I’ve recently begun to practice Vinyasa Flow yoga, going a couple of times during the week to hour and a half classes and awakening my body to its old flexibility and strength. Because I’ve found that yoga requires a different kind of strength than that required for resistance training or running; it’s a strange and trying blend of core physical and mental resilience. It requires that you truly listen to your body, and seek to expand your consciousness throughout your body’s entirety, seeking to sense whether you are doing the form correctly, if any part is out of alignment, if you are fully present in each asana. And then, once you’ve managed to fit yourself into the correct alignment, you have to hold it for a count, whether its five breaths or longer, seeking to remain balanced, energized, allowing nothing to droop or sag. And that takes strength. Whether it’s simply holding a deep lunge like Warrior Two, thigh burning and then screaming and shaking as the seconds drag out into aeons, or something more complex like Crow, where your shins are propped up on your triceps so that you hover over the floor like a floating knot of muscle and sinew, feet off the ground and all the weight on your hands, it’s become very clear to me that yoga takes more than flexibility. It takes strength, determination, focus, clarity, serenity and a willingness to push yourself as far as your body can comfortably go.
Given how great I’ve been feeling every time I leave class, I’ve been wondering of late what the actual health benefits are. Some quick research has revealed a host of them, and as you may have guessed, I’m going to share them here. Perhaps this post will alert those who have not taken a yoga class as to unexpected benefits, or simply confirm that what current practitioners already know, but either way, I hope you find it as fascinating an array as I do!
This one almost goes without saying. Stretching while holding the asanas releases lactic acid build up that can cause stiffness and pain. Additionally, stretching can aid in joint flexibility, and potentially also lubricate them. It bestows a sense of fluidity and ease throughout your body which feels truly delicious, and promotes general mobility that becomes increasingly valuable as you age. A common misconception is that you already need to be flexible to enjoy yoga; not so-anybody can practice, and in fact, it’s those who are the least flexible that stand to benefit the most.
As mentioned above, yoga requires strength. I know for one that Downward Dog kills my shoulders, such that I can rarely hold it for the full count, needing to drop to my knees to relieve the burning in my deltoids. While the degree of strength required varies from yoga style to yoga style, all require that you use your own body weight while moving and holding the different positions. Many of them, such as Upward Dog, Plank and Downward Dog require upper body strength, while a number of the standing/balancing poses build up strength in your hamstrings, quads and abdominal muscles. In fact, what is emphasized over and over to me is how yoga will help you develop phenomenal core strength. If you’re looking to strengthen your deep abdominal muscles, there are few better ways to go about it.
When you combine flexibility and strength you naturally end up with excellent posture. The awareness you develop of your body and how you are holding it at all times carries over to your everyday activities, whether its sitting at your desk or even how you simply stand while in line at the bank. With a stronger core you will naturally sit and stand ‘tall’, and soon you won’t even think about it.
Throughout our class we are told to mind our breathing. That our breath is the most important part of the class, and that it should be what we focus on first and foremost. As a result, you find yourself breathing more deeply, more consciously, and I can only imagine that this helps with lung capacity. However, yoga isn’t focused on cardio the way running or cycling is, so the aerobic thresholds won’t be challenged in quite the same way. Instead, you’ll find yourself more aware of your breathing, and consequently more relaxed, oxygenated and present in your daily activities.
The effect of yoga on heart disease has been extensively studied. Due to yoga’s intense relaxation and meditative qualities, people are known to lower blood pressure and slow their heart rate. This can be of great benefit to people with hypertension, heart disease and stroke. In fact, yoga has been included by several prominent MD’s (such as Dr. Dean Ornish) in their programs that are meant to lower the chances of heart disease through lifestyle and diet rather than surgery. Biochemically speaking, yoga has been associated with decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as a stronger immune system.
This one is less tangible and harder to pinpoint scientifically, but in this I can attest to my own experience. Life in the modern city can be hectic, stressful, and incredibly busy. One grows so used to such a demanding pace that it often takes a deliberate effort to slow down to show us how worn out we are becoming. Yoga is the perfect remedy for such lifestyles, since an hour and a half of focused breathing, stretching, meditation and exercise releases endorphins, stills your mind, helps you focus on yourself and your body, and leaves you feeling rejuvenated, serene and strong. Honestly, I’m just describing how I feel upon leaving my classes. So don’t roll your eyes! Or at least, if you must, roll them at me, and not yoga 😉
So there you have it. Yoga is being linked to a wide variety of other benefits as well, such as relieving symptoms of asthma, back pain, arthritis, insomnia and multiple sclerosis. But even if the above were all that it did, that would be more than enough. So if you’re feeling a little frayed at the edges, worn out and stressed out? If your body feels tight and uncomfortable, if you’re short of breath and want a change, than perhaps you should check out your local yoga class. After all, you never know-it just might change things for the better.