In part one of my two-part series on the benefits of yoga, I introduced you to some of the various types of yoga. For those who practice yoga regularly, this may have been nothing more than a refresher. I hope it offered those who have thought about but never tried yoga the motivation to find an entry point that is comfortable.
With that foundation in place, I want to share some of the benefits yoga brings. I'll share our personal experience and offer some findings from scientific studies.
Like anything you read on a blog, take it with a grain of salt. Cathy and my experience may not be what you experience. However, I'm convinced if you give yoga a try, you will find benefits beyond what you get from the gym, running, biking or any other form of exercise.
I'm not one who says yoga is all you need. I know people who feel that way. I've heard stories of people who have had miraculous recoveries from serious injuries who credit yoga as the thing that brought them back. Mary Jarvis is one of those stories. Here's a quote from her about her recovery:
“In January of 95, I came back to yoga wearing a neck brace and a back brace, weighing 159 pounds, barely able to move, in incredible 24-hour chronic pain, and very very depressed. I practiced this yoga every day for two years to avoid surgery, and demonstrated to my students that you can lose weight and heal yourself with this Bikram yoga practice”.
I'm not sure how she found the time to practice every day. Nor am I recommending that yoga is a cure for everything ailing your back. I've heard several stories similar to Mary's since we began our yoga practice several years ago.
Here are a couple of non-yoga options you can do on your own to consider. These two come from my good friend Mike, from MikedUpBlog:
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Improve your Fitness With These Killer 10 Minute Workouts
With that, here's a list of some of the many benefits yoga provides.
The benefits of yoga
As I thought about the benefits we experience, they fall into two categories, physical and mental. Both are closely connected. One could make the argument they are inseparable. Yoga instructors often push you to use your mind to overcome your body's yelling at you when you're trying to do something that doesn't feel natural.
That battle is the same in almost any kind of physical exercise. Like life, growth and development come out of challenges.
Let's start with the physical.
Physical health benefits
We'll start with flexibility because that's the most common thing people talk about with yoga. Many use it as an excuse not to do it. “I can't do yoga. I'm not flexible enough.” That's a pretty standard excuse I hear. News flash. If you want to increase flexibility, you have to focus on it. Yoga fits that bill perfectly.
Most all of the postures stretch some part of your body. My hamstrings have always been tight. Yoga brings flexibility I never had to my hamstrings. Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Flexibility improves the more you practice yoga. I have arthritic hips (along with several other joints). Yoga, especially hot Vinyasa, really helps loosen the hips, which, in turn, loosens the hamstrings. If I don't practice regularly, everything tightens up again.
Yoga can help loosen up the back, neck, chest and most other areas of the body. It is a total body workout. I'm much more flexible than I was before yoga.
Strength building is not something many people associate with yoga. It's a huge benefit. Staying in poses for more extended periods builds strength. The warrior poses, for example, build muscle in your quadriceps, hamstrings, and shoulders. Warrior poses are part of the Sun series used in the warm-up. You do them on each side (left leg and right leg). The warrior 2, appropriately done, builds arm strength.
The Vinyasa series of movements strengthens arms (especially triceps) and lower back. The downward-facing dog builds and shoulder strength. Just about every posture in yoga has a strength building aspect to it. The longer you hold them, the more that's the case.
The boat pose and planks (forearm and full) build core strength. Stomach, lower back, glutes, quadriceps, arms, shoulders are all strengthened when doing planks. The boat pose, in particular, is the hardest for most people. It is one of the best core exercises I've done. You can do planks and boat poses at home to build core strength.
Regular practice of yoga builds endurance. There are both physical and mental parts of building stamina. The more you practice, the stronger you become. The stronger you become, the longer you can hold the poses and the deeper you can go into them. In lifting weights, you start with lower weight or fewer repetitions and gradually increase as your strength and stamina increase. Or running. You don't run a marathon when you first start running. You run regularly, increasing your miles as you build strength, increase your capacity for breathing, and build stamina.
