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The Fullness of Midlife

"Get on your mat every day."

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

Deborah Cioffi with Dr. Barb

Deborah CioffiA yoga practitioner for over 20 years, Deborah Cioffi found solace and transformation through times of stress and anxiety. She became a certified Hatha Yoga instructor, specializing in Vinyasa Flow, to share her experiences with others. In her own studio, Peace Now Yoga & Wellness, she “aims to nourish the mind, body, and heart through breath awareness, strong alignment, and philosophy.”

Listen now.


Dr. Barb: Today’s guest is Deborah Cioffi. She’s been a yoga practitioner for several decades and, in full transparency, she has been my yoga instructor here in Michigan for the last two years. So welcome, Deborah.

Deborah: Thank you.

Dr. Barb: Tell me about your path into yoga and how it is you discovered yoga and then ultimately became an instructor.

Deborah: Yes, I’ve been practicing yoga most of my adult life. Back in 2009, I was working a full time corporate job and found myself practicing two to three times a week. Much to my dismay, our whole creative department was laid off, and I found myself without work—unable to find work at this time. So at this point, I increased my practice to almost five days a week, sometimes twice a day. It was a difficult time in my life because I was also encountering many other emotional difficulties at the same time. So finding myself on my mat, realizing as I was plummeting into somewhat of a depression and experiencing a lot of anxiety, my practice was giving me much more than I had ever experienced before, which was mostly on a physical level. On an emotional level, I was able to find peace, and was able to cope with the uncertainty of my future.

I was able to find peace and cope with the uncertainty of my future.So I threw myself into my practice. At this time my teacher expressed to me that they were going to be hosting a 200-hour teacher training in the fall, and this might be a good time for me to consider the training. I thought, well, this would be good for me emotionally while I’m going through this difficult time, not really considering my future as a yoga teacher. At the end of the 200-hour training, I went through my hour-and-a-half final teach, and my teacher offered me a position in the studio to teach a few days a week… and much to my surprise…. {laughs}

But, I guess what came through was my passion and love for the practice. I actually had fun teaching yoga. It was such a great outlet for me. And to share my personal experience of what I had gone through that previous year and how I was able to move out of that darkness and into the light through a consistent yoga practice with, let me emphasize—a large emphasis placed on breathing. That was how I was able to handle the anxiety that I was experiencing.

Dr. Barb: And I know in your classes you remind us about breathing. So tell me a little bit more about how that plays such an important role in the value of what yoga can bring to individuals. Because for those of us who go throughout our day, we don’t think about breathing. But, it’s obviously a critical part of the yoga practice. So just enlighten me a little bit more about why that is; why that brings that centeredness or the calm it brings.

Bringing attention to you breath brings you into the moment.Deborah: Well, by bringing attention to your breath it number 1—first and foremost—brings you into the moment. When you are focused on the breath, you are able to let the busyness of the mind kind of subside because you have a focus. When you normally breathe, we inhale very shallow and very short. We have more of an emphasis on the exhale. By inhaling very slowly, matching it to your exhale, it actually lowers the blood pressure and brings you into the moment. It brings a sense of calm throughout the body and the central nervous system.

It also is a great segue into a meditation practice. By focusing on the breath, you are able to quiet the mind and sit and just be with the sensations that are in the body and the sensations that surround you. It’s a great segue into meditation.

Dr. Barb: So do you apply that outside of the yoga studio? As you move through your day are you brought into awareness of breathing?

Deborah: Yes, I try to be. I try to have awareness of my breath. Because there’s many times throughout the day that I don’t even realize that I’m holding my breath. Sometimes we actually hold our breath when we are in stressful situations. So yes, I’m aware of it. I stop, I take three long smooth breaths and then continue what I was doing. This is a great practice to do once an hour if you set your timer on your phone to just stop and breathe for five minutes and then resume whatever work activity you were doing.

Dr. Barb: Can you tell me a little bit about the styles of yoga that are practiced and your preferred instruction style?

