January 22, 2022

Stretch into the new year

Yoga can be as simple as sitting quietly

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Yoga instructor Sonya Langan Petrucco practices a crescent low lunge, or “anjaneyasana,” a stretch that opens the hips, grown thigh and chest.

Sonya Langan Petrucco first began studying yoga at age 12. What started as a way to build strength and flexibility for ballet and tap dancing became a lifelong passion.

“As I moved on to be professional in both dance forms, yoga transformed from an athletic recovery tool to a very unique, spiritually grounding practice that was wholly my own,” Petrucco said.

Petrucco found peace, self-love, acceptance and confidence through yoga, and nearly two decades later, the 31-year-old is now a yoga instructor leading her own practice, Langan Wellness, and is an adjunct lecturer in the kinesiology and physical education departments at SUNY Cortland.

Petrucco does it professionally, but anyone can do some form of yoga – even just sitting in a chair, a class for which is available at the Cortland YMCA.

“It can be done in a chair as well as standing, using the chair for balance,” said Jamie Moretti, wellness and membership coordinator for the Cortland YMCA, who leads chair yoga every Tuesday morning. “It’s relaxing but also helps with balance. We focus on breathing and opening up tight muscles, and then we have a quiet time toward the end.”

First step: an open mind

The word “Yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “Yuje” which means “to yoke” or “to unite” – a reference to the holistic union of body, mind and soul, Petrucco said.

“We are seeing research coming forward expounding the benefits of regular yoga and meditation practice,” Petrucco said, including stress reduction, improved quality of sleep, clearer thinking, improved immune function, faster physical recovery and an overall more joyful experience of life.

The only requirement to start yoga is an open mind, she said.

“The process of self-growth is not linear. It’s messy, and it backtracks, it shoots ahead, it stands still, and honestly, it can get quite uncomfortable – but it’s worth it,” Petrucco said. “You are worth it. You are worth your time, and your own love, and your effort to be better.”

However, yoga can be as simple as learning a couple of breathing techniques and perhaps a few simple moves, Moretti said.

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Petrucco practices the lotus pose, or “padmasana,” a meditation pose.

Second step: Try

Whether your goal is to touch your toes, do a handstand or find peace of mind through routine meditation, the first step is making the decision to try.

At the Cortland YMCA, instructors offer classic yoga as well as chair yoga, a gentle form of yoga that can be done while sitting that is especially good for seniors and for anyone who sits regularly for work.

Moretti has practiced yoga for more than 20 years and began teaching yoga nearly eight years ago at a YMCA in Rhode Island. She moved to Cortland in 2020 and saw an opportunity to teach a variety of people, from seniors to college students and younger.

“College kids have a lot of energy – they want to do it all – so my focus for them is grounding, to slow them down and help them become more mindful,” Moretti said. “For the senior population, having the opportunity to be more sociable is definitely part of it, as well as physical wellness through balance and posture improvements.”

Mind-body connection

Over the years, Moretti’s senior students have said that practicing chair yoga has helped their sleep cycles, managed breathing problems and even improved bladder control.

“I would say that just moving and connecting with your body, to slow down and breathe, is so important not only for stress management but for chronic issues and for that mind-body connection,” Moretti said.

Taking the time to slow down and meditate is particularly important during the winter season, Petrucco said.

“Humans are embedded in the natural world – we’re mammals and we are genetically conditioned to chill, no pun intended, during the colder months,” she said. “It’s a great time to start meditating because you’re naturally inclined to be more still.”

Managing stress, 5 minutes a day

Research from the Boston University School of Public Health reveals depression rates in the U.S. tripled with the coronavirus pandemic, and has only worsened throughout 2021 – now affecting 1 in every 3 American adults.

“We’re bouncing off each other’s energy, and everyone’s got a lot of negative energy right now – understandably so,” Petrucco said. “By creating a little happy bubble around yourself through meditation or yoga, not only are you helping yourself but you’re impacting the people next to you by uplifting them through positivity.”

That healing can begin with just five minutes a day of meditation, whether you’re sitting quietly, journaling, drawing or going for a run, she said. Practicing yoga and meditation can be done in the privacy of your own home or in a group setting.

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Sonya Langan Petrucco, practices he exalted warrior pose, or “viparita vribhadrasana” in Sanskrit.

Looking for an instructor

Petrucco said everyone has unique needs and experience levels, so she encourages prospective practitioners to research classes and instructors to find the best fit for them.

Petrucco’s certification required 200 hours of teacher training, for which Petrucco suggests checking a teacher’s background and credentials.

However, no mandated certification process exists, so you might want to check the certifying agency, too.

“It’s very important for someone to be able to tell the difference between what I call “Western Yoga” and real yoga,” Petrucco said. “Yoga takes a very, very long time to study and understand before it can be taught.”

“Quite honestly, most of us feel that the 200-hour program barely is enough time to study anatomy and physiology and yoga class structure, and most don’t touch upon the philosophical or deeper uses of yoga for healing,” Petrucco said. “I have my 500-hour certification after studying for nearly two decades, and I still find myself constantly learning new things from my gurus and teachers.”

Beyond fitness

Yoga is about more than just fitness.

“A yoga teacher should teach physical asana, but they should also be encouraging students to practice their yoga off the mat volunteer work, journaling, meditation, little bits of spiritual goodness ‘homework’ to help their students continue to grow when the teacher isn’t around,” Petrucco said.

“Yoga can really help ground people, so there is something to help center your mind,” Moretti said. “You don’t have to be spiritual to do yoga. It can be very accessible – even just breathing, in general, helps with anxiety and makes stress more manageable. I would just encourage people to try it.”

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Some exercises, like the side crow pose, or parsva bakasana,” teach balance, and strength while facing fear and promoting self confidence.