In yoga, you might start with a Yin practice to learn yoga, build some flexibility, and gain some confidence. You'd then move into a more difficult style like Ashtanga or Vinyasa. When you do either or both, your flexibility, strength, and stamina increase.
The more you do anything the better you become at it, including yoga. You build flexibility and strength with regular practice. Stamina comes out of that strength.
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Regular exercise increases our energy level. It releases endorphins, that fun little brain chemical that makes us feel euphoric. If you're a runner, you're always seeking, the “runners' high” that comes from the release of endorphins.
A good yoga practice, especially a hot Vinyasa or Bikram practice, releases those endorphins. Remember what we said earlier about overcoming challenges to grow? That's when endorphins are released. When we're pushing ourselves physically, which yoga does, your body releases endorphins. At the end of the class, we often feel spent, while at the same time feeling energized. We know we just endured an intense workout, got a good sweat going, and increased our heart rate.
Both Cathy and I have osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a disease that attacks the joints. It's more than wear and tear. It's a type of inflammation that eats away at the cartilage, ligaments, and bones. It's no joke. We've both had multiple surgeries because of it.
Yoga, especially hot yoga, brings us tremendous relief from our arthritis. It's more than just the heat. It's the strengthening, flexibility, and stamina that combine to increase the blood flow to these areas. It doesn't cure it. It does bring welcome relief that lasts longer than any other form of exercise we do. If you have muscle related pain or stiffness, yoga may help.
We have found it especially helpful in dealing with back pain. Mary Jarvis' story is extreme. But both Cathy and I have found long term relief from back pain. With yoga's focus on the core, our backs are also stronger than ever.
We talked about the focus on breathing in the first article. Calm breathing when you feel like you're going to pass out takes some practice. Sorry, I don't mean to scare you away. Remember, start at your own pace. Progress at your own pace.
Every good instructor we've had focuses on breathing. It's called Ujjayi breath or pranayama breath. Pranayama breathing is in and out through the nose. Yoga instructors teach that yoga, above all else, is a breathing practice — the style of breathing forces you to slow your breath down. You make the moves in conjunction with your breath.
When I find myself wanting to breathe hard, hold my breath, or force it, I know I'm pushing too hard. If the body stiffens, the poses become more difficult. Slowing down the breathing and moving through the poses with control, teaches the mind and body how to slow down.
We men have the hardest time with this type of breathing. It's counterintuitive to what we're taught when running or weight lifting. The breathing when lifting or running is more intense. We've been trained to push through, to force our way through things, to be tough. That doesn't work so well in yoga. When I hear panting and grunting in a yoga class, that's always coming from a guy trying to force his way into or out of a posture. I was one of those guys when I first started. Over time, I've learned to slow the breath down, focus on calming myself.
That has benefits both inside and outside the yoga room.
Regular exercise, in general, improves sleeping for most people. Both Cathy and I sleep better after yoga than regular exercise. That may not be the case for everyone. That's our experience. The combination of stretching, strengthening, and breathing helps us sleep better than ever.
Many of us don't get enough sleep. The benefits of getting enough sleep are well known. It brings greater energy, improves mood, and reduces stress. Think about the stress aspect for a minute. If you go to work tired, you will likely not be as effective in your job. If you're like me, I can get pretty cranky when I'm tired (Cathy will give you a big AMEN on that one). Irritability brings stress. Stress zaps our energy. It's a vicious circle.
Exercise, be it yoga or other forms, goes a long way to help with getting a better night's sleep. Of course, it's just one of many factors. For us, yoga and other forms of exercise aid in us getting a good night's sleep.
Mental health benefits
We talked briefly about this earlier. Exercise is a known stress reliever. Rather than using drugs or alcohol, which may feel better but bring a false sense of relief. Food may also be used as a stress reliever. Self-medication comes in a lot of forms.
It's far better to find a form of exercise that works. The physical benefits we've talked about also bring stress relief. The muscles are more relaxed after exercise and recovery. The mind too, after exercise, is more relaxed. A more relaxed mind and body naturally lead to a less stressful state. If you are operating at a lower level of stress, you will think more effectively. You will be more productive. For me, I'm much less irritable and more patient when I'm exercising.
