Yoga is an ancient Indian tradition that elevates physical, mental and spiritual well being through paying elevated attention to the mind-body-soul connect. The emphasis is on gentle stretching and sculpting exercises or positions called poses, and breathing techniques rather than endurance training or high-impact, heartbeat-accelerating physical exercises.
The benefits are no less though, and according to the UN, the 2 billion people who practice yoga worldwide would argue not only that it ‘works’, but is beneficial in ways other exercise disciplines are not.
This probably also accounts for why the number of Americans who practice yoga has increased by 50% to over 36 million between 2012 and 2016 alone, according to Harvard Medical School. Here are some positive physical fitness, mental and lifestyle effects of enjoying yoga regularly.
1. Lowers the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
The European Journal of Preventive Cardiology recently reported that studies have shown a definite link between doing yoga and increase heart health. This was true for those who did both gentle and strenuous forms of yoga.
Those who did yoga showed an improvement in several spheres all linked to improved heart health. Study participants lost an average of five pounds, lowered their blood pressure by five points, and also decreased their levels of harmful cholesterol by 12 points.
Harvard medical professors with an interest in yoga did not find the results to be surprising as yoga incorporates physical activity, meditation, and breathing.
Stretching the muscles helps them become more resistant to insulin, lowering blood sugar, while the deep breathing calms blood pressure. Stilling the mind, in turn, eases stress, controls anxiety and calms the nervous system, giving the adrenal glands a break. Cumulatively, the effects insulate the heart from risk and strengthen it overall.
2. Sets You Up For A Superior Quality of Life
There is evidence to suggest that the likelihood of you falling when you’re 60 and older could be diminished if you take up the practice of yoga when you are older, thanks in particular to the emphasis on balance and flexibility.
Not only are your muscles and tendons strengthen, your ability to balance, especially thanks to improved posture and core toning, is greatly enhanced. So is your ability to maneuver out of a fall or avert it at the last minute as greater agility and flexibility mean that you can twist into a rectifying position, or grab onto something instead of having a full-impact fall.
Proprioception refers to your sense of spatial awareness and ability to land safely on your feet or in a chair, thanks to clear brain-muscle signals. This too is improved because of the mental discipline brought about by the meditative and other practices in yoga.
3. Musculoskeletal Pain Decreases
The main cause of chronic pain in the developed world is musculoskeletal conditions. It affects both functional ability and the ability to socialize. Examples of musculoskeletal conditions are arthritis, joint pain, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, and lower back pain.
In recent studies, yoga was shown to result in clinically significant improvements in mild to severe conditions of these kinds. It was found to decrease both the pain levels and the ability to function properly in the individuals studied.
This is likely due to the fact that key muscle groups around the affected areas were strengthened. An example is lower back pain. Yoga was shown to radically improve strength in the glutes, core muscles, and upper back muscles, which compensated for the weakness or strain on the lower back muscles, spinal cord, and nerves. As a result, the supportive load required of the lower back could be transferred to the musculoskeletal groups around it, creating less tension and pain in the lower back region.
4. Overall Quality of Life is Improved
As yoga focuses on health at the intersection of mind, body, and spirit, studies have found that yoga practitioners want to be healthier overall and take steps to achieve it. Those who do yoga frequently report feeling more positive about their bodies and mental health outlooks.
They also tend to think more clearly, be more flexible and are fitter and stronger. Importantly, they actively seek to improve in these quadrants of their lives beyond the yoga studio as well.
In general, studies have therefore found that those who do yoga lead far more active and healthy lives in general, often taking up other sports or physical exercises too. Yoga involves nurturing your spirit and those of others and being in touch with the Divine Source, as well as protecting what the Divine has created. It’s hardly surprising then that those doing yoga are more likely to go ‘green’ both in diet and lifestyle and to move towards living more sustainably.
5. The Perfect Balancing Act
It’s no secret that yoga improves balance. Balance is something most people take for granted, but it is what helps you not to fall off your chair, walk upright or descend a flight of stairs.
Good balance improves your posture and helps insulate various muscle groups from strain – the more subtly imbalanced you are, the more likely you’ll develop muscle spasms over time and turn to remedies such as physiotherapy or acupuncture.
Strengthening and stretching yoga poses require complete focus and for the mind to be at rest. The only energy of any kind that is used is directed at seeing your body in a certain position in your mind’s eye and keeping it there.
