More and more people are making the move to a healthier lifestyle so it’s no wonder that yoga has become increasingly popular over the years. Despite its current popularity though, there are still many people who have misconceptions of what yoga is. For a lot of people who have never tried it, yoga simply looks like stretching exercises that require amazing flexibility. For a lot of men, yoga is an exercise that is exclusively for women. And for some women, it is simply something that they aren’t comfortable doing. In the spirit of enlightenment, we’ll take a brief glimpse at what yoga is and, more importantly, what it can do for your body.
What is Yoga?
So, what is yoga? Despite what most people think, what we see on TV is merely the physical practices of yoga. It is actually a body of knowledge that originated from ancient Indians more than five centuries ago. And the word Yoga comes from the Sanskirt word “yuj”, meaning to unite or integrate. The core belief of Yoga is to unite the consciousness of man and his environment. In order to do so, a person’s mind, body, and spirit also have to be united. How can this union be achieved? According to ancient Yogis (practitioners of yoga), creating a balance between intelligence, emotion, and action is integral before the mind, body, and spirit can integrate. And this balance can be created as well as maintained through meditation, breathing, and exercise.
Yogic breathing, also called pranayama, is used for the purpose of increasing the amount of vital energy within the mind and the body. The word pranayama originates from 3 words: prana, yama, ayama. Prana means “life force,” yama means “control,” and ayama means “expansion.” So, pranayama is defined as breath control or breathing techniques. By practicing pranayama, we maintain a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, opening up our inner life force. Pranayama is also used for the purpose of preparing practitioners of yoga in meditation.
Meditation is another principle of yoga. Here, a person focuses his or her mind at only one thing, keeping the mind “quiet” to achieve self-realization. One of the goals of meditation is to learn how to control your mind’s activity. Another objective of meditation yoga is to achieve a feeling of oneness between yourself (the center of consciousness) and the universe (absolute reality).
Last, but not the least, we have yoga exercises. These are poses that involve both the body and the mind, requiring willpower and perseverance. While it may seem to some that yoga focuses on flexibility, the poses also develop stamina and strength. You might be surprised to know that the poses or postures in yoga are constant. It is the approach that changes, depending on several factors such as the yoga tradition of your teacher and your relationship to your practice. Thus, your practice is a personal experience that evolves over time.
Now that we have an idea of what yoga is, what are the benefits of yoga?
#4: Increased Energy
One of the best things about yoga is that it helps give you an energy boost in a very natural way. There are plenty of testimonials to be found online on how refreshed and energized they feel after yoga practice. But how exactly does yoga increase your energy levels?
Whenever we are low on energy, our muscles become tight and our body feels unbalanced and tired. Through yoga, your tired muscles are revived, your mind becomes calm, and your nervous system is stimulated. These help reduce fatigue and allow your body to generate more energy. Yoga practice also induces the stimulation of the adrenal glands which also help in creating energy by producing more cortisol in your body. The hormone cortisol helps fight off stress; without stress, your body doesn’t consume as much energy and is now easily able to produce more from your stored reserves. In addition, yoga enables you to exercise your body with minimal effort so you aren’t required to expend a lot of energy.
With yogic breathing, you are able to oxygenate your entire body while the poses increase the blood flow throughout your body by stimulating your muscles and organs. This increased blood flow helps flush out any impurities and toxins that are deep within your tissue, releasing them from your body through sweat. Detoxification and oxygenation helps revive your body and allows you to tap into your inner life force, enabling it to flow freely throughout your body which then causes an increase in your energy levels.
Lastly, practicing yoga enables your body to work together better than before. This integrated function of your body allows you to use it more efficiently, requiring less energy. With this minimal use of energy, you won’t feel tapped out or in need of coffee and sugar just to get through the day.
Aside from boosted energy, yoga can also help improve how you look!
#3: Weight Loss
While it may seem impossible to some that simply “stretching” and “deep breathing” can cause weight loss, some forms of yoga do actually contribute to helping your body burn more fat. In addition, the overall practice of yoga can help deal with possible underlying causes of weight gain aside from too much calorie intake.
Let’s start with the basics. Practicing yoga can help you burn fat which we all know helps the body lose weight. There are three ways that yoga is able to do this. First, all that stretching stimulates an increase in the body’s blood flow which generates heat. This heat is able to burn up deep and superficial fat within your body. Second, the poses require your muscles to shorten or lengthen. This type of activity causes your muscles to use fat as their fuel. So while the exercise helps you build strong muscles, it also helps you get rid of unwanted fat stores in your body. Third, yoga helps stimulate your thyroid gland which helps speed up your metabolism. A high metabolism means burning a lot of fat.
