As those of you who follow my blog will know, I started attending an Iyengar yoga for beginners class several months ago. After three sessions, the class was suspended due to Coronavirus and then shortly after that, the complete lockdown began. Keen to continue my practise, I’ve built up my collection of equipment and have found suitable classes on YouTube. I’m pleased to report that I’m doing at least 10 minutes of yoga every day and I’m reaping the physical and mental benefits already. So, in this post, I thought I’d share with you how yoga can transform your body and your mind. Please bear in mind that, although I have fully researched the article, most of what you read is my own limited experiences of practising and I am not an expert yogi!
Yoga is an ancient form of exercise that originated in India around 5,000 years ago. There are many different styles but all types focus on increasing strength and flexibility and breathe control in a way which boosts physical and mental wellbeing. The type of yoga that I practise is called Iyengar and this form places emphasis on detail, precision and alignment. When you begin, you are encouraged to use a variety of props such as bricks, blocks, blankets, a strap, a bolster and even a special yoga chair. This equipment is designed to assist you in your practice so you are able to form the asana (poses) correctly.
Although yoga is performed slowly and carefully, so won’t count as part of the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, it is an extremely good strengthening exercise with lots of benefits for your physical and mental health. This makes it an incredible worthwhile practice to adopt alongside more aerobic activities that get your heart rate up. It is also suitable for all ages and fitness levels. In fact, B.K.S. Iyengar who developed the Iyengar style, still practised for several hours per day when he was in his nineties, before his death at the grand old age of 95!
Physical Benefits of yoga
From the very first week that I went to my yoga class, I could feel my muscles getting a really good stretch in each pose. Now I’ve been practising for a few months, I’m beginning to develop increased flexibility throughout my body. I’m still using lots of equipment in my practice such as bricks, blocks, a strap and a bolster, but I’m able to push myself a little bit further each time as my muscles lengthen. Overall, my body feels a lot better and stronger already.
I’ve always suffered from back and neck pain since my teenage years and a physiotherapist that I went for a rotator cuff injury in my shoulder and sciatic pain identified bad posture as part of the problem. He suggested a variety of physio exercises but also said that in the long term working on my core strength by doing Pilates or yoga would really help. I’m now starting to find that I have much better posture and reduced pain in my body in general. I still suffer from neck and shoulder pain at times but I am hoping this will lessen with daily yoga practice.
A big part of yoga is a focus on the breath. When you bring attention to your breathing, you find that you take full and deep inhalations and exhalations and this can help to increase lung capacity and improve the function of your blood vessels which may lower blood pressure. As an asthma sufferer, I was pleased to learn that yoga can improve your breathing technique and develop your ability to control the depth of your breathing.
Although I’m having no trouble sleeping at the moment, I do tend to develop insomnia during times of high stress. I was pleased to read then, that yoga can promote better sleep and that people who practise some kind of meditation each day find they fall asleep quicker, stay asleep longer and have better quality sleep than those who don’t.
Many yoga poses, such as downward facing dog, have a weight bearing element to them and this has been shown to strengthen your bones and ward off osteoporosis. I find this particularly useful to know as weakening of the bones is very common as we get older, and it often effects women.
Psychological benefits of yoga
Yoga not only transforms your body, it can also improve your mental health in so many ways too. Even after my very first class, I felt calm and relaxed and generally blissful. We did lots of strengthening and stretching poses and then for 10 minutes at the end of the session, the teacher put on some relaxing music and we did some restorative poses that were nice and easy to stay in whilst working on progressive muscle relaxation. The asana (postures) were so lovely that I didn’t want to move out of the final pose at the end!
When you are practising yoga, you are concentrating fully on each of the poses and the transition from one posture to another. You focus on your breath and the lengthening of various muscles, and this full awareness can be seen as a kind of movement based meditation and mindfulness practise. The benefits of meditation are backed by scientific study and include stress reduction and lower levels of anxiety, improved outlook on life and better self image.
As someone who suffers from repeated bouts of depression and anxiety, I was pleased to note that yoga is great for managing both conditions. People who consistently practise have been found to have increased serotonin levels (which contribute to wellbeing and happiness) and reduced cortisol levels (the body’s main stress hormone). In fact, during a telephone appointment with a mental health nurse last month, she suggested I give yoga a try as an adjunctive treatment – she was happy to hear that I’d already started to give it a go.
Yoga can also increase confidence levels and improve self esteem. It teaches us to slow down and pay attention to ourselves and the current moment. Doing this enables us to focus and find the mental clarity within us that we need to solve problems, make decisions and create improvements to our personal situations. This is in contrast to our modern society which encourages us to work harder and faster, buy more and consume more, compare ourselves to others and seek external validation for everything we do.
I hope today’s post has helped you develop a better understanding of yoga and the physical and mental benefits of the practice. Although there are no yoga classes in the UK and many other countries running currently due to the lockdown, I would recommend that you start to learn yoga by attending a class. This is so that the yogi (instructor) is available to correct your postures, give advice and supply extra equipment to help you if needed. When you have perfected particular asana, you can then start to practise them at home.
Let me know if you already regularly practise yoga and are thriving from the physical and mental benefits to your practise. If you haven’t given it a try before, I hope my post has given you the encouragement you need to give it a go.