Calm Connection: Health Benefits of Yoga
By Sandra Lee, Coffee in the Middle
Building harmony in both the body and mind sounds good doesn’t it? Incorporating some kind of yoga practice and meditation can be enough to help improve your health by increasing flexibility and strength and reducing stress and anxiety. If looking for a low-impact, challenging practice that can be done at any time of the day, yoga may be the answer. With more than 100 different types out there, they all use the breath in combination with meditation and postures to stretch and flex not only the body, but calm the mind. Read on to see both the physical and mental health benefits of yoga and maybe give some poses a try yourself!
With all the different poses of a yoga session, the entire body is at work. In addition to improving flexibility, yoga is a great addition to an exercise routine for its strength-building benefits. While it may be tough at first as a beginner, with time the benefits become more noticeable.
While the physical benefits of yoga can make a big difference in the way the body functions, the mental benefits of yoga are equally, if not more important.
Stress can cause devastating effects on the body as well as the mind. The inability to concentrate, sleep difficulties and a negative view of the world can all be symptoms of stress.
Strong muscles do more than look great. They protect us from painful conditions like arthritis and back pain by working those muscles. Poses where you need to hold for an extended time, like the tree pose, does exactly that.
In addition, slow movements and deep breathing exercises increase blood flow and warm up those muscles, again building strength. Since yoga is primarily a bodyweight exercise, meaning it uses its own weight to hold and balance the poses, it’s only natural that the more it’s practiced, the stronger the body becomes.
Try: Plank and Warrior Pose
Yoga and the term “stress reducer” seem to go hand-in-hand and for good reason. Multiple studies have shown that practicing yoga can decrease the secretion of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. It also has the ability to slow down the mental loops of frustration, regret, anger, fear and desire that causes stress and constantly invades us throughout our everyday life.
Since stress is linked to so many health problems from headaches to insomnia, and eczema to high blood pressure, it’s almost essential to learn how to quiet the mind. Yoga can help do just that.
Try: Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Improve Flexibility and Balance
A benefit that is widely known when practicing yoga is increased flexibility. While it’s not something that comes instantly, over time you’ll notice a difference in how far down you can bend over to touch your toes, for example. The inflexibility of muscles and connective tissue can cause poor posture, something all of us can probably improve upon.
Aches and pains will start to gradually decrease, as tight hips that can strain the knee joints and tight hamstrings that can cause back pain are released. In addition, balance is not just about preventing falls, but goes much further in the way of better posture, reduced knee problems and even alleviated back pain. A win/win for the entire body.
Try: Tree and Chair Pose
Around 40 million people in the United States say they have some kind of anxiety, which can lead to an abundance of issues. The base practice of yoga focuses on being present in the moment and finding a sense of peace, which could help treat the triggers that cause anxiety.
This can also be true for depression, as yoga is able to decrease your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone often associated with anxiety and depression. If you find that stress often gets the best of you, try yoga. The combination of physical poses, controlled breathing, meditation and relaxation may make a world of difference.
Try: Bound Angle Pose
Increase Blood Flow
Yoga definitely gets your blood flowing, helping circulation in the hands and feet. At the same time, your body is getting more oxygen to your cells, helping your body work more efficiently. Twisting poses are thought to “wring out” venous blood from internal organs and allow oxygenated blood to flow in once the pose is released.
Inverted poses are great to help blood from the legs and pelvis flow back into the heart, where it can then be pumped to the lungs to be freshly oxygenated. The body already does this naturally, but yoga gives it that extra push to perform better throughout the day. The methodical yet effective stretches and gentle movements also encourage improved circulation to drain swollen lymph glands and reduce body inflammation in general.
Try: Headstand, Handstand and Shoulder Stand
The best days seem to be connected with a great mood. Regular yoga practice can lead to a significant increase in serotonin levels and a decrease in levels of monoamine oxidase (an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters) as well as that dreaded cortisol.