Aside from burning up calories, practicing yoga helps you lose weight by detoxifying your body. One of the underlying causes of being overweight is having a high level of toxins in your body that prevent your liver, kidney, and other organs from functioning properly. If these organs aren’t effectively working, your body tends to hold on to bad fats which cause you to gain weight. For example, yoga can help regulate your liver functions, one of which is cleansing your body of toxins. Your liver is also responsible for processing the fats in your body, disposing of the bad ones and using up the good ones. Detoxification will also help optimize digestion which is essential to losing excess fat and maintaining a good weight.
So what else can yoga fix in you?
#2: Relieves Stress
Everyone has, at least once in their life, felt stressed out. And we all know how much stress can negatively affect the body – your breathing is constricted, your muscles are tight, your mind is unfocused, and your energy is drained. In addition to all that, chronic stress can result in a weaker immune system, high blood pressure, and weight gain. So how does twisting your body this way and that help you get rid of stress and all the negative effects it has on your body? Well, first and foremost, yoga is a lot more than just stretching your body and improving flexibility. As mentioned earlier, yoga poses are able to loosen up the tight muscles in your body. This release of tension can help lessen feelings of anxiety while increasing feelings of well-being. But loosening up your muscles will only go so far. To make a bigger dent on your stress levels, you will need to change the way your body reacts to stress. And this is where the deep breathing techniques of yoga come in.
To understand how breathing can help you de-stress, you’ll need to first have a better understanding of your body’s response to stress. Your nervous system is made up of two parts – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The first one is responsible for our “fight-or-flight” response which is the survival instinct that causes us our heart rate and blood pressure to spike, our senses to heighten, and prime us to respond to a challenge or conflict with energy as well as anxiety and aggression. Now this response is great if you are in a life-threatening situation but not if it’s just the usual challenges we face day in and day out. The PNS, on the other hand, is responsible for the “rest and digest” state that we have, causing us to feel physical relaxation and mental calm. When we’re stressed, the PNS is overwhelmed by the response of the SNS. But through yogic breathing, you are able to quiet your mind, focus on one thing (breathing in and out), and place your body back into the “rest and digest” state. By doing this, you are able to relieve your mind from anxiety and get a clearer perspective on what you’re facing and how to overcome it.
Now that you know about yoga and stress relief, are you ready to learn about one more item on our list of the ways yoga can improve your body?
#1:Improved Cardiovascular Health
It has been established that practicing yoga is an excellent way to keep you fit. But recent research has discovered that it can also help ensure that your heart is healthy. There are several ways that it can do this. First, practicing yoga can help keep you emotionally calm. Previously we discussed that yoga can help beat stress. And we all know that stress can increase your blood pressure as well as cause your heart rate to increase. Now, this kind of response isn’t really bad if you’re facing a life and death situation. But if you’re constantly feeling this way due to everyday challenges and conflicts, it can cause damage to your cardiovascular system. Plaque builds up faster in your coronary arteries when you’re chronically stressed. The same arteries also constrict when you’re stressed which lessens the amount of blood entering your heart. With yoga, you are able to reduce your high blood pressure and ease palpitations because you are able to reach your “rest and digest” state. By becoming resilient to stress, you are able to become more resilient to stress-caused heart disease. Becoming emotionally calm also means diffusing the negative emotions that are linked to heart attacks such as anger and hostility.
Another way practicing yoga can improve heart health is that it helps reduce inflammation. According to Dr. Hana Stastny, a doctor and yoga therapy instructor, inflammation is actually “at the core of most pathologies, including heart disease.” In 2010, a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that women who regularly practice yoga had a lesser amount of a certain blood compound believed to be a factor in causing inflammation in comparison to new practitioners.
Lastly, practicing yoga helps you stay physically active. While yoga isn’t as strenuous as your regular cardio exercise, it is still a good cardio exercise for several reasons. One, yogic breathing helps lower heart rate and blood pressure – both of which are good for the heart. Two, yoga poses stimulate the muscles and organs which improves blood flow and control cholesterol as well as blood sugar. And three, people who enroll in yoga classes are more likely to continue staying physically active than those who join regular cardio exercise classes. This is because people feel energized and refreshed rather than fatigued after their exercise. They also expend less energy. These factors combined with the mindfulness taught by yoga help keep practitioners coming back for more.