While she had never practiced yoga before, she was referred by some of her friends who said yoga would help her increase her flexibility. When she came to the session, we started talking about her exercise history and some background on her overall health. She looked at me and with complete authenticity said, "So what is with this “yoga thing” anyway? What are the benefits of yoga?” I loved how she was so defenseless in her lack of clarity around why yoga has become a staple for so many people.
As much as I talk to people about yoga, I often don’t get asked one of the most basic questions out there: “Why do it?” So, just as I did with this new student, here are 10 reasons why I practice, as well as reasons that have been demonstrated through study and research, to be benefits of regular (at least a few times per week) yoga practice. I’ve tried to be essential in my language below so that anyone, regardless of their yoga experience, can understand the benefits, without using Sanskrit or statements that require a background in yoga philosophy:
Increased strength: Through the poses and sequence, one is using one’s body weight as resistance. Balancing, twisting and holding poses in various positions builds strength without the jarring nature of other activities, such as lifting weights (if done without proper body awareness).
Increased flexibility: By placing a sustained load on certain body parts, such as the hamstrings, lower back muscles and muscles of the chest, muscles are stretched. This creates increased flexibility and keeps muscles supple as well as strong. Additionally, yoga done in a heated room can help practitioners experience even greater flexibility, as the muscles are warmed, which can lead to an even deeper stretch.
Improved ability to relax: Yoga’s requirement for deep breathing and breathing in synchronicity to movements (“Inhale, reach up, exhale, fold forward”) allows the practitioner to trigger the body’s relaxation response; that activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which reduces stress and brings on a feeling of peace and relaxation.
Improved connection to the body: Yoga helps practitioners improve their relationship to their body by helping them see how the effects of lifestyle, diet, stress and lack of stretching affects them as they come onto the yoga mat and move through the poses. As one develops an awareness of how the body feels in each pose, one has a better chance at starting to make positive changes to improve different aspects of their lifestyle that are negatively impacting their health.
Better balance: As we age, we can lose our ability to balance. This can be due to problems with overall health, vision, sensation in the extremities, overall weakness due to lack of conditioning or mental changes. Many yoga poses require you stand on one leg and many, if not all poses, help you strengthen your ankles and the soles of the feet. All these actions combined can improve balance. This, coupled with increases in strength, can lead to better balance.
Greater awareness of your foundation: One of my private students is a physician in an acute care facility for children. She described to me one of the benefits of her practice as a “greater sense of standing strong in my feet, which helps me feel more grounded, present and less reactive during times of stress at the hospital.” When I teach yoga, it’s always interesting to me how the positions of the feet differ from student to student. Fallen arches, weak ankles, plantar fasciitis, toes gripping the mat, you’ll see it all. Yoga helps us develop a stronger, steadier foundation, which, along with improving strength, can relieve poor alignment in other parts of the body.
Improved posture: I have a private client who works over a computer as a programmer all day. He has literally changed the shape of his cervical (neck) spine by hunching over the keyboard. This has been well documented as a negative result of even casual computer use, due to the position of the head as it hangs down, combined with the weight of the head on the muscles of the neck. Yoga practice helps to build greater awareness of the posture, especially around the neck and head and can also strengthen the muscles of the upper back, which will counter the weight of the head as you lean over your computer or smartphone.
Improved coordination: Regardless of the style of yoga practiced, there will be a connection of breath to movement as you move from pose to pose. Working with the sequencing of yoga is not unlike learning how to dance and as a result, you will experience greater coordination in your body as well as greater awareness of your limbs in space, called “proprioception.” This improved awareness can translate to moving with increased awareness throughout your day as you sit at your desk, lift anything heavy or exercise.
Stronger bones: Some research suggests that yoga can improve bone density through the weight bearing nature of the practice. While having stronger bones is helpful for everyone, especially as we age, it’s of particular importance to women who age and begin to show signs of osteoporosis (loss of bone density leading to bone weakness and breakage).
Improved mindfulness: You may have heard this term and wondered if it’s just a new age phrase for people who practice yoga. I like to think of it as increased awareness around how external stimuli affect the body and mind. With this increased awareness, one has the ability to avoid certain things and increase other things, all with the goal in mind of increasing health and positive mood. When you practice yoga, you have a better chance of connecting the dots between what you do off the mat and how your body reacts on the mat. This can put you in the driver’s seat to do more of what is good and less of what’s not. Ultimately, what is most important to you about practicing may or may not be found on a list but will be found in your body, mind and heart as you try yoga and experience it in your body.