There is no denying it; people are fanatical about yoga. It's amazing to think that a practice that has been around for more than 5,000 years is still so prominent in our world. Across the board, thousands of people turn to yoga as a form of mediation, bodywork, and even exercise. It's easy to see why. There are countless benefits that come with yoga. From increasing flexibility, managing stress, improving posture, benefiting the heart, and even building strength, this ancient practice has much to offer for the many people who use it in their daily lives. While I am not a yoga practitioner myself, I do firmly believe that it offers all of these benefits and I recommend it for certain clients. In this article, I would like to talk about some of these benefits in detail.
Yoga and flexibility: At the heart of most yoga practices is the instruction of certain postures called asanas. These postures allow practitioners to slowly stretch certain muscles in a safe and effective manner. By doing this, one can also safely increase the range of motion (ROM) and lubrication of certain joints in the body. The result is a sense of ease and fluidity throughout the body. The practice of yoga not only stretches the muscles of the body but also soft tissue structures such as tendons, ligaments, and fascia. Research has shown that even beginning participants have experienced improved flexibility within relatively short periods of time. Anyone who suffers from chronic inflexibility could greatly benefit from a yoga practice. However, just as in any other form of exercise, care should be taken to start with a less demanding yoga practice and gradually build into more demanding exercises.
Yoga and strength: While a strong yoga practice will not prepare you for a body building competition anytime soon, certain practices such as power yoga and ashtanga yoga are more vigorous than others and can lead to improved muscle tone and core strength. Poses such as downward dog, upward dog, and the plank can build upper body and core strength by holding isometric positions. Certain standing positions, especially when done on one leg, can build strength in the hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominals while also strengthening the joints of the ankle, knee, and hip. The upward dog and chair poses also help to strengthen the lower back. If you are looking to build muscle and put on some size, yoga will not do that for you. Nor will it provide any strong aerobic benefits.
Yoga and posture: Research has shown that a consistent yoga practice can undoubtedly improve faulty postures. Many postural imbalances stem from core weakness. As mentioned before, building core strength is one of the many perks of yoga. This new found core strength will have people sitting and walking taller which can profoundly improve posture. Certain postures also help to stretch the pectorals which can easily become constrained and tightened, especially for people who sit or work at computers all day. A strong yoga practice can also enhance body awareness, so people will become more aware of those faulty postural habits when they begin to set in.
Yoga and stress management: Many yoga practices involve deep mindful breathing which stimulates a relaxation response. Certain classes also use specific meditation techniques to "quiet the mind". Mental distraction is quite often an underlying factor of stress. Many yoga instructors teach people to focus the mind on the breath, which has a calming effect and can significantly minimize this "mind chatter". A consistent yoga practice can lead to a decrease in stress hormones that build up in the body and can also stimulate an increase in the hormone oxytocin which is associated with feeling relaxed and connected to others. Many yoga students also report feeling happier and more "at peace" after taking a yoga class. This has shown that yoga may indeed have a positive effect on those who deal with depression.
Yoga and health: Yoga has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. A slower heart rate can benefit those with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It has also been associated with decreased cholesterol and may also have an effect in boosting the immune system. Yoga has also been used to benefit other medical conditions such as asthma, back pain, arthritis, insomnia, and multiple sclerosis. Some research has even shown that yoga may have a positive effect on learning and memory.
Some people have reported having a heightened sense of spiritual awareness due to their yoga practices and in some cases, have cited having spiritual experiences. Obviously, this is not as easy to study scientifically but it is interesting to say the least.
While yoga is considered to be a safe form of exercise for most people, medical clearance may be necessary if you have any of the following conditions: severe osteoporosis, high or low blood pressure, ear problems, spinal injuries, pregnancy. Certain yoga classes and/ or practices may cause risks to the mother and her unborn child.
All yoga practices are complex and require specific instruction by a qualified yoga instructor. Please do not try to learn it on your own. As I mentioned before, it is very important to stay within your own limits. Talk to the yoga instructor first to find out which classes and/ or practices will be best for you, because there are many. It is very important to listen to your body during your practice and to stop if anything hurts. Staying hydrated is also very important, especially for Bikram Yoga, which has also been referred to as "hot" yoga.
If you are interesting in enjoying any of the benefits listed above, you may want to consider exploring the world of yoga. However, just as in any other form of exercise, achieving these benefits takes commitment in your practice. For those interested, my friend Amy Cronk is a Certified Yoga instructor who offers private and group yoga classes. You can find out more about Amy and her company, Fitness 312 through the following links:
Thanks for reading, and be healthy!
Michael Elder has been working as a fitness professional in Chicago for the last thirteen years. He comes from a background in gymnastics and is certified as a personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise (ACE). He can be contacted directly through his website, www.MichaelElder.com.