While this is great for physical balance, it also results in a mental and emotional balance in daily life. Yoga trains the mind to be even and calm during these balancing poses so that your daily responses to life seem less like a rollercoaster and more like a smooth, pleasant drive.
6. Banish That Negative Energy
Ever experience searing pain between your shoulder blades or a stiff neck? Often, we put that down to bad posture, stress or sleeping incorrectly. The cause of the tension though could also be stored negative energy or unresolved emotions. Yoga can help you release these, and letting go of the bad means being able to welcome the good. On a spiritual level, this is why yoga practitioners are often said to be happier or, at any event, more serene than those who don’t practice yoga.
According to traditional yoga wisdom, anger and grief are stored in the chest while the sides of the body are where hurt and frustration tend to bury themselves. Yoga is designed to deal with emotions by working out the physical body.
Yoga poses that focus on specific areas where particular negative emotions are stored. In the case of being unhappy, this is often a feeling of being ‘stuck’. Appropriate yoga poses are therefore ones that integrate the whole body and that make you feel connected to it. Outward chest poses are similarly helpful, as are those in which you seem to emulate striding forward.
7. Unblock Your Chakras
The word ‘chakra’ means wheel or disk in Sanskrit and refers to the seven main spiritual energy centers in the body. They are situated from the crown of the head, down through the neck and down throughout the spine.
The notion of chakras originated in ancient Hindu scripts from as early as 1500 BC. Each of the seven chakras corresponds to particular organs as well as physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional outputs and states of being, and so influence all aspects of your life. The chakras contain ‘prana’ or the healing energies required to lead your most attractive health, happiness, and abundance-based life.
If any of your chakras are blocked, it is like the spinning wheel of a YouTube video that doesn’t stop. You need the wheel to stop before you can watch the video and in the same way, you need each chakra to be opened before you can harness its energy. Meditation, yoga, and reiki are the main means of aligning and opening chakras so that this pure and vital energy flows freely throughout the body.
8. Improve Your Digestive Health
Gut health issues manifest in many ways from the irregular evacuation of the bowel to bacterial infections, nausea, IBS and more. Bacterial infections that start in the gut can suppress immunity throughout the body, and prevent the digestive tract from taking up vital nutrients.
Because the nervous systems in the gut and brain are so intimately connected, bad digestive health also affects serotonin balance levels in the brain, anxiety, and mood. This is vital when your everyday life is full of stress, which subjects the body to extreme mental and physical conditions. Life balance does begin within and taking time to resolve this is imperative.
Mild, regulated breathing and gentle yoga positions relax the gut. Twisting positions aid digestion, and encourage the liver and kidneys to flush out toxins. As a result, yoga can also help bloating go down, send more oxygen to the digestive tract in a focused way and help you achieve a taut tummy.
9. Improves Memory, Focus, and Concentration
Given the fast pace of life today, most of us are under pressure to not only perform but to do so continuously and at our peak in multiple roles while multitasking as employees, spouses, parents, caregivers, and friends.
One of the greatest barriers to critical performance is low memory function and a lack of concentration. It often manifests as irritability, not being as organized as you should be and doing tasks properly within allocated time frames.
The aspect of yoga known as Dharana is specifically focussed on helping you improve concentration. It is often studied together with meditation and enlightenment. Athletes can use Dharana to great effect when requiring peak performance, for example, and so can musicians when they need to play an intimate set to a large crowd.
Dharana stills inner conflicts so that the mind cannot be in two places at once. This ability to fight the racing mind is very useful when trying to complete a big task or set of small tasks in a given space of time with great accuracy.
10. Helps With PTSD
If you’re suffering the after-effects of a traumatic experience, yoga can help
PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that can develop as a result of having lived through a deeply traumatic experience.
Often it is characterized by nightmares, sweats and shaking when the event is recalled, or a strong desire to avoid anything that reminds you of the event. It also has myriad other manifestations, such as flashbacks accompanied by irrational panic attacks. This often puts a mental strain on the person as they are unable to control the onset of these attacks.
The form of yoga known to be effective in reducing PTSD is hatha. Hatha is broad in meaning but today it is commonly used to describe beginner, stationery yoga classes with an emphasis on gentle poses and breathing. It is slower in pace and focuses a lot on stretch-based routines. Hatha helps you acquire relaxation techniques, work on alignment and build strength and flexibility.