Given how passionate I am about yoga, I’m not sure why I’ve never devoted a post to it before. I genuinely believe that yoga is such an important and healthy practice, and that everyone can benefit from it. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve been practising yoga for a couple of years now. I’d like to share the benefits that yoga has, along with some examples of the ways it has helped me personally. There are three main ways in which I believe yoga can benefit us – physically, mentally and spiritually. But first…
What is yoga?
Most of us think we know what yoga is – it’s about contorting ourselves into funny shapes, right?! But yoga is so much more than a physical practice. I’ve heard it described as a ‘science of life’, and I think this is pretty accurate. Bear in mind that there are many different yoga traditions and techniques, which I don’t have the space to go into here. Suffice it to say that there’s more to it than just postures. Breathing exercises, relaxation and mental focus are yoga too. Once again, it’s a way of life rather than a type of exercise. Read a comprehensive beginner’s guide to yoga here.
Physical benefits of yoga
Having said all that, it’s undeniable that yoga does have benefits for the physical body. What these benefits are depends on what type of yoga it is, how often you practice and so on. The main ones are increased flexibility and stronger muscles, but there are also some more unexpected ones like improved balance.
Yoga has really improved my posture by making me aware of when I’m slouching. I work at a computer, and my posture used to be pretty terrible. But these days, it’s great.
I’ve definitely noticed all the benefits I listed above, and I’ve become able to do poses I would never have imagined I was capable of, like crow pose and half headstands. I’m now toned rather than ‘skinny-fat’!
Yoga has tremendous benefits for the treatment of many health complaints. It helps with digestion by stimulating the digestive organs, and when done mindfully can ease joint and muscle pain. It’s also good for menstrual cramps and so much more.
I use yoga to treat the repetitive strain injury I get in my hands from using the computer a lot. It’s great for relieving muscle tension too.
However, it’s generally not the best way to improve cardiovascular fitness as it doesn’t consistently get your heart rate up the way aerobic exercise does.
Mental and emotional benefits of yoga
I would say the main mental benefit of yoga is stress relief. When we’re stressed, our muscles tense up and this can make us feel even worse. Yoga helps to loosen up those muscles.
But it has other benefits too. Taking a yoga break gives the mind a rest and encourages us to be more in the moment. We may become so focused on yoga that we stop worrying about the future or regretting the past.
Yoga techniques have helped me to cope with many challenging situations in life. Focusing on the breath is especially helpful. If I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I take some deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth and it helps to calm me down.
When I had my belly button pierced, the piercer commented on how calm I was; I didn’t even flinch when the needle went in. It wasn’t because it didn’t hurt – it did! But I was using my breath to stay calm, and I actually felt very relaxed the whole time.
Perhaps most significantly, time spent doing yoga is time not being spent doing things that make us stressed and anxious. For me, doing yoga can act as a reset for my mood when things get too overwhelming.
Spiritual benefits of yoga
Most of us do know that yoga has a spiritual element, but we don’t really see how this relates to our lives. It’s always difficult to explain spiritual benefits, because they’re so subjective and by nature difficult to describe. But I’ll give it a go!
Personally, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by feelings of peace, joy and serenity when I practice yoga. Doing yoga has even moved me to tears at times, for reasons I can’t really explain. Many of my friends report similar experiences.
The word yoga means ‘unity’, and that’s very fitting because yoga can make us feel at one with each other and the universe. I believe yoga can increase our compassion for others and encourage us to be more patient, tolerant and loving.
I find that by helping me to clear my mind, yoga also stimulates my creativity. Some of my best ideas have come to me whilst doing yoga. I’ve also had insights which have helped me through some tough challenges in life. My yoga practice just seems to put me in the right frame of mind for inspiration and creativity to flow.
Of course, yoga is also very strongly linked to meditation. Yoga asanas (poses) help you to get in the zone for your meditation practice. And the lines between the two are blurred, as yoga can sometimes be thought of as a moving meditation.
Should I practice yoga?
Maybe you’re still not convinced that yoga is for you. You might do a lot of exercise already and think you don’t need to take on any more. Maybe all this talk of spirituality puts you off, or you feel you have physical limitations which will prevent you from doing yoga.
I believe everyone’s lives can be enriched by yoga, no matter what your situation. Asanas can be adapted to suit your body, as can breathing techniques if you have asthma, allergies or the like. For example, I sometimes have to breathe solely through my mouth when my allergies are bad. Yoga is about inclusion, and no one should feel like they can’t do it.
Even those who are sceptical about spirituality will likely benefit from a clearer head, more stable mood and less stress – and no-one can deny the physical benefits. If you’re not flexible, that’s all the more reason to practice yoga; your body needs it, and so do your mind and soul.
So yes, you should at least give yoga a go. My mum suggested the other day that it should be taught in schools, and I couldn’t agree more. I’m confident it would make the world a better place.
Yoga at home
Yoga classes are a great way to practice yoga. But they are generally quite expensive and many people are self-conscious about doing yoga in public. An alternative is to practice yoga at home. There are many books and YouTube videos which can help you out with this. I highly recommend Yoga with Adriene on YouTube – she’s so warm and funny and has a variety of videos for practically any mood or situation. Yoga for small spaces, for seniors, for mood swings, for golfers – you name it. Once you’ve been doing yoga for a while, you’ll be able to put together your own routines, listening to what your body needs.
You really don’t need much in the way of equipment to practice yoga. I had nothing at all when I started out! Having said that, I really do recommend getting a mat – some poses will be difficult or painful otherwise, and you could end up injuring yourself. Aside from that, you can make do with household objects like books, pillows and blankets if you don’t want to buy a ton of props.
At-home yoga can also be used to complement yoga classes. I try to practice yoga every day if I can; this wouldn’t be possible if I relied too much on classes.
Yoga anytime, anywhere
I keep banging on about how yoga is a way of life, because it’s true! Your yoga practice can and should spill over into the rest of your life. Wherever you are when stress, tension, anxiety or muscle stiffness strikes, yoga can help you out. If you feel self-conscious about stretching in public places, you can focus on your breath and use that to calm you. Personally, I happily do neck, wrist and hand exercises anywhere I like, and can often be found stretching at friends’ houses too!
It’s amazing to feel your body strengthen and become more flexible; it makes me feel like I can do anything! And I have no doubt that yoga has been instrumental in allowing me to get to a place in my life where I feel like I’m really growing as a person and making progress towards my goals. So no matter what your age, gender, race or abilities, give yoga a go – your mind, body and soul will thank you.