Yoga is so much more than ‘just a workout.’
Which is why the western world has fully embraced the ancient practice, with locations such as London, New York and LA barely changing out of its yoga pants.
So why is everyone so obsessed?
Any physical movement makes us happier and healthier. But yoga, with its added benefit of breath work and meditation, targets your wellbeing in multi-purpose ways. It:
- works on your strength, endurance (cardio) and flexibility training systems (we need to train all three systems to remain optimally healthy).
- improves your circulation above what’s offered by other forms of cardio training.
- releases muscle tension. More specifically, it works on releasing stored emotions in the body.
- helps you to create a state of active meditation.
- connects you with yourself.
In fact, yoga has the potential to be a transformative influence in your life, shedding light on where you need to work on yourself.
Regardless of whether you are open or willing to do that, yoga is the ideal exercise for everyone.
Yoga health benefits
Many links have been made between yoga and improvements in both physical and psychological conditions (if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I don’t see a distinction: every physical symptom has an underlying, psychological cause).
For example, yoga has been linked to reduction in chronic pain, improvement in asthma symptoms, assisting with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. It is also associated with enhanced cognitive function and longevity.
The most powerful health benefit for me is that it increases my awareness of my body. One of the best things you can do as the custodian of your health is to be able to tune with yourself and know when something is up.
Yoga gives us access to that. We get to see where our minds and bodies are blocked.
Yoga’s physiological healing mechanisms
Some specific physiological maladies are ‘got at’ or targeted by yoga poses (called asanas).
These include tightness and tension, poor digestion and circulation.
Postural: Practicing yoga will naturally help you to become more aware of your posture, at the same time as strengthening the muscles needed to maintain correct posture. In addition to improving your appearance, energy levels, and reducing your propensity for injury, this has a positive impact on self-esteem and confidence.
Flexibility: As I have written before, yoga is the creme de la creme of flexibility training. Improving your mobility enhances your performance in other athletic pursuits (it will improve, for e.g., your ability to perform explosive exercise movements).
Digestion: Certain asanas, such as my favorite classic seated twist, help to stimulate digestion and elimination. Performing these asanas is a perfect thing to do for everyday detoxification.
Circulation: All cardiovascular exercise promotes a healthy lymphatic system (your body’s natural detoxification mechanism), but gentle inversions like legs up the wall pose are especially awesome.
Opening you up: Specific asanas can be used to target areas of tightness in your body. Main culprits are tight shoulders and neck, hip areas and hamstrings. Correcting these issues sets you up for a stronger foundation and avoiding problems caused by ‘overcompensation’ in stronger areas of your body.
Yoga as mind/personality gym
The associations between positive self perception and practicing yoga are strong. Practicing yoga, with its emphasis on cultivating qualities such as presence, alignment, authenticity, balance, intuition and connection, helps connect us with our true selves.
Open your mind: Flexibility training in general cultivates a more flexible and open mind. Which is useful for dealing with challenges in relationships, for example.
Presence and awareness through breathing: Breath awareness – i.e. focusing intently on each inhale and exhale and noticing the quality of the breath – is an instant way to bring us into the present moment. Presence is identified more and more as key to creating a healthy mental state.
Intention-setting and gratitude: Setting your intention at the start and practicing gratitude at the end of class is a great microcosm for how to set ourselves up for a rewarding day.
Resilience: You are encouraged to stay in the poses when your body wants to leave. Through the objections that come up in that process, you will become more aware of the things that stop you from being in action in life.
Heart opening and tuning in: Practicing yoga cultivates a more loving approach to yourself and others.
Focusing and improving courage and inner strength: Warrior and tree asanas especially can help to create focus and presence, as well as improving self-esteem (who wouldn’t feel strong in that post in this post’s main image?)
Non-judgment: You will usually be guided to avoid comparing yourself with others and make yourself the focus of the practice.
Synergism and connection: Traditionally, the practice of sun salutations was performed at sunrise, as a way to greet the sun and the arrival of a new day. Although we don’t always practice at those times, performing the sequence has the effect of centering you.
And as with anything, where you bring consistency is really where the benefits of your attention see fruition. Getting on that mat every day (or as often as you can) and performing the same sequences, you get to see how your mind affects your body at a super close level.
Morning or evening yoga bunny?
Anytime is good. The priority is doing it, so fit it in around when you are most likely to do it.
The benefits of a morning practice are that you will spend a day of increased breath awareness, the ability to be present, healthier digestion, stimulated circulation and improved mood.
The benefits of an early evening practice is at this time of the day (around 5pm) your strength is peak. You also get to unwind the damage done from sitting all day, you are naturally more flexible and it is an awesome precursor to meditation and a good night’s sleep.
What yoga is right for you?
It depends on your personal challenges as an individual and what else is going on in your life. You can use yoga to bring you into balance.
As my life is relatively low in stress and I am not very physical with my days, a reasonably powerful vinyassa yoga practice to close the day is perfect for me.
If I had high degrees of stress or anxiety, I would opt for a more restorative form of yoga. That said, some people are able to access relaxation through the fast moving forms of yoga. So you see it really depends on you.
Otherwise, I really love (and agree with) what fit bottomed girls have to say about it.
What to do if you only have 5, 15, 30 and 60 minutes
There is no such thing as an average person with average challenges, but if there were three stand out postures that I think are universally useful, it is these:
- A heart opener such as bow pose or cobra. We all need to work on opening our hearts all the time, because life experiences tend to close us down.
- A twist such as seated twists. I have included this on here because – as is increasingly being identified by health experts – the state of our health rests on our digestive wellness.
- A yogic breathing exercise such as alternate nostril breathing. Because we forget to breathe properly, and the impact of that on our mental wellbeing and stress levels is large.
A few sun salutations. This should tune you into yourself and your breath.
Sun salutations followed by either a few hip openers such as pigeon pose (good if you have been sitting all day), inversions (good for revitalizing) or heart openers (good if your day has caused you to become closed).
Hit a class!
Summary: Yoga is a metaphor for life
Everything in your life is available for knowing about on your yoga mat. Seriously if you seek, you shall find.
I am talking specifically about where we get stopped and the aspects of ourselves that we need to work on. All of your struggles on the mat have their mirror somewhere in your psychology and your life.
Plus – it really is a great workout.