Yoga as a system is thousands of years old, and yet, against the backdrop of today’s hustle bustle society, the value and efficacy of the practice is continuously proving ever-more relevant to our daily lives. When we think of yoga as a system that “yokes” or unifies body, mind, and spirit, this provides a helpful paradigm into the benefits it imparts us when we engage in a practice with dedication and a willingness to receive what it has to offer to all parts of our being.
When we think of yoga as a system that “yokes” or unifies body, mind, and spirit, this provides a helpful paradigm into the benefits it imparts
Starting with our most physical layer, let’s have a look at just a few well-researched benefits of yoga to the body:
- Perhaps most obviously, practicing yoga improves one’s flexibility and balance. A PubMed study followed a cohort of 66 adults where half practiced calisthenics and half practiced yoga at least three times a week for a year, all with the intention of observing effects on measured flexibility levels. At the culmination of the study, researchers found that the flexibility of the yoga group had increased by four times that of the other group. Additionally, as almost all muscular engagement in yoga postures starts with the core, our center of movement, one’s sense of balance can be significantly improved with the practice of yoga.
- Yoga can increase strength and endurance. Moving through a yoga sequence requires muscular engagement and control, which fosters the synthesis of leaner muscle mass. One study tracked the muscle mass weight gain and endurance of 79 adults as they practiced 24 rounds of sun salutations six days a week for 24 weeks. Participants were found to have gained significant upper body strength and notably improved endurance after the 24 week period. A regular yoga practice nicely complements other strength-building and cardiovascular exercise routines.
- Inflammation can managed with a yoga practice. Research shows that those who practice yoga regularly tend to show lower levels of inflammatory markers after performing strenuous exercise than those who do not practice yoga. While inflammation can be a normal, isolated response to certain triggers, chronic inflammation can advance the development of pro-inflammatory diseases like heart disease and cancer. Thus, because yoga has the potential to reduce inflammation in the short-term, the implications of a regular practice as a disease-preventative measure are encouraging.
- Yoga can boost sleep quality. The research in this area is vast and varied, as so many things factor into sleep quality. In general, those who experience sleep disturbances in different contexts have been shown to experience more restful sleep after a yoga practice; the increased secretion of melatonin yoga often triggers in the brain may have something to do with this. The practice’s connection to better sleep could also be attributed to the fact that it positively affects the influence of things like anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and stress in general — things that also happen to influence sleep quality.
- Breathing habits can be enhanced with a yoga practice. Pranayama affects a person’s entire system in a number of ways, and the physical body is no exception. Intentional yogic breathing has been shown to increase a person’s vital capacity — or the amount of air that can be taken in, held, and expelled from the lungs — with regular practice over time. This can, in turn, improve endurance, heart health, and the oxygenation of blood.
One of the first yoga sutras according to Patanjali says that yoga calms the chatter of the mind. Here’s some insight into the ways cultivating a yoga practice affects one’s mental wellbeing:
- Yoga calms the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Breathing deeply and moving mindfully has the power to take you out of fight-or-flight mode and can effectively put you into rest-and-digest mode. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, emphasizes the direct relationship between breath rate and sympathetic nervous system state, which in turn directly affect mood and our overall sense of wellbeing. The sympathetic (AKA automatic) nervous system governs processes like heart rate, respiration, and digestion and revs them up or slows them down in response to actual threats, and while this was useful and protective in an evolutionary sense, it’s not such a good thing when it’s always dialed up in response to what we perceive as “threats” today — like emails, text messages, and looming project deadlines. Slowing down the breath tells the brain and nervous system that they can relax and let their guard down, effectively reducing the stress response and making room for calm.
- Stress, anxiety, and depression can be managed with a yoga practice. Countless studies cite yoga’s ability to lower practitioners’ levels of cortisol, the main stress hormone. Conversely in the way of hormone manipulation, yoga has been shown to increase practitioners’ GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, levels, a hormone that helps to regulate nerve activity and that is often low in people who experience anxiety disorders. The association between the practice of yoga and decreased symptoms of depression may be attributed to yoga’s ability to lower cortisol levels, as one’s relative cortisol levels also influence the presence of serotonin, one of the main neurotransmitters connected to depression.
- Practicing yoga builds your self awareness. Asana and pranayama are incredibly potent catalysts to cultivating a deeper relationship with yourself. It’s impossible not to get to know yourself — including your “shadow self” — on your mat. Stirring up and then removing tension from the body allows you access into deeper parts of your mind; in your mind, you become acutely aware of your own self talk; and the things you observe and work through here follow you off of your mat and into the world…
- …Which translates into your relationships, and the way you move through life. When you get curious about your own self inquiry and do the work of true introspection, it becomes easier to tune in and truly listen, in that same way, to others. Compassion is more easily expressed externally when you practice it internally. Feeling grounded in yourself first allows you to show up more fully and authentically for those you love, increasing your sense of groundedness, social belonging, and contentment.
Finally, it’s no secret that yoga is an inherently spiritual practice, no matter what sorts of beliefs a practitioner may ascribe to. Here are a number of key ways practicing yoga can affect the spirit, or energetic body, often manifesting in subtler ways than those previously discussed:
- Opening the physical body helps open the emotional body, leading to the release of stored trauma and limiting behavior patterns. The body’s musculature holds onto imprinted trauma when we are unable to process a difficult experience at the time it occurs. Mindfully moving through postures that help access our painful parts offers a gateway into the start of the healing process, simply through the power of acknowledgment and awareness. Our wounds want to be seen, and yoga acts as a compassionate lens through which to accomplish that.
- Practicing yoga can help align the energetic body. Yoga works into the body’s energy centers, or chakras in Sanskrit, by way of the physical body. In other words, alignment in the physical body lends itself directly to alignment of the energetic body. This overall balance, in turn, amplifies the “talents” of each chakra involved — thus, the regular practice of yoga can help us to feel more grounded, more creative, more powerful, more relationship-centered, more expressive, more intuitive, and more insightful.
- Yoga helps us remember our essential nature. The practice of yoga ultimately connects us to the knowledge that we are — everything is — intimately connected. When you earnestly engage in the inner work, this energetic intention has no choice but to continue expanding in its pursuit of alignment, in time manifesting itself in the world outside of yourself. Your liberation is bound to that of your neighbor. When you become aware of this knowledge of connection, you have a choice: How will you live your yoga off the mat? How will you confront the systems that oppress and keep so many from living freely? How will you show up in the world?
Enjoy this awesome testimony for why one of our beloved students, Muriel, practices yoga:
Writing brilliant served to you by Lauren Daeger