Chances are, you’ve been told you should do yoga. In the past few years, the practice has become more and more popular. Everyone is reaping the endless benefits and it’s time for you to join in! Regularly practicing yoga has a multitude of benefits for your body and your mind. Those sun salutations are good for more than a strong core and flexibility. They may give you a sunny disposition, too. Yoga is transformative in many ways. Here’s why you should try yoga (and stick with it)…
1. Flexibility & Balance
Improved flexibility is one of the first and most obvious benefits of practicing yoga. If you think you’ll never be able to touch your toes with straight legs, or stand on one foot for a whole minute, you’re probably wrong. Many new yogis don’t have much flexibility or balance when they first start their practice. But this changes, usually faster than you think. If you stick with it, you’ll notice a gradual loosening, and eventually, seemingly impossible poses will become possible. You’ll also notice that aches and pains start to disappear. That’s no coincidence. Tight hips can strain the knee joint due to improper alignment of the thigh and shinbones. Tight hamstrings can lead to flattening of the lumbar spine, which can cause back pain. And inflexibility in muscles and connective tissue, such as fascia and ligaments, can cause poor posture. Regularly practicing yoga increases proprioception (the ability to feel what your body is doing and where it is in space) and improves balance. People with bad posture or dysfunctional movement patterns usually have poor proprioception, which has been linked to knee problems and back pain.
There’s a lot of exercises and activities we do in the gym and life that make our bodies tight – running, cycling, weight lifting, and sitting for long periods of time to name a few. Yoga is the perfect compliment to those activities, as it stretches our muscles and loosens up our bodies.
2. A Great Workout
Not every yoga class is all about stretching and chanting “OM”. Most yoga classes at health clubs and gyms are, in fact, challenging cardio- and core-infused total-body workouts. Strong muscles do more than look good. They also protect us from conditions like arthritis and back pain, and help prevent falls in elderly people. When you build strength through yoga, you balance it with flexibility. There’s nothing wrong with starting your yoga practice with the goal of becoming physically fit. Depending on the type of yoga you choose to practice, different goals can be achieved. Once you start your yoga journey your soul will be set free to roam and discover new goals and new perspectives.
If you’re completely new to yoga, start with an introductory class or a Basic Flow class in order to learn the poses and proper alignment. Then branch out to “Power” and other more advanced types. Even the most muscular, fit gym-goer walks out of their first yoga class saying, “Wow, that was hard, but I’m coming back for more.” However, if you do want more there are also various weight training yoga classes where light hand weights are incorporated into the practice. Feel the burn!
3. Get Hot, Get Loose, Get the Blood Flowing
There are many types of yoga, including yoga practices held in Hot Studios. Typically, Hot Yoga classes are held in 105-degree rooms with 30-40% humidity. Some Heated classes are kept at only 95 degrees, which makes it a great place to start your hot yoga practice instead of jumping straight into a full-on hot class.
Yoga gets your blood flowing whether in a regular or hot environment. More specifically, the relaxation exercises you learn in yoga can help your circulation, especially in your hands and feet. Yoga also gets more oxygen to your cells, which function better as a result. Twisting poses are thought to wring out venous blood from internal organs and allow oxygenated blood to flow in once the twist is released. Inverted poses, such as Headstand and Shoulderstand, encourage venous blood from the legs and pelvis to flow back to the heart, where it cane be pumped to the lungs to be freshly oxygenated, which is extremely beneficial to your brain. This can help if you have swelling in your legs from heart of kidney problems.
Yoga also boosts levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. And it thins the blood by making platelets less sticky and by cutting the level of clot-promoting proteins in the blood. This can lead to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes since blood clots are often the cause of these killers. In either setting, your body will be warm and loose enough to get deeper into the poses, and you’ll get a cleansing detox in the process.
4. Find Your Zen
Yoga is a holistic practice, for both body and mind. Yogis find stress relief, wellbeing, and the ability to de-clutter and just be in – and embrace – the present moment. Much of this has to do with breath. The way you learn to breath in yoga is an amazing tool to use “off the mat” as well, to navigate life’s ups and downs. Check out our previous blog on Breathing Exercises here.
Feeling sad? Yoga has specific poses that deal with certain types of emotional stressors like sitting in Lotus, for example. Better yet, rise up into a backbend or soar royally into King Dancer Pose. While it’s not as easy as that, one study found that a consistent yoga practice improved depression and led to a significant increase in serotonin levels and a decrease in the levels of monoamine oxidase (an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters) and cortisol. At the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson, Ph.D., found that the left prefrontal cortex showed heightened and better immune function. More dramatic left-sided activation was found in dedicated, long-term practitioners. Simply, starting your yoga journey and sticking with it will help you find your Zen and better your overall health.
For most people, yoga is transformative. Instructors have seen countless students blossom from zero yoga experience into advanced practitioners. That may mean they have learned to balance and contort in seemingly crazy positions, but it’s much more than that. They have achieved the discipline and benefits of a regular practice, and the self-compassion and acceptance that come along with that. An important component of yoga is focusing on the present. Studies have found that regular yoga practice improves coordination, reaction time, memory, and even IQ scores. People who practice Transcendental Meditation demonstrate the ability to solve problems and acquire and recall information better – probably because they’re less distracted by their thoughts, which can play over and over like a broken tape recorder. There’s no plateau in yoga – there’s always somewhere else to take your practice and some new challenge to take on, both physical and mental.
6. Community, Not Competition
Yoga isn’t about competition it’s about community. Yoga encourages you to relax, slow your breath, and focus on yourself and on the present, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system (of the fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is calming and restorative; it lowers breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs – comprising what Herbert Benson, M.D., calls the relaxation response.
When you witness the graceful yogi in the front row float into handstand, it’s humbling and inspiring. Remember, yoga is a personal practice. It’s about how your body feels and how you feel your body. Not every style of yoga, nor every teacher, is right for everyone. Try out a variety and commit to a regular practice (aim for 2-3 times a week). You soon may find yourself addicted to yoga and gaining the endless benefits that comes with it.
7. Maintains Your Nervous System
Some advanced yogis can control their bodies in extraordinary ways, many of which are mediated by the nervous system. Scientists have monitored yogis who could induce unusual heart rhythms, generate specific brain-wave patterns, and, using a meditation technique, raise the temperature of their hands by 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The nervous system is a vital structure that affects parts of the body from the organs to the muscles.
A well-rounded nervous system is what enables one to remain level headed in stressful situations. Neurons are the cells that make up the system, with fibrous hairs attached to the cell membrane, which enables each cell to transmit impulses to nerves.
The asanas in yoga are what cleanses these cells, which in turn allow the nervous system to react carefully to stress. The muscles are also able to relax during a time of tension and other negative symptoms produced by our adrenaline that pours into the system during “fight or flight” mode are repressed. All of these effects are due to activity within the sympathetic nervous system.
Simply _believing_that you will get better can make you better. Positive thinking and positive thoughts are more powerful than you probably think. Unfortunately, many conventional scientists believe that if something works by eliciting the placebo effect, it doesn’t count. But most people who want to get better, so if chanting a mantra – like you might do at the beginning and end of a yoga class or throughout a meditation or in the course of your day – facilitates healing and improved wellbeing, even if it’s just a placebo effect, why not do it? Namaste.
Until next time, keep in mind your mind. -Gina Cellucci