By now you’ve probably heard about yoga either from friends, family, a physician or social media. With all of the information out there on yoga it might leave you feeling confused or even intimidated on where to begin or even what benefits you can expect from starting a yoga practice.
Improved quality of sleep, stress management, strength, flexibility, balance and stability are just a few benefits to starting and maintaining a yoga practice.
My own personal experience with hearing the word yoga began in 2000 when my physician first told me to find ways to manage stress such as spending more time outdoors, having a healthy diet, incorporating exercise into my daily life, and starting a yoga and meditation practice. At the time, the first three lifestyle changes were pretty attainable but yoga and meditation were foreign words to me. I had no idea where to begin. These were the days before having full access to every possible thing you can dream of accessible by way of the internet or social media.
Fast forward to 2005 when I took my very first yoga class. By this time in my life I was accustomed to visiting the gym daily for circuit and cross training. The gym I attended was offering a first time yoga group fitness class for free - I just happened to be at the right place and right time to try it out. I took the class, completely unaware of what to expect, and followed the clear and simple directions offered by the teacher. After class was over, I noticed how good I felt. It was the first time since 1995 I felt relief from what was then chronic and debilitating back and sciatic pain. I was elated! I told the teacher and thanked her for the experience. To this day, I have never had the opportunity to see or thank that teacher again - so to whoever you are, thank you for putting me on this path. While I couldn’t find another yoga teacher at that time that worked with my schedule, I did manage to find some yoga I could do at home by way of DVDs. I practiced inconsistently at home until about 2 years after the birth of my son when I decided I needed to try yoga in person again.
In 2010 I began a more purposeful and consistent practice and as a result I have experienced amazing benefits I’d like to share with you. I can say with certainty yoga has improved my life for the better providing me with great benefits and I hope you too will experience the same. Let's dive into my top five favorite benefits.
Tossing and turning at bedtime and throughout the night was something I was quite familiar with for most of my life. Once I established a consistent yoga practice I noticed I was not only falling asleep more quickly, but staying asleep and waking refreshed the next day. 16 studies analyzed by BMC Psychiatry revealed meta data that supports this experience. In their study it was learned regardless of the style of yoga you choose to practice, you will experience a deeper, richer quality of rest than without the practices of yoga and mindfulness. To this day, if I am feeling restless, the first thing I do is roll out of bed and onto the ground to practice some simple yoga movements. If my body is beyond tired but my mind is swirling, I will practice yoga while in bed.
5 Yoga Postures for Better Sleep
Have you ever been told to “relax”, “you’re over reacting”, “you’re wound really tight”?
Yeah, I have too. It was with an established yoga practice I was able to better control the patterns of my thoughts, emotions and patters of behaviors. Now, after 12 consistent years of yoga and meditation practice it is much easier to practice a walking meditation every moment of the day while being the observer of my own thoughts, feelings, emotions and reactions. It is true that with practice it becomes easier. With the practices of yoga and meditation one can find more space to pause and approach life from a purposeful space. Rather than reacting and responding to life, you’ll be able to face life and the challenges it offers from a place of inner calm and balanced mindset.
The National Library of Medicine produced a study and article commenting yoga can restore autonomic regulatory reflex, lower anxiety, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure. It also comments:
“a consistent yoga practice improves depression and can lead to significant increased in serotonin levels coupled with decreases in levels of monamine oxidase, an enzyme that breads down neurotransmitters and cortisol.”
Leaders in the trauma and neuroscience fields such as Bessel van der Kolk, the author of “The Body Keeps the Score” speak to these, as well as other benefits, and the how and why the practices of yoga and meditation aid in stress management. Check out Bessel’s book The Body Keeps the Score to learn more. Separately, Dr. Dean Ornish’s book “Reversing Heart Disease” is another valuable resource for learning more about the positive impacts a lifestyle that incorporates mindfulness practices can have on increasing your quality of life.