Deborah: Yes, there’s many different practices in yoga today, with the Bikram Yoga, the Hot Yoga, Iyengar, Ashtanga Yoga; and there’s Vinyasa Flow, which is what I teach. The style of yoga that I teach is all about breath and movement. And the way I see it is that if you’re just moving through the yoga poses and you’re not focusing on your inhale and exhale, it becomes more of an exercise. It’s not really yoga. I feel there is no yoga without the breath and movement connection.

So Vinyasa Flow is where you connect poses together to create sequencing and build momentum and breathe and heat in the body. I usually start out with the warm up, then move into a more active practice, then move into a cool down. I like to include inversions and backbends. It is more of a challenging practice, but it keeps you motivated and interested, I think, in your yoga practice. But it depends on the individual what they are looking for. I encourage them to really do their research and see what’s in their area and what’s available for them.

There’s also Yin Yoga which I also teach. I teach a Yin Flow practice which begins with an hour of seated positions that are held for three to five minutes, which stretches the connective tissue around the joints. This is truly beneficial as we age. The synovial fluid around our joints tends to dry up. You may hear that as you ascend or descend stairs, and the knees get a little creaky. So this Yin practice works as a lubricant for the joints. It is very beneficial and it also becomes a meditative practice, as you’re holding these positions for three to five minutes, sometimes up to seven. You focus on the breath, and it becomes a very quiet, peaceful time. Then we end with a half hour of flow; soft, smooth flow, nothing too intense. Just to incorporate the space that we just created in our body into a more active, responsive practice.

Dr. Barb: So for those individuals who haven’t tried yoga, discovered yoga, how would you suggest someone find a practice that they might be drawn into?

Deborah: Well most yoga studios offer a beginner series; some offer beginner classes. The beginner series is great because you can sign up for six weeks or six classes and begin from the beginning, start from the beginning, learning the poses, learning how to breath correctly, maybe learning some of the philosophy of yoga. All these things incorporated into a beginning practice to see how your body responds to it.

It's really important to stretch every day.I offer private and semi-private classes. I really like that because I get to evaluate my students, see if they have any disabilities or anything that may compromise their practice, and then evaluate from there, move them through the poses, there’s a standing series of poses. Often the teacher may speak in Sanskrit, and that can be quite confusing to the students, so it’s good to speak in Sanskrit and in English so the student understands exactly where you’re going—and the benefit of a backbend, the benefit of an inversion. And as they move through the practice, especially if it’s practiced every day, or at least two or three times a week, they will see the results.

You know if you’re coming to yoga once a week, and think you’re going to see changes in your body, you probably will always feel like a beginner coming back to that class. So I always encourage my students to come at least once or twice. So the benefit of a private class is the teacher able to evaluate you, and you gaining a better understanding of what yoga means to you and what it is you want to receive from your practice and what type of style of yoga you want to incorporate into your life.

Dr. Barb: So in my practice I see women with limitations, physical limitations… shoulders, hips, feet; is it fair to say that most people could enter a yoga practice with some muscular/skeletal limitation, and you could modify the practice to accommodate them?

Deborah: Absolutely. Absolutely, I like to offer many different modifications for my students. Because each and every student has different capabilities. Some may be really flexible and able to forward fold and touch the floor, and others their hands may come to their knees. So yes, we use props, we use different styles to get the student to feel confident—most importantly confident—to move into a posture so that they can still get the same benefits, maybe using a prop—a block, or a blanket, or a strap even—to experience the pose. So they don’t feel like they’re not able to do this.

Dr. Barb: I was a bit intrigued by your comment about finding yoga as your anti-depressant, I will say; not sure you said exactly that word…

Deborah: I think I did… {laughs}

Dr. Barb: Ok, good. So I’m curious, again, as a women’s health practitioner who talks to women about mood disruption disorders especially, at any times in their lives, it hasn’t necessarily occurred to me to suggest yoga as a therapeutic approach to mood. But I’m intrigued by that option or the opportunity that it might bring women. Do you feel like most instructors are aware of that and try to address that mental health?

