What are the benefits of starting yoga? Let’s just say there’s more to the practice than getting your leg behind your head.
If you don’t practise yoga, chances are you know someone who does, and they’ve probably chewed your ear off about how it’s changed their life.
Now, I’m sceptical by nature – I don’t believe in celery juice fasts, oil baths or breatharian monks who go without food or water for seventy years (it’s a thing). So, when someone makes a grand claim about how life-changing something is, I’m a little ashamed to admit, my natural reaction is to roll my eyes.
I’m telling you this to let you know I get it.
Before I found yoga, I had the same dismissive response as most people – the benefits sounded too good to be true, it was too slow to count as “real exercise” (which I now know a) isn’t true and b) is beside the point) and the only people who took part were tie-dye clad hippies.
With an attitude like this, you might be wondering why I started in the first place…
My experience healing through yoga
I turned to yoga because I was at my wit’s end, suffering from various mental health disorders, including bulimia, anxiety and depression. My family, who are heavily into yoga, suggested the practice might provide some relief. I had doubts but, at this point, I was willing to try anything.
I fell in love immediately. I learnt how to breathe through anxiety, treat my body with respect (it proved to be way more capable than I gave it credit for) and cultivate kindness towards myself and others. I was bewildered at how quickly my life changed for the better, and I soon became one of those annoying people who couldn’t shut up about yoga’s transformative powers (sorry in advance).
Alongside my personal experience, the students who come to my classes have also experienced the benefits of yoga – they’ve reported reduced levels of anxiety, fewer everyday aches and pains (especially lower back pain) and improved flexibility.
Now, this information isn’t new – most of us can accept yoga eases stress, stiffness and soreness. What I want to do in this blog is highlight some of the lesser-known benefits of the practice.
Six surprising benefits of starting yoga
You build a tonne of strength
It’s a common myth that yoga only focuses on flexibility. Sure, it’s a natural byproduct of all the pretzel-like postures we do, but it’s nothing without strength to support it. In fact, being overly flexible can lead to devastating injuries down the road such as sprained ligaments, degenerative cartilage and arthritis.
In yoga, we lengthen and strengthen muscles simultaneously through passive stretches and body-weight exercises. The intensity depends on the style you choose – Ashtanga, dynamic, vinyasa flow, rocket, power and Bikram (to name a few) tend to include more strength-building sequences.
One of the key areas yoga focuses on is core, and there are postures to target just about every muscle under this umbrella (including the pelvic floor muscles, abdominals, internal and external obliques and diaphragm). A strong core is essential for a whole host of reasons, such as:
- Reducing back pain
- Improving posture
- Improving balance
- Making everyday activities easier
Your balance improves
Consistently practising yoga improves something called proprioception (also known as kinesthesia), which is the ability to feel what your body is doing in space. It’s closely tied to the control of movement, and it’s the reason we’re able to move freely without consciously thinking about our surroundings. It dramatically impacts balance, which is essential for those with hypermobility (who tend to lack body awareness) and the elderly.
At the risk of sounding bleak, falls are the second leading cause of unintentional death in the world (after road traffic accidents) and injury rates are highest among adults over 60 years old, which is why anything that emphasises proprioception is critical to our well-being.
You stand taller
Our heads are big, round, and bulky objects balanced precariously on delicate cervical vertebrae (sounds scary, doesn’t it?).
With good posture, our head sits directly over an erect spine, which means our neck and back muscles don’t have to work so hard to support the weight. But when our posture isn’t so good, we start to strain the muscles in those areas, as well as suffer from a host of ailments including herniated discs, joint stress and arthritis of the spine.
Luckily, yoga emphasises proper alignment and, over time, we become more aware of how we’re sitting, standing and moving through life.
Prevents cartilage breakdown
As well as restoring our body’s natural range of mobility, yoga can actually prevent cartilage and joint breakdown.
The postures we practise take our joints through their full range of motion, “squeezing and soaking” areas of cartilage we don’t often use (which includes the cartilage of the discs in the neck and back). This is the only way to flood these areas with new nutrients – without nourishment, neglected areas of cartilage eventually wear out, exposing the underlying bone (ouch).
You sleep like a baby
Nowadays, we live increasingly hectic lives, juggling careers, partners, children, ageing parents, finances and health. Alongside this mounting responsibility, comes crippling anxiety that leaves people struggling to function and feel their best. This stress also significantly impacts sleep quality – in fact, it’s thought that a third of Brits will have episodes of insomnia at some point in their lives.
Restorative yoga, yoga nidra, pranayama, and meditation can provide some relief from the hustle and bustle of contemporary life by encouraging sense-withdrawal and breath control. Basically, our nervous systems receive some much-needed downtime.
Improves the mind/body connection
Without a doubt, the mind influences the body. For example, think about what happens when you’re scared – you start to stiffen, sweat and suffer from a quickening heartbeat. Similarly, what happens when you think about delicious food? Your stomach begins to rumble and you salivate.
Our body’s reactions are so strong that they can feel overwhelming, and many of us tend to overreact at the slightest stimulation. In extreme cases, when the mind/body connection is unbalanced, people suffer from debilitating illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart attacks and ulcers.
Thankfully, we can use yoga to reduce the influence of the mind on the body. Through relaxation practices, pranayama (breath control) and meditation we learn to quiet the mind and familiarise ourselves with its chaotic patterns. Eventually, we become skilled at simply observing thoughts rather than getting caught up in all the crazy story-lines our brains create.
I’ve heard every excuse out there
What are your reasons for not starting yoga? Here are a few that pop up time and time again:
- I’m not flexible enough (definitely the winner)
- I’m too old
- I’m too big
- Yoga isn’t a real workout
- I’m not spiritual
- I don’t have the time
- I’m too stressed
But here’s the thing – yoga is for everyone, especially the non-flexible and stressed. And while it can be scary starting something new and unfamiliar, once you experience the benefits of yoga listed above, you won’t look back.