Rest and Recovery
Nothing has taught me more about rest and recovery than the last two years of my life. While recovering from a series of traumatic brain injuries, a neck, back and hip injuries, I spent a lot of time resting. A LOT. As an athlete, nothing was more difficult than learning to slow down and really rest to recover.
A common phrase used in the field of yoga, as well as body movement science and the study of neuroscience is “rest and digest”. This is referring to the feelings you get in your body when you feel calm and safe. These calm and safe signals are sent to your brain by way of a well regulated autonomic nervous system. For the sake of ease, the autonomic nervous system has two divisions - the sympathetic nervous system (think fight, flight or freeze) and the parasympathetic nervous system (think relaxation response or rest and digest). Science has shown us that stress has a negative impact on the body and results in many illnesses and sometimes disease. A consistent yoga practice allows your nervous system to regulate and become more flexible so it can effortlessly bounce between all branches of the nervous system without getting stuck. It is only when the body and mind can feel safe enough to “rest and digest” that one can experience a state of rest and recovery. Restorative practices such as Yoga Nidra and Restorative Yoga can offer a healing space and a “reset” where you might otherwise struggle to find it.
For athletes or those looking for a more active form of rest and recovery, Yin style practices or Slow Flow Yoga can hold this same rest and recovery space.
Strength and Flexibility
The yoga models performing tricks on social media or on the cover of yoga journal, we’ve all seen them. *Guilty* Yes, while the practice of yoga can certainly lead to a strong and balanced body capable of fancy yoga tricks, that’s not the be all - end all of the strength and flexibility yoga is beneficial for. After all, if we were lost in a jungle with a tiger chasing us, I doubt that headstand will really be saving us that day. Or if our toddlers decide it is their day to test every boundary, that fancy arm balance won’t be impressing them for very long - but it might buy you a moment of peace.
So how does yoga offer strength and flexibility you ask?
Well, first it is a practice of repetition. As with any training program, that which is repeated makes you stronger. When you have reached your plateau, more challenge is offered. Yoga is the same. The more you practice it gets both easier and more challenging at the same time. This is not only offering your body an opportunity to be stronger and more flexible, but also your mind. As the great teacher Bruce Lee has been quoted to say:
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicked once, but I fear the man who has practiced on kick 10,000 times.”
This is certainly not to say our goal is to instill fear in the hearts of others, quite the contrary. If we can practice coming back to our breath over and over again, 10,000 plus times, we can instill peace in the hearts of ourselves as well as others. It is also noted to improve our immune system as a result of the natural and deep healing that occurs in your mind and body. “Be Water, My Friend”.
Yoga to Increase Strength and Flexibility
Stronger 6th Sense aka Proprioception
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit work “yup” which can be translated to “union”, “yoke”, or “to join”. It is a practice of the healing union of mind, body and breath or energy. It is a practice of healing the body in whole. As a living, breathing, energetic body, we have what is called proprioception, which can sometimes be referred to as our 6th sense. It is the ability to know of ones self in space and respond according to our environment. There are two types proprioception, the conscious and the non-conscious. The neurons that fire from as a result of mental stimulus tell our body to respond by way of our muscles, joints and tendons. The strengthening and balancing of this system of neurons results in not only “trusting your own intuition” more but also the ability to instinctively respond in a way that is healthy after practicing over and over to rewire your nervous system to respond from a place of safety vs threat. How does this translate into real life situations? This increases our ability to walk through a dark room without stubbing our toe or to quickly respond to catch something if something catchable were to fall (including ourselves). It brings a grace and ease to your presence on this earth where it might otherwise be considered clumsy or accident prone. Closing your eyes during your yoga practice can bring a lightness and ease to your practice and your daily life.
5 Postures for Balance and Stability
While many people practice yoga for different reasons, these are my top five reasons why I continue to practice yoga every single day. I hope you will also find these benefits along your yoga journey and I would love to hear about the benefits you’ve experienced too!
See you on the mat, Yogis!