As an activity, yoga is somewhat difficult to pin down. Is it meditation? Sort of. Is it exercise? It does have physically challenging aspects, and you’ll finish a class feeling like you had a serious workout. Is it breathing techniques? Yes – many teachers claim that breathing in the prescribed way is the most important part of a yoga session. Is it a spiritual practice? In some cases – different classes, studios and teachers have different levels of chanting and outward signs of spiritual symbology and observance. Is it therapy? Some teachers definitely talk in the language of psychology, recovery, and therapy, and many aspects of yoga are very therapeutic for mind and body.
Regardless of what yoga “is”, I have had an incredibly positive experience with practice. I’ve done yoga since late 2008 and have ranged from 1-3 classes per week. Three is definitely better and contributes to a more abiding feeling of well being. I sometimes think of how I might feel if I practiced every day . (OK, make that often. :))
Doing yoga inspired me to get my first tattoo – a Sanskrit “Om” on my right shoulder blade. It is a symbol that had persisted through the centuries, so I figured it was unlikely to go out of style or cause “buyer’s remorse”. I realized too that the positive influence of this practice on my life was so great that I really wanted a “permanent” reminder. Whenever the gaps between my sessions gets too great, I have a physical reminder – a part of me – that teaches me to return to the mat and keep learning. Finally, I looked ahead and realized that there were no obstacles to practicing yoga at age 80 or 100, and so realized that this mark would never need to become a unwanted source of nostalgia or looking back to “the good old days”.
These are what I believe to be the six most important contributions of yoga to your health and well being.
Strength. Many forms of yoga gives you an excellent workout based on body weight exercise. Although a given asana (posture) may feel easy for the first ten seconds, when you hold it for a minute or longer it can sometimes feel as hard as those final reps of a heavy bench press or dumbbell curl. A good yoga class will start off with a warmup and then build up to a peak before leading to deep relaxation at the end. The most strenuous and physically challenging forms of yoga typically contain a word like “flow” or “power” in their description; you are less likely to discover a challenging workout in a “restorative” class. Of course, if you’re an Olympic weightlifter, some asanas are undoubtedly going to seem extremely easy; on the other hand without experience others will be quite a challenge. In a well-balanced yoga class there is something to challenge every participant.
Breathing. During the 24 hours after a good yoga class, I feel as if my lung capacity has been doubled. I breath deeply and easily and this contributes to an amazing feeling of relaxation and well being. All of my teachers have emphasized that the primary function of yoga is conditioning the breath. The asanas are only a means to this end. As such, many classes involve pranayama (breathing exercises) that take you outside the usual in-out-rinse-repeat form of breathing that we practice without thinking all day. Exercises like Uddiyana Bandha, in which you exhale completely, pull the belly upwards, and hold your “non-breath”, or Kapalabhati Pranayama, in which you exhale in a series of many short snaps, and let the inhales happen as a rebound from the exhalation, take you outside your comfort zone and give your body new understanding of how your breath works.
Flexibility. Although the breath may be the primary focus of yoga, the breath takes place within the body. There’s no question that the stereotypical picture of yoga involves groups of people (usually skinny white women or skinny Indian men) twisting and stretching their bodies into interesting and occasionally exotic asanas. Yoga is definitely a physical discipline, so there is some truth to this picture, although my yoga classes have been much more diverse. Over time it is definitely possible to increase your body’s flexibility, leading to a greater range of motion, reduced risk of injury, more graceful motion, better posture, and other potential benefits.
Relaxation. The final asana of every class is known as Savasana and is intended to allow the practitioner to accept and integrate the results of all the work that has led up to that point. It’s also incredibly relaxing. More generally, the process of physically harder and easier asanas throughout the class behaves as a process of progressive relaxation. It’s known that tensing and relaxing can leave a muscle in a more relaxed state than it was in prior to the tensing stage. Now imagine doing this with your entire body for over an hour. 🙂
Emotional development. We store many different kinds of emotional tension in different places in our bodies. For example, we may feel tense in the shoulders when we interact in a habitual and frustrating way with a certain person, even if we are not consciously aware of that reaction. Over time, the creation of this tension can become a regular behavior and conditioned response, and can be anchored to a particular emotion. The release of the physical tension through the physical discipline of yoga, can often lead to the release of emotional tension as well.
Spiritual development. When it was originally created, yoga was a highly spiritual practice and essentially a complete lifestyle, with study, physical practice, diet and meditation all prescribed. In the West, it has become associated more with fitness, and is often separated from its original roots. Certainly, the physical and athletic practice of yoga doesn’t need to have any spiritual content, and some popular schools such as Bikram are more focused on these physical aspects. Even from the purely material standpoint, however, yoga shares some common ground with spiritual practices such as meditation – it quiets the mind when the practitioner focuses their attention; [other aspects]. That being said, yoga practice does not require any specific belief or adoption of any religious practices. You won’t have to change your beliefs, or add any new ones (unless you want to and choose to).
Adaptable to all levels of fitness and ability. Most people aren’t going to be playing rugby or lacrosse in their 80s and 90s, and even sports like tennis and golf may be too intense for those facing physical challenges. Yoga, on the other hand, is endlessly adaptable to a range of levels of physical strength, experience, and ability. During a group class, there is never a single class going on – there are as many classes happening as there are practitioners. Good teachers will continually encourage modification of asanas when you feel pain or discomfort, and give permission to enter a resting asana such as downward dog (sanskrit) or child’s pose (sanskrit) instead of whatever the “official” class pose is at that moment. Even if you are sick or have low energy, it’s possible to go to yoga class and do a highly modified version in order to realize as much benefit as possible where you are at that moment.
I’ll make a bold and unqualified claim: if you really give it a chance, a regular yoga practice will make your life better.
 Perhaps an experiment is in order 🙂
If you enjoyed reading this article...
1. Please get my premium personal development tips here, featuring special content not published on the blog.
2. Please follow the thirtytwothousanddays RSS feed here for up-to-date, practical, and inspiring resources that will put you on the fast track to personal growth and happiness.
3. Please follow me on Twitter here.
4. Please share this article with a friend, or anyone else you think could use a little extra peace and happiness today! 🙂