Because there are so many different types of yoga practices, anybody can start. Whether you’re a couch potato or a professional athlete, size and fitness levels are irrelevant- yoga is extremely customizable. The idea is not to strive for some pretzel-like perfection but to explore your limits. It’s a great way to get in tune with your body and ultimately, yourself.
That being said, while yoga isn’t necessarily difficult, that much may not be enough to convince most. Some people want to know what they can get from it. Some people need to be incentivised by its benefits.
The Benefits of Yoga
It improves flexibility
This much should be obvious- yoga is a practice which involves stretching, after all. You probably won’t be able to touch your toes during your first class, and don’t even consider doing a backbend. If you stick to it, however, you will notice a gradual loosening. So called “impossible” poses eventually become possible. You’ll probably also notice that some pains and aches begin to disappear. This is no coincidence. Due to improper alignment of thigh and shinbones tight hips can strain the knee joint. Tight hamstrings can cause lumbar spine to flatten, which can lead to back pain. Muscle and connective tissue inflexibility, such as fascia and ligaments, may be causing poor posture.
It utilizes the Placebo Effect
A strong belief that you will get better can make you better. Unfortunately, a lot of conventional scientists believe it doesn’t count. The placebo effect (and yoga) is considered in the realm of pseudo-science. But most patients just want to get better, so if chanting a mantra — like you might do at the beginning or end of the yoga class, or during a meditation, or throughout your day — facilitates healing, there should be no problem. Even if it cannot be explained by conventional science, if it works, it works.
Everything is connected. Benefits overlap.
Reading through the benefits of yoga, you may notice that there’s plenty of overlap. That’s because they’re all intertwined, all connected. Change your posture, and change your way of breathing. Change your breathing, and change your nervous system. This is one of the great yoga lessons: everything is connected — your hipbone to your anklebone, your community to the world. This interconnection is vitally important when it comes to understanding yoga. At the same time, this holistic system taps into many mechanisms which have additive and even multiplicative effects. This synergy is the most important facet of healing Yoga.
It encourages you to take care of yourself
In much of conventional medicine, most patients are passive recipients of care. In yoga, it’s what you do for yourself that matters. Yoga gives you the tools to help you change, and you might start to feel better the first time you try practicing. You may also notice that the more you commit to practice, the more you benefit. This results in three things: You get involved in your own care, you discover that your involvement gives you the power to effect change, and seeing that you can effect change gives you hope. And hope itself can be healing.
Yoga shows promise as a treatment for relieving certain kinds of chronic pain. When German researchers compared Iyengar Yoga with a self-care exercise program among people with chronic neck pain, they found that yoga reduced pain scores by more than half. Examining yoga’s effects on a different kind of chronic pain, UCLA researchers studied young women suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, an often debilitating autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the lining of the joints. About half of those who took part in a six-week Iyengar Yoga program reported improvements in measures of pain, as well as in anxiety and depression.
Better Body Image (And Self Esteem)
Many of us have a chronically low self-esteem. If you handle this negatively — take drugs, overeat, work too hard, sleep around — you may be physically, mentally, and spiritually paying the price for the poorer health.
Yoga develops inner awareness. It focuses your attention on your body’s abilities at the present moment. It helps develop breath and strength of mind and body. It’s not about physical appearance.
Yoga studios typically don’t have mirrors. This is so people can focus their awareness inward rather than how a pose — or the people around them — looks. Surveys have found that those who practiced yoga were more aware of their bodies than people who didn’t practice yoga. They were also more satisfied with and less critical of their bodies. For these reasons, yoga has become an integral part in the treatment of eating disorders and programs that promote positive body image and self-esteem.
If you regularly practice with the intent of self-examination and improvement — not just as a substitute for an aerobics class — you can access another side of yourself. You will experience sentiments of gratitude, empathy, and forgiveness, as well as a sense of being part of something greater. While better health is not the goal of spirituality, it is often a by-product, as repeated scientific studies state.
Being Mindful of Food Intake
Mindfulness refers to focusing your attention on what you are experiencing in the present moment without judging yourself.
Practicing yoga has been shown to increase mindfulness not just in class, but in other areas of a person’s life.
Researchers describe mindful eating as a nonjudgmental awareness of the physical and emotional sensations associated with eating. They developed a questionnaire to measure mindful eating using these behaviors:
Eating even when full (disinhibition)
Being aware of how food looks, tastes and smells
Eating in response to environmental cues, such as the sight or smell of food
Eating when sad or stressed (emotional eating)
Eating when distracted by other things
The researchers found that people who practiced yoga were more mindful eaters according to their scores. Both years of yoga practice and number of minutes of practice per week were associated with better mindful eating scores. Practicing yoga helps you be more aware how your body feels. This heightened awareness can carry over to mealtime as you savor each bite or sip, and note how food smells, tastes and feels in you mouth.
