The Proven Benefits of Yoga
Yoga is a moving meditation practice that can be traced back more than 5,000 years to Northern India. There are countless different schools and styles of yoga and the thread that runs through them all can be found within the definition of the word ‘yoga’ itself. It means ‘to unite’ – you and the divine.
Yoga is often associated with a certain kind of person, or body type, or ability level. It may surprise you that yoga is for everyone. No matter how inflexible or immobile you are, you can practice yoga. One of the most important parts of yoga, if not the most important, is breathing. In yoga this is called Pranayama – the practice of controlling the breath. This means that if you can breathe, you can do yoga. From a place of controlled, mindful breathing you can then add movement. Yoga flows are made up of a series of poses. These poses are called asanas. You move between them guided by your breath.
Yoga can be a workout, meditation, breath work practice and deep stretch all at the same time. This makes yoga an incredibly efficient way to take care of your body and overall wellbeing. When I am short on time, yoga is the one thing I will not sacrifice. Even 10 minutes a day can give you all its benefits and really transform your state of being. I highly recommend committing to 10 minutes a day if that’s all you have time for.
When I discovered yoga I had already been training for many years and was practicing as a personal trainer. I felt drawn to a 10 minutes a day yoga challenge I found on YouTube and it completely changed my life. Yoga has since been an integral part of my wellbeing regimen – I would say maybe the most beneficial – and I suspect it will be for the rest of my life. On days where I am training in the gym I will choose a slower, more easeful practice such as Hatha yoga to get my blood flowing, stretch out and really wake up. On days where I am not training and really want to feel like I am getting a workout too I will choose an intense power yoga practice to feel the burn and get a sweat on.
Yoga is an incredible strengthening exercise. Some of the most essential yoga moves you’ll see constantly in yoga classes and online videos strengthen you in a way that will enable you to do planks, push ups and single leg balances. Postures or asanas can be termed isometric holds in fitness lingo. An isometric hold is when you take up a position that causes a muscle or muscle group to contract without lengthening, in other words, without moving. A plank is a wonderful example of an isometric hold. And then there is the strengthening that comes from the muscle power needed to transition between postures too. So, yoga gives you both isometric holds and isotonic exercises; movements that do require joints to move and muscles to lengthen.
With any sort of movement practice there are lots of modifications to get you from where you are to where you can go. Yoga is not about forcing yourself to be somewhere you’re not. Yoga is about pushing your limits, one breath at a time. Discipline in yoga comes from showing up consistently and in breathing through discomfort as you hold poses that challenge you.
If strength is a key motivation for you to practice yoga, choose your practices accordingly. There are many very gentle yoga classes that are more about stretching so if this isn’t what you’re going for check before you attend. However, if you are an absolute beginner you will likely find strengthening benefits from any yoga class. This is the case even if you do another form of exercise like weight lifting or a team sport. Our body builds different kinds of strength and the endurance strength that the isometric holds require of you is very different to the quick bursts of power in other forms of exercise like weight lifting or HIIT. For strength you could try Ashtanga or Power Yoga.
With a consistent yoga practice you are sure to become more flexible. In a moving yoga practice you are constantly stretching. Many asanas require you to stretch. For example in downward dog you are stretching your back, hamstrings and calves. In a lunge you are stretching your hips. In an upward dog you are stretching your back and abdomen, and so on. Yoga classes often combine extended stretches which you’ll usually find at the end of the class such as seated forward folds and supine twists. But they also include stretches all the way through! As mentioned before, many asanas are stretching and strengthening you at the same time.
If flexibility is a key motivator for you, you might like to try Yin Yoga. Yin involves holding asanas for extended periods of time (often 3-5 minutes). You’ll see your flexibility increase very quickly. Even if you’re not practicing yoga at all you want to hold stretches for a bare minimum of 30 seconds if you want to increase flexibility. This is a far cry from what most people are doing. Most of us do a lazy 5 minute stretch at the end of a workout, maybe holding each stretch for 10 seconds. This really isn’t enough. Take stretching seriously. You’ll thank yourself later.
Yoga calms your mind, not only because you’re paying close attention to your breath but because asanas often require balance. You’re so focused on balancing you can’t think about much else! This makes yoga especially beneficial for people who struggle with seated meditations. Yoga can get you to the same state meditation could have without making you sit completely still for extended periods of time. During the class you’ll become more and more relaxed.
Most yoga classes end with an asana called Savasana. Often referred to by yoga teachers as the most challenging pose of all because it requires you to be completely still. This is where you lie on your back completely relaxed, soaking up all the benefits of your practice. You’ll find it far easier to do this after a yoga flow, as if the moving yoga and breath work was preparing you for the relaxation at the end.
Muscle tone refers to the tension our muscles are holding at rest. This is important to keep our muscles and joints safe from injury and it is also visually appealing. When I started my yoga practice I noticed improved muscle tone mostly in my shoulders (deltoids) from the planking poses, downward dog and Chatarunga Dandassana and also into my glutes, from the various lunging poses and warrior 3 holds. Not only does yoga make your body more resilient to injury, you get the added benefit of a toned appearance.
Yoga gives you a very intimate relationship with the vessel you live in. To be still and breathing through all physical and emotional discomfort that arises, you get to know your body in such a beautiful, intimate way. You really FEEL what it’s like to be in your body and this stays with you after you get off the mat. You’ll find yourself with more awareness as to what is happening in your body. Yoga can help you with your reflexes, as well as realising what your body is needing when you are not feeling 100%.
Did you know that poor posture is more about a lack of movement i.e. sitting for extended periods in the same position, rather than the position you’re sitting in? The most important thing for good posture is that you keep moving! Yoga moves your body in ways that you might never move if you don’t practice even if you’re working out and attending fitness classes. Yoga will have you in positions you didn’t realise your body was equipped to go into.
Plus, the combination of stretching and strengthening is a recipe for wonderful posture. You’re opening up muscles that may have contracted and shortened due to poor posture – such as the chest and hips. And you’re also strengthening muscle groups required to hold you up in proper posture such as your back, core muscles and glutes!
Now that you’re more powerful mentally and physically, standing taller, at home in your body and proving to yourself day after day that you show up consistently, you’re bound to feel more confident. If you’re not naturally particularly confident, worry not because confidence is something you can earn. I believe confidence is a practice. We show up, we do things that scare us, and in return we gain confidence. Remember that consistency is more important than quantity and 10 minutes of yoga a day will do more for you than an hour here and there.
When accomplishing everything remember that if you fail to make it a habit time and time again it might be that you just need to break what you’re doing down into smaller steps. In this case, if you keep saying you want to do 30 minutes of yoga a day but you rarely seem to make it and are beating yourself up over it, try 10 minutes instead. Always remember that its consistency over quantity.
A Final Note
Remember how many kinds of yoga and yoga teachers there are and don’t be off put if you don’t fall in love straight away. There will be a style of yoga and yoga teacher you LOVE. Remember that breathing alone is still yoga, yoga is about connecting you to the divine, and yoga comes from a very long lineage that we get honour in our practice. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You could even stretch and breath without any guidance at all and it could be a form of yoga for you. Let yoga be personal, don’t compare yourself to anyone else and allow yourself to always enjoy yoga as if for the first time.
Written By Bea: Female fitness expert at MotivatePT – Reps Level 3 Qualified / Pre & Post Natal