All that to say that if you’re feeling sad, there are certain yoga poses that actually can help boost your mood and make you feel happier. When engaging in meditation in motion, the body relaxes, the breathing is balanced and the mind becomes quiet.
Try: Lotus or King Dancer Pose
Relaxes the System
Yoga encourages the body to relax, slow the breathing and focus on the present. If you’ve ever tried to hold a pose while answering a toddler’s frantic request (demand?), you know it’s an almost impossible task. Yoga forces the body to shift from the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming and restorative.
As a result, the body lowers breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs.
Try: Child’s Pose and Forward Fold
Helps with Focus
Doing yoga for just 20 minutes a day can increase brain power, helping with focus, concentration and remembering the small things. We are constantly being thrown information and stimuli, which can hinder concentration. There is an active mindfulness component of practicing yoga and researchers have found that it can affect the neural patterns in the brain.
By being mindful and living in the present moment, we are able to improve our concentration and stay focused.
Try: Eagle and Half-Moon Pose
Helps with Back Pain
With continual practice, yoga is great for easing pain and improving mobility of the back and spine. The American College of Physicians recommends yoga as a beginner’s treatment for lessening chronic lower back pain.
The Bridge, Cobra and Cat-Cow poses are good ones to start with in the morning, when the body is starting to wake up, as well as before bed to help relax. A consistent yoga practice can also help to protect the spine with poses designed to keep spinal disks supple and well-balanced in order to avoid injury.
Try: Bridge and Cobra Pose
The hustle and bustle of everyday life can wreak havoc on the nervous system. Regular yoga practice, which boasts relaxation and meditation, can improve sleep patterns, therefore making us less tired and stressed over time. A consistent bedtime routine can help with getting in the right mindset and for preparing the entire body to fall asleep and stay asleep.
When the mind is racing from the day’s responsibilities and to-do lists floating in our heads, it can be tough to finally calm down. A simple stretch or meditation is incredibly powerful to signal the body and mind that it’s time to put the day to rest.
Try: Legs-up-the-Wall Pose
Keeps the Heart Healthy
Reducing levels of stress and inflammation is not only good for the mind, but also good for the heart. When super stressed, the nervous system is working overtime, which can lead to inflammation and increased blood pressure.
Practicing yoga can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels and heart rate, making it a useful lifestyle intervention according to John Hopkins University. Of course, with any exercise including yoga, it’s always best to talk to your doctor first to see if modifications are needed when practicing. Yoga is all about listening to your body and moving as it feels right. Most any ability and body shape or size can be accommodated.
Try: Downward Dog and Extended Triangle Pose
We’ve heard the term self-care for some time now, especially for moms who are simultaneously working on their career and “womanaging” the family and household. Yoga can be a form of self-care because it’s something that you are doing just for yourself.
Yoga offers many tools to help jumpstart positive changes for a calmer, healthier you. Yoga can be a time for silence, strengthening the body, and restoring the mind. The aspect of taking time for self care can be incredibly healing to the soul.
Try: Goddess Pose
The benefits of practicing yoga are many, helping with what goes on within the body as well as what goes on within the mind. When you are more in tune with your body, you can help detect potential health problems early on. When you’re more in tune with your mind, the triggers that typically cause anxiety and stress can be averted more effectively, decreasing nervous system overload as you calm yourself through thoughtful poses.
More and more people are deciding to step onto the mat for themselves. Yoga is a holistic approach to health and wellness, and one that can really make an incredible impact on your body, mind…and soul.
Sandra Lee is a blogger, amateur photographer and freelance writer for parenting publications such as Red Tricycle and Mommy Nearest. Hailing from Texas and living in the Bay Area, she writes about life with two kids, beauty finds, food and all things motherhood on her blog, Coffee in the Middle. As a bilingual Mexican and Italian woman, she’s committed to teaching her kids about diversity, the Spanish language and the love of different cultures. When she’s not chasing the little ones around, she’s either baking up something delicious, taking a yoga class or writing.