Yoga Health Benefits - Physical & Mental
In this article Yoga Health Benefits - Physical & Mental we cover the physical and mental health benefits of yoga, why so many people like yoga, how can yoga improve your life including an interview with a yoga instructor that has been practicing yoga for over 20 years.
Calm mind. Relaxed body. You leave your mat feeling golden, ready to seize the day. It may have been hard to find your way to your mat, but, after your practice, you’re grateful you did. You know you feel great, but what really happened to you during that 30 minute, 10 minute, or hour long yoga session? Within the busyness of everyday life, it is easy to lose touch with ourselves. Yoga re-establishes the connection. It provides us with the time and space to step out of the world and into our bodies, our breath, and our spirits. Each time we step on our mats, we reintroduce ourselves. We say hello again to our physical body. How does my body feel today, at this moment? Where am I sore or where do I feel tight? Where am I carrying sadness or pain? Or, perhaps, where do I feel open and free? We say hello again to our thoughts, feelings and the silence in between. What worries, judgements, and/or fears am I bringing to my mat today? What emotions am I feeling? In yoga, we embrace all that is present within ourselves and we remain present as we circulate energy in our bodies through breath and movement.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Yoga?
Yoga restores our self-acceptance, strengthens and stretches our bodies, slows our thoughts, reduces stress and anxiety, improves respiratory functions, sleep and energy levels, prevents disease and neurodegenerative conditions, and improves our overall mood and our relationship with ourselves. These benefits cover a lot of bases because that’s exactly what yoga does! Yoga is a holistic practice that addresses so many essential elements of our overall health. To break it up, we’ll explore the physical side before we dip into mental health.
What Does Yoga Do On A Physical Level?
I vividly remember from my yoga teacher training program one of the light-bulb moments we collectively had as a group about yoga from the perspective of a physical practice: One afternoon as we were all seated in a circle discussing the reasons we started practising yoga, multiple people shared stories of finding yoga in the midst of practising other forms of exercise such as weight-lifting, HITT classes, running, and biking. In these other forms of exercise, they were always working toward a measurable goal such as lifting X amount of weight, running or biking so many miles in such X amount of time, or burning X amount of calories. When they reached their goal, they would set another to lift even more, run even longer or burn even more calories. But they found yoga to be different. When practising yoga, they didn’t have to worry about reaching any measurable goals or falling short of any expectations. All they had to do was be curious about their bodies’ abilities and accept themselves however they were. Multiple people in the circle shared their feelings of relief when they started practising acceptance and compassion towards their bodies through yoga.
Here we have one main distinction between yoga and other forms of physical exercise: there is no scale to measure your accomplishment, you meet yourself wherever you are physically, embrace your uniqueness and move how best serves you.
Most popular yoga practices focus on “asana” or postures. Yoga itself is indeed more than these postures. That said, asanas help yogis become more self-aware as they draw their attention from the outside world to the sensations in their bodies. Nowadays, individuals are often introduced into the yoga world through asana-based practices such as hatha, yin, vinyasa, ashtanga, power, iyengar and kundalini yoga. With sustained practice, asana-based practices can greatly improve our bodies’ strength, flexibility, balance and (depending on the style) stamina. You might choose your type of asana-based yoga based on your intentions; practising yin yoga to deeply stretch your connective tissues, care for injuries and experience full body relaxation or perhaps you practice vinyasa yoga to improve mobility, strength, and flexibility. Yogis can choose whichever form of yoga best suits their physical and mental needs or goals.
Beyond the more measurable benefits of strength and flexibility, yoga simply makes your body feel good. No matter your level of fitness, there exists a type of yoga that will make you walk off your mat feeling like you just loved on every muscle and tendon in your body. Contracting and elongating muscles, creating tension and slowly releasing, deeply and tenderly stretching into your facia, you’ll create a serotonin smoothie that will nourish you both physically and mentally. Throughout your practice, you will find the postures and types of yoga that give you those yummy body sensations. You will learn more and more about your body through your practice and will go about creating a stronger mind-body connection that will exist both on and off your mat.
What Does Yoga Do On A Mental Level?
Yoga is absolutely amazing for our mental health. Reducing anxiety, stress and depression, improving mood and self-confidence and giving us peace of mind, yoga is like a warm one-size fits all sweater that makes living in your skin so much better when the world can sometimes seem fridge and cold.
On our mats, we are left with no one but ourselves. We are forced to look inwards and discover what truly lies inside of us. Persistent thought patterns will inevitably pop up during our practice, and we are left with the choice of how to respond. As explained by five year practising yogi and new instructor Kevin Allen, “yoga creates space in our lives and in that space we can look inward and see what’s there.” In this space, we notice how we respond to certain mental or physical challenges, we notice our breath, we notice the sensations in our bodies...we simply observe and remain present with ourselves.
We might come to our mats with a whole cabinet full of emotions. We might have closed the cabinet to keep trudging through our daily to-do list; We might have closed the cabinet to keep ourselves from feeling a way we don’t want to feel. During a yoga class, your cabinet doors are likely to open up. You might finally acknowledge your sadness, anger, regret, worry, frustration, joy, hope, or fear. Within your practice, you can observe the contents of your cabinet with a more relaxed outlook as you slowly acknowledge what’s there, come to terms with what you’ve got in stock and decide how you want to feel.