Helps With Allergies and your Immune System
Kriyas, or cleansing practices, are another element of yoga. They include everything from rapid breathing exercises to elaborate internal cleansings of the intestines. Jala neti, which entails a gentle lavage of the nasal passages with salt water, removes pollen and viruses from the nose, keeps mucus from building up, and helps drains the sinuses.
It appears to have a beneficial effect on the immune system’s functions, boosting it when needed (e.g. increasing antibody levels in response to a vaccine) and lowering it when needed (e.g. mitigating an inappropriately aggressive immune function in an autoimmune disease such as psoriasis).
Builds Self Awareness
Yoga and meditation build awareness. And the more aware you are, the easier it is to break free of destructive emotions like anger. Studies suggest that chronic anger and hostility are as strongly linked to heart attacks as are smoking, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol. Yoga appears to reduce anger by increasing feelings of compassion and interconnection and by calming the nervous system and the mind.
It also increases your ability to step back from the drama of your own life, to remain steady in the face of bad news or unsettling events. You can still react quickly when you need to—and there’s evidence that yoga speeds reaction time—but you can take that split second to choose a more thoughtful approach, reducing suffering for yourself and others.
Through yoga, you get to know yourself and cultivate a more nonjudgmental relationship with yourself. You are building self-trust. You exercise more and eat healthier, because your unconscious mind tells you, “I’m worthy of this me time, this effort.” At the end of the day, everything comes down to your relationship with yourself.
When you get more confident and become more rooted in your sense of self and your center, you develop a healthy, balanced ego, where you have nothing to prove and nothing to hide. You become courageous, with high willpower. You’re not afraid of difficult conversations—you know you’re still going to be OK at the end of the day.
Helps You Keep Drug-Free
If your medicine cabinet looks like a pharmacy, maybe it’s time to try yoga. Studies of people with asthma, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes (formerly called adult-onset diabetes), and obsessive-compulsive disorder have shown that yoga helped them lower their dosage of medications and sometimes get off them entirely. The benefits of taking fewer drugs? You’ll spend less money, and you’re less likely to suffer side effects and risk dangerous drug interactions.
Helps Weight Loss
People who practice yoga and are mindful eaters are more in tune with their bodies. They may be more sensitive to hunger cues and feelings of fullness.
Researchers found that people who practiced yoga for at least 30 minutes once a week for at least four years, gained less weight during middle adulthood. People who were overweight actually lost weight. Overall, those who practiced yoga had lower body mass indexes (BMIs) compared with those who did not practice yoga.
Researchers attributed this to mindfulness. Mindful eating can lead to a more positive relationship with food and eating.
Gives You Inner Strength
Yoga can help you make changes in your life. In fact, that might be its greatest strength. Tapas, the Sanskrit word for “heat,” is the fire, the discipline that fuels yoga practice and that regular practice builds. The tapas you develop can be extended to the rest of your life to overcome inertia and change dysfunctional habits. You may find that without making a particular effort to change things, you start to eat better, exercise more, or finally quit smoking after years of failed attempts.
It’s taken the development of modern technologies like functional MRI screening to give scientists a glimpse of how yogic practices like asana and meditation affect the brain. “We now have a much deeper understanding of what happens in the brain during meditation,” says Khalsa. “Long-term practitioners see changes in brain structure that correlate with their being less reactive and less emotionally explosive. They don’t suffer to the same degree.”
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin have shown that meditation increases the activity of the left prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that’s associated with positive moods, equanimity, and emotional resilience. In other words, meditating regularly may help you weather life’s ups and downs with greater ease and feel happier in your daily life.
Yoga is known for its ability to soothe tension and anxiety. But it can also impact a person’s ability to exercise.
Researchers were studying a small group of sedentary people who had not practiced yoga before. After eight weeks of yoga practice for a total of 180 minutes at least twice a week, participants enjoyed greater muscle strength and endurance, flexibility and cardio-respiratory fitness.
Peace of Mind
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, Yoga quells the fluctuations of the mind. In other words, it slows down the mental loops that can cause stress, such as frustration, regret, anger, fear and desire. And since stress is involved in so many health issues — from migraines and insomnia to lupus, MS, eczema, high blood pressure, and heart attacks — if you learn to calm your mind, you are likely to live longer and more healthy.
Yoga encourages you to relax, slow your breath and focus on the present, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is calming and restorative; it decreases breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs — including what Herbert Benson, M.D., calls the response to relaxation.
Affects the Nervous System
Some advanced yogis can exercise extraordinary control of their bodies, many of which are mediated by the nervous system. Scientists have been monitoring yogis that could induce unusual heart rhythms, generate specific brain-wave patterns, and raise the temperature of their hands by 15 degrees Fahrenheit using a meditation technique.