Yoga is more than just a workout. It is a mind-body practice, meant to build strength and flexibility while simultaneously helping manage stress and negative emotions. No medication has the power to improve so many areas of life at once. Maintaining a regular yoga practice is arguably the strongest tool we have to improve overall health, well-being, and as a result, reducing healthcare costs.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient practice with a wide variety of philosophies, teachings, and practices in existence. Modern yoga as exercise was first introduced to the west in the late 19th century. This branch of yoga is derived from medieval Haṭha yoga. Generally speaking, Hatha is what we are most familiar with when we think of yoga in the west. Hatha largely consists of asanas or yoga postures. Hatha emphasizes physical exercise, meditation and breathing exercises to enhance overall well-being.
Four Main Components
There are four main components of yoga: postures, breathing, deep relaxation, and meditation. Individually each component is effective; combined they are quite powerful.
- Studies show that yoga postures improve flexibility, balance, range of motion, strength, endurance and enhance body awareness.
- Breathing practices have a direct physiological effect on your body. According to Harvard Medical School, “Slow, rhythmic breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a more balanced, relaxed state. Your heart rate slows, and hormones that promote feelings of calm and social bonding increase. The opposite happens with fast, superficial patterns of breathing. Rapid, shallow breaths stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the fight-or-flight response. As a result, heart rate increases and stress hormones are released”
- Deep relaxation improves energy and mental focus. Muscles release tension. You let go of stress and anxiety. External distractions are reduced.
- Meditation is considered the most important component of yoga. Research shows how meditation activates the frontal lobe and limbic system. This portion of the brain influences our behavior, emotions, and thinking. Mindfulness has been proven to “train your brain” to handle fear, anger, depression, and anxiety in more positive ways.
Yoga Studies On Mental and Health Benefits
A growing body of research supports yoga’s mental and physical health benefits as it becomes mainstream in America. Science-backed benefits from a consistent yoga practice include reduced: stress, heart disease, back pain, arthritis, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Meditation improves: brain function, diabetes, better sleep, weight loss, body awareness, and overall happiness. Clinicians have even embraced yoga as a complement to psychotherapy.
Finding the style of yoga you are interested in, and what is available in your area, may take a bit of research. Many studios practice their own version of hatha yoga, such as the popular hot yoga – a personal favorite. Once you settle on a style, make sure to practice safety first. Harvard Medical School recommends consulting with your doctor before trying yoga if you have (or had) any of the following:
• heart disease or high blood pressure
• respiratory problems
• balance problems
• recent surgery
• stroke or neurological illness
• musculoskeletal problems such as back or joint problems, including a herniated disc.
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