In the search for fitness, health, wellness and happiness, many people have come to yoga. Yoga’s popularity is evident in the burgeoning yoga studios, classes and trainings available at almost every corner of the world. Those who embark on a regular yoga practice speak favourably of its benefits and share impressive stories of transformation. So, what exactly is this thing called yoga?
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient Indian body of knowledge with a history of more than 5000 years. The word “Yoga” came from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means “to unite or integrate”. Yoga was originally developed to achieve union of a person’s consciousness and the universal consciousness. In order for us to be in harmony with ourselves and the environment, we have to integrate the body, the mind and the spirit. The Yogis formulated a way to achieve and maintain this balance and it is done through physical postures, breathing and meditation.
For the modern practitioner, yoga refers to the practice of physical postures or poses called “asana”. Asana is only one type of yoga. However, the words ‘asana’ and ‘yoga’ have become almost synonymous in our modern context. When you attend a yoga class in a studio, you will most likely be taught specific asanas and a few breathing techniques.
Each asana has specific physical benefits. The asanas can be done quickly and continuously, creating heat in the body through movement or more slowly to increase stamina and achieve good alignment of the pose. Many people think that yoga is stretching. But while stretching is certainly involved, yoga is really about creating balance in the body through developing both strength and flexibility.
Benefits for the Body
Through practice of asanas, the body attains flexibility and strength. With regular practice of yoga asanas, you can see improvement in your flexibility by 30 – 35% in 8 weeks. With improved flexibility, you can move around better, feel less stiff and tired. Certain styles of yoga can also enhance your strength and endurance. Power yoga and Ashtanga yoga are more physical styles of yoga which build strength. Some poses require you to bear weight on your upper body (e.g. push-up plank, downward facing dog), while standing poses strengthens the muscles in the legs.
Weight bearing exercises also tone your bones and stimulate the bones to retain calcium and produce more bone mass. This reduces your risk of osteoporosis. In comparison to other weight bearing exercises like walking and running, yoga asanas involve the whole spine, arms, shoulders, elbows, legs, knees, ankles, and feet, while encouraging full range of motion. In yoga, you not only do standing poses but also arm balances and inversions. This makes yoga practice more efficient in enhancing overall bone health.
On top of that, almost all yoga poses, when done correctly, helps to cultivate core awareness and strength. With strength, flexibility and core awareness, your posture naturally improves. You will be able to sit and stand tall, and with the awareness you have cultivated, you are more likely to correct your own posture when you catch yourself slouching.
Better Circulation and Absorption of Nutrients
The benefits of yoga reach beyond your muscular and skeletal systems. B.K.S. Iyengar, master of yoga’s therapeutic applications, explains the benefits of yoga by means of its “squeezing and soaking” actions. In yoga, we practice poses that involve deep twisting, compression and then release. Through the process of squeezing out the old, stale blood or lymphatic fluids and soaking the area with fresh, oxygenated blood or fluids, yoga helps the body to utilize the nutrients it needs. This promotes better circulation and efficient absorption of nutrients in our cells.
Benefits for the Mind
Proper breathing helps in calming the mind and reducing harmful effects of stress on your mind and body. Mindful breathing is the essence of yoga practice and you will learn to make use of breathing to calm yourself in times of stress or anger. This helps to lower your blood pressure, reduce the stress hormones in your body and prevent many diseases and conditions induced by chronic anxiety and stress.
Yoga’s deep breathing and meditation practices also help to unclutter the mind. When you practice yoga, you are calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Even when you step off the yoga mat for day-to-day activities, you are able to keep distractions away and handle your tasks with improved focus and concentration.
If you have problems getting a good night’s sleep, chances are that you may be aging faster than you should be. During sleep, our body repairs on a cellular level and removes toxin. If you can’t seem to sleep enough, yoga can help. Regular yoga practice is known to cure insomnia or abnormal sleeping habits. The practice of certain yoga postures will increase the blood circulation to the sleep center in the brain, which has the effect of normalizing the sleep cycle.
As a result, the quality of your sleep improves as yoga increases the elimination of toxins from the body and rejuvenates the entire body right down to cellular level. Yoga will help you fall asleep sooner and improve the quality of your sleep so that you need less. You will have a more restful sleep because of the relaxing aspect of yoga and the subsequent relieving of stress, tension and fatigue. You will wake up every morning ready to go instead of wishing you could stay in bed.
Yoga is for Everyone
One of the most amazing things about yoga is that it is for everyone! Not everyone can run or lift weights, but everyone can practice yoga. Start by looking for a yoga class that suits your health condition and needs. If you are looking for relaxation and a gentle workout, join a restorative or gentle yoga class for beginners. If movement, building strength and flexibility is up your alley, sign up for a dynamic power yoga or flow yoga class. The good news is that with the great number of yoga studios and classes available, it is easy to find a class just right for you. There are also many online classes that you can watch and follow at the comfort of your own home. Start today to see the transformation in your mind and body!