Why Yoga? Judy's top 10 reasons
1) Yoga improves flexibility
It is no secret that yoga improves flexibility. By practicing different postures, we are training our bodies to move in ways we may not be used to or be familiar with during our regular daily activities. This allows us a greater range of motion with less potential for injury. Please read reason #3 on “promoting functional movement”, because you can also get hurt by being too flexible!
2) Yoga increases strength
One of the more underrated benefits of yoga is that it can build physical strength. For some reason, when people think of yoga, they think of practitioners contorting their bodies into pretzel-like shapes, but they often overlook the fact that practicing yoga also makes you stronger.
If you are not convinced that yoga builds muscular strength, try Chair Pose, challenging yourself to breathe deeply and holding the posture for 2 minutes. Notice how your thighs feel, then plan to do this every day, and notice how much easier it gets, the more you do it. The posture does not change. It is you who becomes stronger and more capable of holding the asana because you have trained those muscles.
3) Yoga promotes functional movement
Since yoga increases flexibility and strengthens your muscles, depending on what you are focusing on, then in essence, yoga is promoting functional movement. What do I mean by that? On one end of the spectrum, if a person exclusively engages in strength-building exercises with no stretching, their muscles become tighter and over time will stay in a more contracted state. If you can imagine a spring in its normal state, it has a certain amount of movement; it can not only move on a vertical plane, but the extremities can also move from side-to-side. If you contract or squeeze the spring to compress as far as it will go (like in a tighter muscle), it has much less lateral movement until you expand the space between the coils. In both cases, you experience a reduced range of motion when the muscle or spring are contracted. The yogic solution in this case would be to do yoga to stretch and improve flexibility.
On the other hand, a person who avoids strength-building exercises and only stretches, may experience a huge range of motion, but have little to no muscular support. These are the people who can easily put themselves into a pretzel-like shape, without feeling much of a stretch when they do so. Unfortunately, if the musculoskeletal body is overlooked, and therefore not supporting the joints, a hyper flexible person runs the risk of having their joints pop out. For people who are already super flexible, they do not need more yoga to improve flexibility. They need more yoga to improve muscular strength.
Finding flexibility and useful range of motion to balance out with musculature and stability is all a part of the practice of yoga and that is what functional movement is all about.
Many postures can be used to achieve either action. For example if you sink into the pelvis in a low lunge position, you are increasing the range of motion at the hips. If instead, you draw the back thigh forward and press the front hip back (as if you were creating a scissoring action with the legs), then you are activating the muscles supporting the hip joint.
4) Yoga increases stability
Standing balancing postures in yoga can also improve stability. Try single-legged asanas like Tree Pose or two-legged postures like Warrior 2. By tuning into the distribution of weight between your feet (while in Warrior 2 for example) or firmly rooting in one standing leg (while in Tree Pose for example), you gradually learn how to maintain balance and control. Transitioning between postures will also help your body to figure out how to stay upright while moving. Both of these practices of holding postures and working on transitions can help you in every day life. As you improve your balance in yoga postures, you may also find that it is easier to regain equal footing if you slip on ice and to feel stable when you stand on a moving bus.
5) Yoga builds self-awareness
Yoga is very much a practice of self-awareness and it is amazing how much you can learn about yourself when doing yoga - if you allow yourself to tune into it. At its simplest, you might observe how long or short your breaths are. Or you might just notice how your body feels in certain postures. This is awesome! Try to explore without judgement and just pay attention to how you change as your practice evolves.
There is a saying in yoga that how you are on your mat is how you are in real life. When you are faced with a challenge in real life, like facing a difficult customer for example, do you ask a colleague to handle them or make a run for the break room when they walk in? Or do you smile, welcoming them, and try to see if there is a way to help?
On your yoga mat, if you practice yoga already, what happens when you are faced with a challenging yoga posture? Do you avoid it at all costs and instead drink water, towel off some sweat, realign your mat or use this particular time to fix your hair? Or, do you enthusiastically try, even if you have no idea what is being asked of you? Be curious and you may find parallels between your yoga practice and your day-to-day life.
6) Yoga is for all!
Yoga does not discriminate. Ever. Yoga is “your” practice. Always. Whether you have mobility issues or not, there is a class out there for you. Simply Google “yoga class” and you will find an array of choices! Chair Yoga, Yoga for Seniors, Yoga for Kids, Yoga for Golfers, and yes, wait for it… Goat Yoga!
Seriously though, during any yoga class, no matter what the focus is, you are allowed to choose one posture over another, even if the instructor does not mention it. You are allowed to use props to make yoga postures a little more comfortable, even if the teacher does not suggest it. In a class setting, instruction is often limited due to time constraints. It would be impossible to mention every single variation and address every quirk of every body, so do not be afraid to ask for modifications and assistance. While it can be intimidating to approach an instructor for help, it is an opportunity to honour your body. Even though your instructor may be well-trained, and have all the best intentions, they can’t possibly know for sure what you are feeling on the yoga mat. Open up that channel of communication so that they can offer some guidance if need be. If you feel intimated by a classroom setting, consider taking a couple of private one-on-one sessions. You will build confidence and get the full attention of your instructor during the session, which is designed for your own needs.
7) Yoga fosters breath capacity
One would expect a greater breath capacity from cardio workouts, but it also happens in yoga. I honestly have not engaged in a cardio class in over 20 years. Nor have I joined a vigorous, fast-paced yoga class in at least 5 years. I would therefore imagine my lung capacity to be quite poor. But, when I sprinted after the bus last weekend, I found that I recovered faster than when I was a teenager. Admittedly, my anecdote is not “proof” that it works, and I could be biased in favour of yoga. So rather than taking my word for it, please have a look at this research supporting this assertion.
8) Yoga supports physical rehabilitation
Not surprisingly, yoga can be incorporated into a physical rehabilitation program. Going back to the idea of “functional movement yoga”, a steady yoga practice can help you retrain your muscles and build (or re-build) your flexibility. Since teachers work with adaptations (see point #6!), feel free to approach your instructor for some personalized recommendations. If you are recovering from an injury, be patient, and consider attending a Gentle Yoga class or a New to Yoga program.
9) Yoga prevents aging aches
If I skip a few days of yoga, my body feels stiff and achy in the morning. Once I start practicing again, the aches magically disappear. Again, this is not scientific proof but we are designed to move! Try it out yourself! Set aside 5-10 minutes each evening for a gentle yoga practice and wave your aches and pains farewell. Try this video, a 7-minutes shoulder and upper back yummy release!
10) Yoga relieves stress
There is something about yoga that simply helps relieve stress. For one thing, you are physically stronger, so you are more adept at handling environmental stressors.You also learn to slow down the frenetic pace of life. By learning to control and steady the breath in times of challenge, you tap into your parasympathetic nervous system. Slowing down your breath sends messages to your brain to say, “I am relaxed”, taking us from a “fight-or-flight” response (i.e. higher heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing, etc) to a much calmer state. The stress-reducing benefits of yoga are also known to alleviate some of the symptoms caused by depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as help with chronic pain management. Restorative Yoga is particularly helpful in these cases.
There you have it! I certainly hope one of more of these top 10 reasons will encourage you to develop a practice of your own. Any question? Please connect and ask!
Written by Judy Trinh, Yoga instructor