When we practice Yoga, we are actually working to unify all the aspects of an individual – the spirit or soul, mind and body so that it works on both a physical and a spiritual level. 
How does Yoga differ from Pilates?
The two are totally different. Yoga is a philosophy, it’s a way of life; it’s not only movements.  Whereas Pilates works more on the body, the material level, Yoga works more on the third dimension –spirituality – by studying the philosophical aspect. By working on our breath as a system, we become very aware of the relationship between the breathing system and the nervous system. For example, when we take short breaths, we are stressed and anxious and so by working on our breathing to make it deeper and more fluid, we completely relax the nervous system.
Are there different types of Yoga and, if so, how does one decide which is best for them?
There are many types of Yoga.  Lately, we have been hearing about Bikram Yoga and Hot Yoga. Bikram Yoga involves a series of poses carried out in a heated room and it works on the philosophy that at high temperatures we can cleanse the body and activate the perspiration and cells of the body.  This type of Yoga is not suitable for anyone with any sort of cardiovascular or hypertension problems; it is ideal for only very fit young people.  There are so many different types of Yoga and basically they all have the same base, but what differs is how it is developed and adapted to a certain group.  It also depends on the instructor because Yoga is a way of living and there is always a part of how the instructor feels that comes across in their teachings.  It is very important to understand that we cannot do Yoga, but rather we can be in a state of Yoga.  
Yoga is often described as beneficial to the mind, body and soul, how is this so? What are the benefits?
Yoga works on the breathing to calm the mind.  Think of the mind as an ocean.  When the ocean is rough with waves crashing down, one cannot see the bottom. On the other hand, when the ocean is calm, we can see everything – the coral, the fish, the sand…  In Yoga, we use breathing to calm the mind and, in this sense, the human mind is like an ocean.  When it is calm we become stronger, more accepting, more fluid, and more in control. In terms of the body, we are working to open it, release tension and then of course the breath and energy will flow inside.  As for the benefits to the soul, when we have a healthy body and a peaceful mind, we are at peace.  Philosophers have always spoken of ways to find inner peace and joy – something that most people are searching for in life. We cannot truly be at peace with ourselves and the world around us if we are not really unified and grounded and this is essentially what Yoga works at achieving.  So often you see people with bad posture, a hunched back and shoulders, no muscles in the neck, usually as a result of stress and inactivity, so when you work to change the posture of your body, you are working indirectly on changing the inside. This is the beauty of Yoga, we begin from outside but the target is inside. 
Would Yoga help in weight loss for someone looking to lose a few kilos?
Yes, absolutely! I believe that the key to weight loss is awareness and working on your breathing to relax.  Excessive eating and obesity is often linked to stress so the key is to be able to manage this stress. It is not the flexibility of the person that will help them, but rather their awareness and attitude.  With Yoga, the person will begin to feel things, they will feel the food and become aware of everything they are putting into their body.  I worked on the television show The Biggest Loser a while back and I worked on helping the contestants awaken their five senses with regards to their food.  They learned to enjoy their food, to appreciate the look of the food, the colors, the taste and aromas.  Eating is an experience; it is not simply the act of filling your stomach.  Yoga can help you lose weight by making you look at food in a different way.
What health problems can Yoga improve?
Yoga is very beneficial to the back and spine provided that the individual has no major injuries.  We are very objective, Yoga is not a magic tool that will make your health problems disappear, if you have problems you should consult a doctor.  We work on awareness, toning the muscles, and working the core. It is well known that when you have a strong and powerful core, it directly helps the spine, especially the lower back which is the most fragile part of the back.  By working on our joints, we are less likely to develop joint-related problems such as arthritis as we age. The breathing techniques used in Yoga are also very beneficial for hypertension; when you work on your breath to make it longer, smoother and slower, you help the entire cardiovascular system.  This is also very beneficial to people who suffer from asthma.
Yoga has become extremely popular in the West with celebrities such as Madonna, Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston practicing it.  Is Yoga increasing in popularity in Lebanon?
Yes! Thank God! Two years ago we felt a big change. This is when Yoga became more accepted in Lebanon.  Prior to this, Yoga was practiced very rigidly, now it is different, people are more open. Yoga is a philosophy and it has nothing to do with religion; you can be atheist and practice Yoga because it is all about spirituality and there is a huge difference between spirituality and religion.  I think that this was a little misunderstood before.  But yes, there is a lot more demand for Yoga in Lebanon today.   
Do many men practice Yoga in Lebanon?
For sure! I have a lot of men attending my classes, especially in the evenings after work.
What kind of people attend your classes?
In the morning, I have the mothers, grandmas and even some young people in their 20s and 30s. In the evening, it’s mainly university students. I have students in their 20s and I have those in their 50s. One of my classes is attended by a mother, a grandmother and a granddaughter.  It’s amazing, I have the three generations in one class!
How did you get into Yoga?
At first it was pure curiosity. I wanted to try it and there was a gym nearby which offered classes, so I decided to go. It took me one year to understand what Yoga is and then something happened and everything just changed; it became my lifestyle, I felt the essence, and this is what is important. Yoga doesn’t mean that we have to leave your body and go to a higher level; this is not the target. We are living in a society and we need to be adaptable and be able to communicate and function effectively in our surroundings.  I don’t believe that meditation to a higher level is beneficial, it is simply an escape mechanism.  On the contrary, Yoga makes us stronger from the inside out in order to be able to better deal with our lives and be at peace with ourselves and our surroundings. 
What does one wear to a Yoga class and is there any special equipment required?
You need the will; you need to want to work on yourself. Other than that you need nothing but comfortable clothing and a mat!
Yoga at Home
Downward Facing Dog Pose: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Stretch the arms away from the body keeping them aligned with the spine. You can push through the first finger or the middle finger. Have the heels hip-width apart and the legs straight. Push through the heels and up through the tailbone in opposing directions. The top of the head can be pointing down towards the mat or in line with the direction of force through the arms. Raise the navel upwards towards the chest. This will straighten the lower back.


Bridge Pose: Setu Bandhasana
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet together. Keep your arms on your side, palms on the floor. Lift the hips towards the ceiling, keeping your feet and palms flat on the floor. Maintain your position and move your arms over your head.


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