If you’re a health-conscious person who imagines yoga as a form of contortionism, gymnastics, or a workout for the weak, think again. Although western culture glamorizes yoga with thin women in tight pants stretching on a mat, the practice of yoga is an ancient Vedic science of holistic well-being that extends far beyond a physical exercise.
Integrating different aspects of yoga into your schedule offers countless benefits. Here are some ways in which yoga can complement and enhance not only aerobic activity and strength training routines, but also all other aspects of life. So grab your comfy harem pants, and ease into the benefits of how yoga can compliment your more intense workout regime.
1. Yoga tones the body.
On a purely physical level, practicing yoga postures strengthens, stretches, and tones the entire body, increases flexibility and joint health, improves posture and balance, and can provide rehabilitation for sore or tired muscles and injuries.
The majority of yoga classes are either fast-paced and flow-based (identified with names like Ashtanga, Vinyasa, orPower) or slower-paced with longer active holds (including traditional Hatha, Sivananda, and Tantra). These practices increase strength and stamina and can replace active aerobic exercise or compliment weight lifting by means of developing muscle groups and core strength. Practicing yoga asana (postures) also increases overall coordination, balance, and stability.
To compliment aerobic activity or recuperate after an intense workout or injury, consider a less active style of yoga like Yin, which focuses on stretching and lengthening connective tissue, improving joint mobility, and releasing built up stagnancy in the body. Restorative yoga, which uses props to let the body passively release into longer holds without “work” or active stretching, can also help to release deep tension in order to rejuvenate and rehabilitate throughout time.
2. Yoga improves the mind-body connection.
The more we practice yoga, the better we understand our bodies.
As opposed to most physical workouts that encourage us to push ourselves to move farther, work harder, lift more, or be more flexible, the emphasis in yoga is on being present with the body in each posture and accepting our limits. We achieve this state of mind-body coordination by harmonizing the body with the breath.
Mindfully breathing as we move through (or hold) postures requires our constant awareness. By monitoring the ways that the breath and body change from moment to moment and day to day, we gain a better understanding of our physical and mental strength.
Furthermore, since we store experiences in our bodies, it’s common for deep-rooted thoughts and emotions to come up while practicing yoga postures. Especially in slower-based practices with longer holds, these emotions may include frustration, anger, or impatience. By watching mind activity come and go throughout a practice, we are able to see that we can, in fact, remain at ease during times that may not be easy.
Yoga helps us not only to embrace physical and mental challenge, but also to recognize boundaries and to pay attention to the natural cues that the body provides. Through a regular yoga practice, we begin to recognize that oftentimes, our largest challenge is to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves.
3. Yoga heals!
In addition to rehabilitating trauma in the body’s musculoskeletal system, yoga postures have also been proven to improve digestion, regulate hormones, increase blood flow to the heart, brain, and vital organs (improving their functioning), and promote overall health.
Sounds too good to be true, right? There’s more! Practicing pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) or simply breathing in harmony with the body strengthens the respiratory system and increases lung capacity and efficiency. Yoga also strengthens the lymphatic system, which boosts immunity.
Apart from benefitting these organ systems and preventing disease, studies show that yoga reduces symptoms of common health problems ranging from migraines to muscular dystrophy to menopause, arthritis, epilepsy, and asthma. Basically, if there’s something wrong with your body, it’s highly likely that yoga therapy can offer some form of treatment.
4. Yoga reduces stress and provides holistic well-being.
Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which has a calming effect on the body. This balances the action of the sympathetic nervous system – the “fight or flight” response that is triggered by stresses like anxiety, fear, and illness. Because of this, practicing conscious breath and body movement through yoga reduces stress and depression, increases mental clarity and energy, increases relaxation, and improves sleep.
At its most fundamental level, a physical yoga practice can be considered a moving meditation. As we use our breath to help us achieve presence and understanding in each posture, we allow our minds to drop stories of the past and projections of the future.
Yoga forces us to be alone with ourselves without distraction, granting time and space for self-reflection as we process thoughts and emotions and release tension from the body and the mind. Over time, we can learn to integrate the techniques that we learn on the mat into other parts of our lives in order to find presence, strength, and well-being in everything that we do.
Bio: Emily Jackson is an avid yogi, traveling gypsy and lover of matcha. She’s a freelance writer and yoga instructor who will always be seen sporting her favorite Buddha Pants during her daily practice.