Although the health benefits of yoga were developed in India thousands of years ago, yoga has become an incredibly popular form of exercise in the United States. There are more than one hundred different types of yoga. Most focus on three core elements: breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming poses that stretch and flex various muscle groups.
You’ve probably heard yoga is good for you. Maybe you’ve even tried it and found that you walked away feeling better than when you came in. Yoga not only feels great but provides instant gratification and lasting transformation (if you stick with it!). Plus, while yoga can help with flexibility, you may be surprised by the other physical and mental health benefits.
Yoga’s Physical Benefits
- Builds Muscle Strength – Many yoga poses require you to support the weight of your own body in new ways, including balancing on one leg or supporting yourself with your arms. Poses such as downward dog, upward dog, and the plank pose, build upper-body strength. The standing poses, especially if you hold them for several long breaths, build strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and abs. Poses that strengthen the lower back include upward dog and the chair pose.
- Improved Flexibility – Typically the first and most obvious benefit of yoga, improved flexibility tends to be clearly evident, even to beginners. Moving and stretching in new ways helps to increase the range of motion and lubrication, especially if you have pain in your joints and spine, which is key to performing everyday activities with ease as you continue to age.
- Posture – When you’re stronger and more flexible, your posture improves. Most of the standing and sitting poses develop core strength because your abdominal muscles are needed to help support and maintain each pose. With a stronger core, you’re more likely to sit and stand tall.
- Bone and Joint Health – It’s well known that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis, and many postures in yoga require that you lift your own weight. Yoga also can have a significant effect on healthy joint function as certain poses promote the release of fluids while strengthening the muscles supporting vital joint systems.
- Heart Healthy – When you regularly get your heart rate into the aerobic range, you lower your risk of a heart attack. While not all yoga is aerobic, if you do it vigorously or take certain classes (like Ashtanga), it can boost your heart rate into the aerobic range.
- Breathing – Most of us take shallow breaths and don’t give much thought to how we breathe. Because most forms of yoga involve deep breathing and attention to our breath, lung capacity often improves. This, in turn, can improve sports performance and endurance.
Mental Benefits of Yoga
Aside from the array of physical benefits, yoga also has some great mental benefits. Unlike more traditional forms of exercise, yoga’s incorporation of meditation and breathing helps a person improve their mental well-being.
- Stress Reduction – One of the best benefits of yoga is how it helps a person manage the devastating effects of stress. Physical activity is good for relieving stress, and this is particularly true of yoga. Yoga’s quiet, precise movements and emphasis on being in the moment can also help by taking the focus off external stressors. Many people leave yoga classes feeling less stressed than when they came in.
- Body Awareness – Doing yoga will give you an increased awareness of your own body, as you are often called upon to make small, subtle movements to improve your alignment. Over time, this will increase your level of comfort in your own body, which can help with early detection of physical problems or ailments and allow for early preventive action.
- Mental Calmness – Many of the breathing exercises practiced in yoga have been developed to calm and tame our seemingly endless stream of thoughts. This leads to greater concentration as you work your way through each pose—and, in most cases, a calmness that lasts the rest of the day.
If one or many of these benefits appeal to you, you should look into the various schools of yoga and determine which is right for you. The great news is that just about everyone can do it, too — body type and fitness levels do not matter because there are modifications for every yoga pose and beginner classes in every style.
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