When I decided to take my first yoga class, I was looking for a way to stretch and move my body, and relax my mind after a day of conducting hearings. I did not know much about yoga, except that it was linked to health benefits. But honestly, I was just looking to spend some time moving my body in a place that did not resemble a gym.
But after just a few months of practicing, I noticed numerous physical and mental changes. I could not understand how doing guided yoga poses with a group of other students a couple of days a week could be having such a dramatic change on how I felt both mentally and physically, and my loved ones noticed the positive changes as well. If you are new to yoga, and are wondering if it will benefit you, read on. If you have been practicing for awhile and feeling a transformation, know you are not alone. Here are just 10 of the many physical and mental benefits of a regular yoga practice, regardless of the style of yoga you choose:
1. Compassion. Who would have thought that a physical practice could help me feel compassion and understanding for myself and those around me? Yoga philosophy tells us that we're all one, but it's the experience of many bodies moving and breathing simultaneously that I think really created that understanding for me. I realized that we're all just doing the best we can in life. There's something very liberating about a mind-set that can melt away ill-will, competition, and petty disagreements.
2. Mindful eating. I am not advocating any specific diet here. Although adopting Ayurvedic practices for me has been helpful. Prior to starting yoga, my diet consisted of processed cereal bars and frozen dinners. But after just a few months of yoga, I found myself craving leafy greens, fresh fruits, and food with as little processing as possible. Yoga changed the way I ate because I started to pay more attention to how the food I took into my body made me feel. I still eat occasional junk food (chocolate chip cookies and brownies please), but thanks to my yoga practice, it's an occasional treat instead of a daily habit.
3. Increased flexibility and strength. First and foremost, when you begin practicing yoga, you will notice increased flexibility. During the first attempt at yoga, many who are not flexible may not even be able to touch their toes. However, after a few weeks or months of practicing, poses will come easier than before, and often individuals can attempt some poses they could not before. Another benefit that may be noticed is some aches and pains begin to disappear. The muscle strength built also helps protect against conditions such as arthritis and back pain. I was shocked when I realized how much strength it took to get through a mat or aerial yoga class. I was even more surprised by how quickly I built strength, and poses that were once incredibly difficult for me, got a little easier. I wasn't just getting more flexible--I was becoming stronger, too!
4. Confidence. It's one thing for someone to tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to. It's another thing to actually experience it for yourself. It takes a lot of time and determination and perseverance to continue beyond easier poses and build strength to do more challenging poses, whether on the mat or in the air. But once you've experienced it, you really start to believe you can do anything! You also start to see a beauty in yourself that you never knew was there. For me, this translated into a boost of confidence that positively impacted all areas of my life.
5. Better relationships. What do you get when you mix a little heightened awareness, a dash of compassion, a pinch of self-confidence, and a smidge of positivity? The ability to relate to people in a more meaningful way. And that means you get a stronger network of friends, confidants, and supporters. I am also able to be more present with the people I love and truly enjoy my time with them, instead of constantly reflecting on the past, or worrying about the future. Of all the benefits I've reaped from my yoga practice, perhaps this is the most valuable of all.
6. Better at handling stress. Yoga, and meditation, both move you from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system, or from flight-or-flight to rest-and-digest. You typically have less anxiety and enter a more relaxed state during yoga and meditation. As soon as you start breathing deeply, you slow down out of fight-or-flight and calm your nervous system.
7. Feeling More Balanced. With a continued practice, we become more comfortable with not just our light side, but also our dark side. Yoga brings us an increasing awareness of our "shadow" qualities. The yoking of solar and lunar (light and dark) in yoga makes us recognize qualities in ourselves that we may not have previously consciously been aware of, helping us be more mindful. Your teacher may ask you to notice not just what feels good, but what doesn’t, not just to notice the poses you like, but the poses you resist. In yoga, we look at those places in our mind and bodies where there is resistance. Where we hold tension, tightness, and knots of energy, is typically where we are holding our psychological or emotional energy. We work from the outside in, so yoga poses are important. A backbend will open your heart, and pigeon pose may open your hips, but at some point, you will have some sort of emotional release as well, which you may or may not be conscious of. It's about doing the inner work to shift or change. It’s about being open and embracing your strengths, as well as your weaknesses.
8. Yoga and Mindfulness. Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment without judgment and plays a special role in syncing our emotions with our practice. Yoga asks us to "focus on the now", “to be present”, and to be connected with oneself. Mindfulness on its own gifts some significant benefits to mental health. According to a Harvard Health article, mindfulness is an important element in the treatment of a number of mental health conditions, including depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples' conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
9. Peace of Mind: You are not your thoughts. The constant chatter of the mind will have you running in circles. In The Yoga Sutras the mind is said to be the chariot with the five senses as the horses wildly pulling at the reins. Yoga gives you the tools to sit in the driver’s seat of your chariot with confidence, where in the past you might have allowed your emotions pull you in every direction. Or to put it another way, to tune out the constant radio chatter, and tune into peace.
10. Body Appreciation. Body Awareness and Appreciation: In our culture we may care about the way our bodies look, however most of us do not understand the mind/body connection. Yoga helps to create a deep connection and sense of your body. Yoga makes you comfortable in your own skin again, or maybe for the first time. It makes you feel complete. You start to realize that the body, mind, emotions, and spirit, have to connect for you to truly feel whole. You realize your body, instead of just something for physical display, is capable of doing amazing things. Over the years I’ve seen many men and women who struggled with body image, learn to love their bodies, not for how it looks, but for what it can do.