Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Benefits of Yoga

As many of you know, I love yoga! I have been practicing some sort of yoga for over 10 years and yoga has been practiced for over 5000 years! Yoga is more than just stretching. In fact, it can be a rigorous workout. I have walked out of classes dripping in sweat and shaking.

There are a multitude of health benefits, such as flexibility and strength. But yoga is also a great exercise for mindfulness, balance, stress management and a mood booster.

Deep Breathing/mood/stress management: the practice of yoga is based on connecting movement with your breath. In fact, certain practices of yoga are just breathing exercises and you are still truly practicing yoga. Deep breathing is so good for us and has many benefits and uses. It can help you calm down, pump you up, improve focus, reduce anxiety or keep you awake (why do you think you yawn in class). Yoga emphasizes deep breathing from your belly with a breath called Ujjayi breath. It sounds like waves at the ocean. Deep breathing sends a message to your brain to relax. Try it some time if you are stressed out. When we are stressed we tend to take shallow and short breaths, this is similar to hyperventilating and in layman's term, there is a decrease in carbon dioxide in your blood and this will cause you to feel dizzy and thus anxious. So try breathing in for at least 4 counts feeling your belly rise and 4 counts out feeling your belly sink in, you will feel better instantly. Deep breathing also releases endorphins and these are the happy neurotransmitters - it is a natural high!

Agonist-Antagonist response: Okay, you are probably asking "what does this mean?" Basically it means flexing or contracting the opposing muscle simultaneously while your are stretching another. Yoga does this naturally with its postures. When you are doing warrior 1, you are contracting your butt muscles (hip extensors) while stretching your hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus femoris - quad). When you want to stretch your hamstrings, if you long sit and flex your quads, you can typically get a deeper stretch into the back of your legs. The mechanism of action is through your brain. You have something called mechano-receptors in your muscles and tendons that when they are being stretched your brain tenses them up and prevents you from stretching further. Well if you contract the opposite muscle that you are stretching, this sends mixed messages to your brain (it kind of gets confused) and relaxes your muscles and allows you to stretch further.

Improvement of posture: Posture comes from proper length and strength of your muscles. American's spend all day sitting flexed over a computer or driving. Not only does yoga have many poses that are the exact opposite of being hunched over, they use the mechanism mentioned above to strengthen and lengthen your muscles. Studies have shown that programs that just stretch, just strengthen, or stretch then strengthen (or vies versa) don't produce permanent changes in posture. Preliminary research has shown that stretches and strengthens simultaneously does improve posture AND makes permanent changes!

Strength benefits: You have probably seen some yogis and their amazingly lean muscles and crazy tricks they can do! Well, yoga uses your body weight along with the help of gravity to increase your strength. You don't need any equipment, just clothing that can move and maybe a towel to wipe off sweat. But give the poses a try, I guarantee you will be sore the next day.

Improved balance: A major cause of death for older people is from falling. There are many reasons why people fall, but one of them is due to poor balance. Balance is a combination of many factors and yoga works addresses many of these factors. One thing you can do to improve your balance is practice. Stand on one foot and close your eyes for 30 second. Can you do it? You should be able to. Yoga has many postures where it challenges your balance and strengthens your stabilizing muscles. In fact, I would say 90% (I made that percentage up - but it is most of the poses) of the poses performed in yoga challenge your core muscles and work on balance!

Mindfulness: Although many A type personalities tend to practice yoga, picture the stereotype of your typical yogi. That is what yoga is all about. It is a practice, not perfection. You are concentrating on your breath and your movement, not what you have to do when you get home. A wonderful and successful yoga practice could be balasana (child's pose) or shavasana (corpse pose) practice the entire class. It teaches you to be in the here and now (this is not an easy thing to do and I still have not come close to mastering this). Also, yoga teaches you to listen to your body. Some days I feel like I am an expert yogi, other days I can barely touch my toes. It is important to listen to your body since every day is different and every practice is different. If something is not feeling right, don't go in to that pose, even if the person next to you can do it. And that is okay, because maybe tomorrow you'll do it, or maybe you'll never do that specific pose, but yoga teaches us that what ever your practice is, that is the best practice to have.

Even though yoga is an amazing exercise for many people, it is not for everyone. One of the reasons could be because it does not interest you. Also, it is important to practice the poses correctly because incorrect poses could cause injury. That is why it is so important to listen to your body. Right now my shoulders are so tight that I can not perform binding poses. When I try my shoulder hurt. I am okay with this and I know in the near future (when I am not studying all the time and have more time to practice yoga) I will be able to bind once again.

And always consult with your doctor when trying new exercises. Especially if you are pregnant or have  a heart condition.

I hope I have persuaded you to at least give yoga a try.

Are there any exercises that you were hesitant to try but once you did it you loved it?

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