Yoga brings more of that to me than any other form of exercise. When I don't practice regularly, I notice the difference. So does my wife.
When you combine the Ujjayi breath with the physical benefits of a regular yoga practice, your ability to concentrate should improve. Regular practice has increased my mental focus.
A lot is going on in a yoga class. The instructor is telling you how to get into and out of the various poses. That takes concentration. They constantly remind you to breathe in the right way. Some poses are harder than others. What's harder for me may be easier for you. Everyone has yoga postures that are more difficult for them than others.
When you're trying to do those postures, you often lose sight of your breathing. If I find myself struggling and forcing myself into or out of a pose, I'm usually not breathing correctly. When I catch myself, I refocus on the breathing, slow down the movement, and have a much better experience with whatever it is I'm doing.
The breathing style has benefits outside the classroom. When I catch myself stiffening up while working on an intense project or getting irritable about something, my breathing is usually shorter and more intense. We've been told and, most likely, told someone else to “slow down and take a breath.” That's precisely what we should be doing. Of course, we shouldn't have to be told by someone. Yoga has made me more aware of using breath to calm myself down.
I'm not always successful doing it in times I get fired up. When I do, though, breathing helps calm me.
Because of the concentration, breathing, and mental focus required for yoga, I've found I have an overall improvement in my mood. Think about it. You feel less stressed, feel stronger, and have more stamina. Your mind, at least for that hour, has shut out the distractions of the problems of the day. It's offered relief.
It's only natural that the combination of these things would improve your mood. Yoga does this better than any other form of exercise for me. I found the more I practice, the more that is the case. As you experiment with different kinds of yoga, I'm confident you will find one or two things that bring the same to you.
One of the surprising benefits we've found from yoga is the community. We have a few close friends. We have a church family that is a solid community. What we didn't expect when we started doing yoga was the community aspect of it. With our schedules, we often take the same classes every week. There are some regulars we've come to know in our classes. You're spending an hour close to a lot of people. The diversity of the group, mainly due to where we live, is fantastic.
When you spend an hour sweating together, working together on the poses, breathing together, and working hard side by side, it builds a sense of community. It's not like we socialize with them outside of class. But we've made meaningful relationships with several of the instructors and many who attend the same classes as we do. We all share a common bond we. The classes consist of a warm-up period, a time of some intense movements, a slow down period and a rest period in the end.
It's different from working out with people in the gym. There, everyone's doing their own thing in their way. In yoga, everyone is in sync. As humans, we are built to be in community, in relationships with one another. Yoga provides that community, even if only for an hour at a time.
Yoga is part of our overall fitness regimen. We combine that with aerobics (bike, Stairmaster, rowing, etc.) and weight training. We try to get at least four days a week into our schedule. If we can do three yoga classes and two other workouts, that's close to the perfect week for us.
Cathy and I just celebrated 35 years of marriage on February 18, 2019. I can't think of a time, either when we were dating (a year before marrying) or since we've been married that we haven't worked out. It's always been a part of what we've done together. We both had similar schedules when we were single.
She started practicing yoga a few years before me. We've had that as part of our regular workout schedule for probably fifteen years. The combination has also led us to a more healthy diet.
There are many ways to exercise. The benefits are numerous regardless of what one chooses. The important thing is that exercise should be a part of our routine. For us, yoga provides many benefits that other forms of exercise don't.
Others may disagree. That's fine. Everyone needs to find ways to stay healthy. I hope this series gave you some things you didn't know about yoga. I hope it raised your curiosity. If that motivates you to give it a try great. If not, I hope you find a regular exercise program to practice. You'll get many of the benefits mentioned here. I'm convinced it will lead to a better, less stressful, healthier lifestyle.
Let me know how you do.
Now it's your turn. What form of exercise works for you? How often do you work out? Is yoga a part of your routine? Have you thought about trying it?
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