People have been practising yoga for thousands of years, and over that time the yoga has had many changes and transformations. Despite there being so many types of yoga now, there are fundamental benefits that come from practising any form of yoga.
Yoga means union, or to yolk, and in practice that comes together in an experience which acknowledges and joins the mind, body and spirit. Yoga benefits us on many different levels – physically, mentally and even spiritually (if that is what you are after!) I think we often get scared of the word spiritual, and spirit; I tend to think of it as knowing my inner self world and how I relate and understand to others and the world around me….
So why yoga and not another form of exercise?
Yoga is an all rounder that gives you benefits in a number of areas. There are so many benefits to yoga, here are just three…
In our modern day life, many of us are feeling stressed by our environments. More and more people are feeling stressed, and some of us are not even aware that we are operating from the sympathetic nervous system. We were designed to spend short periods in this heightened state – you probably know about fight and flight. We needed it to run from the tiger, so we ran, released the chemicals and then our body returned to a calm state. Our body is having a physiological response to the innumerable stress signals we are receiving on a daily basis and often we are not allowing the body to return from this heightened state. Long term periods in this state can lead to long term illnesses. Yoga and meditation help us to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
The first written yogic text, Patanjali’s Sutras, states that the purpose of yoga is to quieten the mind. When we are able to do this we become more aware of our own thoughts and a feeling of calm is more accessible.
A 2003 American study found that 60 – 80% of physician visits could have a stress related aspect (Avey, Matheny, Robbins and Jacobsen 2003)
So not only will you feel better in the moment and after a yoga class, but you will be improving your long term health outcomes.
Flexibility comes with a regular yoga practice. At first you may come to a class and feel underwhelmed by your body’s abilities. But with time and commitment to your practice your body will loosen up and poses will be become more accessible. Perhaps the dream of touching your toes will become reality! In my classes I say that the first purpose of yoga is to quieten down the mind, and then flexibility and strength will follow as your body becomes familiar with the postures.
A recent study (Polsgrove, Eggeleston & Lockyer 2016) involved a ten week study with male college athletes and found a regular practice improved their flexibility and balance.
If you establish a regular yoga practice, your hamstrings and body will open and touching your toes is just a step away.
Most yoga classes have a focus on the breath, whether it is with movement or perhaps specific breathing exercises to help develop breath control and move energy levels. You may have practised alternate nostril breathing (nodi shadan) where you breathe in and out through one nostril at a time. Breathing exercises help to increase our breathing capacity and breath retention.
A study with 287 college students undertook and a yoga and breathing program and it was found that their vital capacity increased (Birkel & Edgren 2000). Our vital capacity is the ability to release breath from the body and is particularly relevant to people with asthma, heart problems and lung disease.
So why not start a yoga practice – you will feel calmer at the end of the class, your body will relax and open, and you may even touch your toes one day!