Professional athletes use yoga to build flexibility and strength. Many senior centers offer yoga courses focused on joint health and mobility. Some neurologists even recommend yoga to patients as a way of regaining motor control lost to certain disorders. Yoga's popularity has surged over the last 20 years as a tool for maintaining the body. Students reap a wide array of benefits from yoga regardless of their baseline health and fitness.
Yoga is actually a centuries-old practice that marries the mental and physical. Yogis focus on linking the two to promote physical and emotional wellbeing. It's a multifaceted discipline in which the spirit, mind and body thrive when they complement each other.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root "yuj," which means mean to yoke or unite. The practice connects the body, mind and spirit in order to heal and renew. It originated in India thousands of years ago. The first recognized yogic text, The Yoga Sutra, details the fundamentals and still serves as the primary handbook. The guiding principle of yoga is to open the mind to the benefits of meditation by controlling the breath and body through pranayama (breath training) and asana (physical practice). The stretching and intricate poses we associate with yoga are a means to an end, not the ultimate goal. Practitioners use yoga as a guide for everyday living and a tool for managing relationships with others, the outside world and themselves.
The Art of Yoga
Once you have attended a few yoga classes, you may notice that they are not all the same. While there are now texts that guide yoga, it began as an oral tradition passed down from teacher to student. Even today, each instructor teaches different poses and uses different phrasing to guide their class. Teachers structure or sequence their classes to best prepare your mind and body for meditation. Classes begin with a centering exercise to release tension and focus your mind on the day's practice. Your teacher will then move you through a series of poses designed to strengthen, improve flexibility or restore the body. They select the length of the pose, difficulty, and order based on their goals. A class focused on strength training will differ greatly from one aimed at soothing the joints. Classes end with relaxation, breathing exercises and meditation.
Time of day and season are important in a yoga class. Poses have varying effects on the body. If you are taking a night class, the teacher will avoid invigorating poses that wake the body. These types of poses may unintentionally keep you up all night. Yoga teachers craft their classes with the ultimate goal of achieving the mind-body connection. The array of poses and effects of yoga make sequencing a skill that takes time and experience to master.
The Science of Yoga
Asana, holding poses and extended stretches, calms the body and prepares the mind for meditation. Each pose is designed to improve strength, stamina, flexibility, balance and coordination. Poses also relax the body. As you settle into a pose, it becomes more accessible. Holding the poses is considered a form of isometric exercise. You hold muscle contractions for an extended period of time without moving your joints. Research shows benefits for arthritis sufferers because they exercise muscle without aggravating joints. Studies have seen a link between isometric exercise and lower blood pressure.
Whether stress is caused by work, family or an outside force, it manifests physically because, evolutionarily, stress is linked to the fight-or-flight response that keeps us alive. This physiologic response leads to impatience, anger, anxiety and muscle tension. Asana reduces pain and inflammation through your body that comes from stress. Regular yoga practice has also been linked to lower levels of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone. High cortisol is seen in people with weak immune systems, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and depression. Relaxation through yoga eases muscle tightness and provides the body a release for pent-up tension. As a result, yoga boosts your mood and improves focus.
Breath training can be done by anyone. It involves strengthening the diaphragm and lungs. Consistent practice transforms the body by improving lung capacity and oxygen intake. Controlled breathing calms your nervous system. This also helps you deal with stressors more effectively because you begin keeping your breath steady outside of yoga practice. We have conscious control over the respiratory system. So deep, smooth, even, silent and continuous breath can be harnessed to stabilize your emotions and nerves. Hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood, rises with yoga practice. Cell function improves as blood becomes more oxygenated. Blood platelets also become less sticky. Together, this reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
One pitfall of modern life, poor posture, can be avoided through yoga. Extended time sitting at desks or hunched over electronics moves the body out of alignment. Yoga focuses on straightening the spine into its natural state, strengthening core muscles and loosening contracted muscles. Strong and loose muscles keep the body in an erect and natural posture.
Every yoga class takes your joints through their full range of motion. Improved flexibility prevents injuries and combats the effects of aging. When joints move, they receive a fuller supply of the nutrients that keep them healthy, lubricated and functioning properly. This prevents arthritis and other joint problems. Movement also drains the lymphatic system, strengthening our ability to fight infection.
Yoga practice is a proactive way to maintain health by preventing the ill effects of day-to-day physical and emotional stressors. Consistent yoga practice trains the body to manage its physical stress response, strengthens muscle, regulates our mood and keeps joints healthy.