Deborah: Well, I think that most instructors, as myself, are careful in what we say. I like to emphasize the fact that in a yoga practice, it uplifts your mood. And I believe that happens with the attention on the breath. I believe conscious breathing can create a shift in your consciousness. I also believe in self-care. I believe in creating a yoga practice is creating space in your life, and attention on self-care. I believe in self-healing, that if there is an issue within you that you should acknowledge it first, accept it, and then find a way, whether it’s taking a walk along the lake, or attending a yoga class, or just sitting quiet on a park bench, bringing attention to it. To me that is self-care. It is bringing awareness to what it is that’s going on in your body today and acknowledge it and embrace it.

Crafting space in the body creates space in the mind.I find often when we feel uncomfortable—whether it’s contributing to anxiety or depression—that it has this negative connotation to it and we tend to push it away. When we push away those feelings, and deny what is going on in our body and on an emotional and physical level, I feel like we are doing ourselves a disservice. If we can just sit for moment and acknowledge what it is that we are feeling, and then bring attention to the breath and then move the body, move the body in a healthy way... stretching, creating space in the body I feel creates space in the mind, which gives you an opportunity to breathe and start again. So you can start over at any time throughout your day. That emotional, physical connection is huge in yoga. I believe in the energy body and creating a time on your mat every day to just stretch your body and feel your yoga. As opposed to just moving through your poses, actually feel what it is, feel where you’re holding the stress in your body and then focus your attention on that area, and breathe.

Dr. Barb: I will say I have come to appreciate yoga starting the day, a couple days of the week I do as early in the day and, in the normal course of life, there just isn’t an hour that is carved out. I don’t do it otherwise to quiet my brain. You often share some meditative thoughts and words and, again, throughout the practice it’s quieting, it’s focusing, it’s thinking about breathing. Recently it was an inversion, literally standing on our head, and talking about how great that felt afterwards because it’s a position, obviously, it would never happen unless you were in a yoga practice. So I just feel like it’s brought a unique dimension to my life that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered. So I see the value and, as a health care provider, it makes me aware that I probably should be more actively encouraging others to seek a yoga practice as part of a therapeutic approach to wellness.

Deborah: Yes. Therapeutic, and it keeps you young. You are moving in a very healthy way. The Yogis are known to say, “you are as young as your spine is flexible.” So I think it’s really important to stretch every single day, whether you’re a beginner, whether you’ve never done yoga in your life, or you did yoga years ago and you want to jump start your practice again. I just think it’s really important. If you wake up in the morning, you go downstairs, you take your supplements, you have your smoothie, you do your yoga… it should just be part of your daily living.

Dr. Barb: Deborah, are there any other closing ideas or thoughts you’d like to share with the audience today? I appreciate what you’ve been able to tell us about the value of yoga.

Get on your mat every day.Deborah: A lot of people that I’ve spoken to over the years, when I speak about yoga, I get excited about it, I have this passion and everyone seems so intrigued about the yoga practice itself and how much they know they need to do yoga or they’d love to do yoga, but there’s always something preventing them from taking that first step. And it’s usually fear. And I encourage them to step beyond their fear and seek out a practitioner, a teacher, that they can actually have a rapport with. Someone that they can open up, become vulnerable around the issues that are preventing them from their practice.

I encourage you to do a private practice, whether it’s one or whether it’s six, but step into it slowly. And then continue. Just continue to practice every day, whether it’s in a studio, at home with a video, but get on your mat every day. Spend twenty minutes to a half hour or an hour and notice what happens. Just notice every day the changes that happen in your life from your yoga practice. I can guarantee you will see change, and it’s all for the good.

Dr. Barb: I would agree. That’s been my experience. Thank you Deborah.

Deborah: Thank you.




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