Yoga is a popular exercise that focuses on breathing, strength, and flexibility. The beginnings of Yoga were developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. See, I thought it was developed right around the time that the internet was created, as a series of poses to do in front of beaches, oceans, rock formations, buildings and anywhere else that “yoga folks” can contort themselves….
…says the man with 100 or so running photos on his I.G & Facebook…
…but I digress…
These days, yoga is definitely growing in popularity. Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of people in the United States practicing yoga increased from 9.5% to 14.3% in adults and from 3.1% to 8.4% in children.
So I don’t think it’s a passing fad. It’s not going anywhere.
Now, one thing I’m not going to address is yoga as a spiritual practice.
According to Paramahansa Yogananda, author of bestselling book Autobiography of a Yogi recently featured in the Netflix film Awake “Many people think of yoga as just physical exercises — the asanas or postures that have gained widespread popularity in recent decades — but these are actually only the most superficial aspects of this profound science of unfolding the infinite potential of the human mind and soul.”
Yeah, I’m not going to address that. I’m just not that deep. What I do want to blog about today are some of the physical & mental benefits of practicing yoga. By the way, I am currently one of the “I know it would be great for me and have bunches of benefits, and I really should get back to taking classes…but I’m not” kind of people. I’ve got my resistance training, my cardio, my running, etc. And yes, I stretch before & after workouts, though the before is usually pretty short & pathetic. Maybe the focus I put on it as part of this blog will get me to step back into it.
Life is uncertain.
During my brief stint in Bikram yoga I noticed that you can actually sweat so much that your contact lenses dry out in your eyes. That part of the discipline is not noticing the scantily clad practitioners, most of whom were female. That you can actually expect to almost pass out a the very same pose during each class, which was sorta comforting. That they can clean & disinfect and do whatever they want to do, but a Bikram studio smells…like a Bikram studio…..
….but I double digress…
So, what are some of the benefits of Yoga?
People often practice yoga to reduce stress and aid relaxation. Scientists are now learning the mechanisms behind how yoga lowers stress. Persistent surges of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, may damage blood vessels and elevate blood pressure. However, research has shown that people who practice yoga regularly have low cortisol levels.
Low cortisol levels.
So there’s that.
Although most people feel anxious from time to time, anxiety is also a symptom of many conditions, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias. Yoga was also most beneficial in people who had the highest levels of anxiety at the start of the studies. A 2017 study evaluated whether school based yoga practice could help children experiencing anxiety. Practicing yoga at the beginning of the school day for 8 weeks improved their well-being and emotional health compared with the control group.
So it’ll chill you out AND chill your children out. Nice.
Major depression affects around 17.3 million adults in the U.S. in any given year and yoga has had some promising results as a complementary therapy. A 2017 systematic review found that yoga could reduce depressive symptoms in many populations, including people with depressive disorder, pregnant and postpartum women, and caregivers.
Decreasing lower back pain.
Lower back pain affects around 80% of adults at some point in their lives, (and I am definitely part of that 80%.) Yoga may be a convenient and inexpensive way to provide some relief. A 2017 analysis linked yoga practice with lower back pain relief and an improvement in back-related function.
Stimulate brain function
One 2017 study showed that Hatha yoga improved the brain’s executive functions. Executive functions are brain activities related to goal directed behavior and regulating emotional responses. Other research suggests that yoga can improve mental flexibility, task switching, and information recall among older adults.
Other benefits claimed by regular practitioners include;
- encouraging them to exercise more
- inspiring them to eat more healthfully
- improving their sleep quality
- motivating them to reduce alcohol use and smoking.
Now that we’ve established that yoga can be beneficial, the next question is, which Yoga?
What’s right for you?
Let’s take a look at a few of the major styles of Yoga;
Based on ancient teachings, this style of yoga was popularized in the late 1970s in Mysore, India. Fast-paced and challenging, Ashtanga consists of six unvarying asana (pose) sequences that are to be practiced in gradual progression. Traditionally, Ashtanga yoga is taught in a Mysore setting, where students practice in silence at their own pace while receiving individual guidance from the teacher. It typically takes a practitioner between 60 to 90 minutes to get through the complete sequence.
Derived from Ashtanga, this style of yoga mixes up asanas to create new and creative sequences. As the name suggests, Vinyasa yoga is all about breath-movement connection – the poses “flow” from one to another in a fluid, almost dance-like manner on inhale or exhale. There might be music, props (such as blocks, straps, or pillows), and burning incense depending on a teacher’s style – no two Vinyasa classes are the same.
Named after its founder Bikram Choudhur, who developed the system in the early 1970s, and by all accounts and 1 Netflix special, is kind of a self-obsessed, manipulative jerk, Bikram yoga is a set sequence of 26 asanas (each done twice) performed in a hot and humid room. Extensive sweating allows tense muscles to soften so students can go deeper into each asana. It is also believed to promote detoxification and the flushing out of toxins. The practice is incredibly consistent – always 40°C, 40 percent humidity, 90 minutes, the same postures, and the same pace.
Often referred to as “the Yoga of Awareness”, this system combines asana, pranayama, meditation, and chanting designed to awaken the energy at the base of the spine and move it upward through the seven chakras to reach enlightenment. Kundalini yoga was introduced to the West in the late 70s. However, it has been practiced in India, Nepal, and Tibet for centuries. You may be required to wear white-only clothes, so it’s kinda like a white party, only the music isn’t as good.
If you’re a true beginner and want to learn the basics, then Hatha yoga is a great way to start. Hatha classes are typically slower and more gentle than their Vinyasa-based counterparts, with more focus placed on alignment and deep breathing to really stretch out and reap full physical and mental benefits from each asana.
OK, this has been one of the longer blogs I’ve, well, blogged, and I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. Guess it’s harder to summarize 5000 years (at least) of study and practice in one little missive. But for me yoga is a great way to retain balance, coordination and flexibility, 3 of the first things that start to decline as you get older. I recommend making it a part of your wellness routine.
Now let’s see if I can actually get ME to do it.