In a busy world with plenty of things going wrong, stress and worry may seem inescapable. On the mat, we remove ourselves from the outer world and find rest looking inwards. In consistently doing so, we inevitably affect our thoughts and headspace off the mat. From our practice, we learn to stop. pause. breathe. We can carry this same response into our day-to-day lives when facing stress and worry. Instead of responding to situations with a knee-jerk reaction, yogis often feel better equipped to pause and think about how they really want to respond.
Lastly, one of the most significant benefits of yoga is its ability to restore our relationship with ourselves. Being able to look in the mirror and accept ourselves determines how we walk through the world, feeling either content or uneasy with ourselves as we go about our day. As we practice accepting our bodies and their abilities and we consistently bring attention to the aspects of our health that we wish to address, our self-confidence improves as well.
Why Do So Many People Like Yoga?
Yoga has something for everyone. Perhaps, you (if you’re already a yogi) got into yoga solely for the physical practice and, after continuing your practice, found the mental or spiritual side calling you back to your mat. Or perhaps you came to yoga from the opposite perspective with the intention of practising slower, more meditative styles of yoga to tune into your headspace. Maybe you started your yoga practice in hopes to heal or restore physical injuries and/or physical, mental or emotional trauma. Every yogi finds their way to their mat for different reasons, and every yogi has the power to develop their practice into whatever they want physically, mentally and/or spiritually.
No matter your activity level, body type, age, range of motion or experience, you can practice yoga. It doesn’t matter if you’re flexible or not. It doesn’t matter if you are “in shape.” One of the most beautiful things about yoga is its adaptability to our unique bodies. Everyone’s yoga practice will look different depending on their body type, bone structure and lifestyle. And, what’s more, our yoga practice will look different each and every day with our variation of mental and emotional burdens, muscle tightness or soreness, and energetic outlooks that we bring onto our mats.
How does yoga address all these beautiful but certainly vast variations? Physically, we use props such as yoga bolsters, yoga cushions, yoga blocks, yoga straps, and yoga blankets to make poses accessible to our unique bodies. Mentally, we acknowledge the thoughts or worries we’re bringing from our daily life, we send away what doesn’t serve us and embrace what does. All in all, no matter who you are or what you’re looking for, yoga’s got something to offer you!
Is Yoga More Than A Form Of Exercise? - An interview with a lifelong yogi and instructor
So yes, yoga provides loads of physical and mental health benefits, but why do yogis really return to their mats? To find the answer to this question, I asked U.S yoga instructor Michelle Taylor who has been practising yoga for over twenty years: “What makes you come back to your mat?” “What brings me back to my mat is that taste of something more...that feeling of being connected to something bigger than myself. Once you feel that magic you are in love automatically and will never stop reaching for the object of your affection.” On a physical level, Michelle noted that “just feeling good, alive and vibrant at my age definitely keeps me coming back.”
Earlier in our conversation, I asked Michelle about the effects of yoga in her life. Michelle answered, “Once my practice became consistent in asana, meditation and pranayama (breath), I noticed that the headaches I used to suffer from disappeared and the panic attacks have nearly vanished.” In continuation, Michelle added, “as my practice has increased, my bad habits have sort of just fallen off on their own. It wasn't really hard work because my love for the practice just naturally pushed me towards healthier habits.” She concluded, “I’m a believer that this is a healing practice and ultimately you become your own healer.”
As one of my last questions for Michelle, I asked “How do you want your students to feel when they leave one of your classes?” She responded, “I guess the standard answer would be “empowered” and that’s true, but I think for me I want my students to feel curious. My goal, more than anything else, is to open them up and make them look at everything upside down and inside out. I want them to leave curious, feeling fed and hungry for more. I want them to question and to wonder.” Michelle’s responses demonstrate the beautifully transformative qualities of yoga as a physical practice and also something that is much deeper. She practices and teaches yoga that nourishes the body, mind and spirit. Michelle’s love for yoga shines through in her classes, and she encourages her students to go beyond the poses to explore all that yoga has to offer.
How Can Yoga Improve Your Life?
Yes, yoga can be just a physical practice. It can also be an amazing way to nourish your mental health. It can even be the time when you get back in touch with your essence. It can be whatever you make it. Yoga could be described as a piece of art that you create. Over the years, you find the brushes and paint that best suit you as you gain knowledge and experience. You may try out different styles of yoga; you may leave what doesn’t serve you and carry on with what does. With time, you will go about creating your piece of art with your body, breath and spirit. Your piece of art will be different from that of other yogis because it is an expression of your unique self and what you need in the present moment. Your practice will adapt to your needs and the ebbs and flows of life. Unlike other works of art, this one is just for you to enjoy; there is no need to perform. Your piece of art, your yoga is a tender gift of acceptance and love to yourself.
All in all, it’s no wonder yoga is now the most popular approach to complementary health practised today.* Less stressed and anxious, less reactive, capable of unconditional self-acceptance and feeling good in their own skin, yogis span the globe, rolling out their mats to look inward, explore and become at home with what they find. Yes, we are all humans, so our yoga will fluctuate with our own ebbs and flows. It is at the decision to come back to the mat, get curious and let go of all expectations, that we keep practicing yoga. It is in the intersection of mental and physical health that we find balance. Peace.
*National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
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This blog post was brought to you by René McAleer. Lifelong yogi, yoga instructor, writer and world traveller currently based in St. Petersburg, Florida @reneviayoga.avec_amour