Yoga addresses all of these areas, and is also one of many practices that is a necessary component to overall health and well-being.
The word yoga originates from the Sanskrit word yug, which translates as to yoke or to join. In the modern practice of yoga this is considered joining the body, breath and mind through a series of asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation.
Originally, the asanas were used as a way to prepare the body for meditation by building flexibility and strength in the body to allow staying comfortable in a seated posture for long durations.
A regular yoga practice will bring more physical and mental awareness to your life along with increased flexibility, range of motion, balance and compassion. Yoga brings a calm mindset while toning the body; helping to find peace within and honestly evaluate our relationship to ourselves, others and the world.
As my massage therapist, Jennifer Frey, says, “Movement is energy, movement is life. When movement stops, life stops and energy becomes stagnant. Keep moving—your body, your breath and your thoughts; keep moving and be well.”
After teaching yoga for 10 years and being a student of yoga for over 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that the top three benefits of a regular yoga practice are greater range of motion, focus and stress management.
Just as a regular strength training practice will make you stronger, a regular yoga practice will make you more flexible and increase your overall range of motion. Whether you are holding a Yin Yoga stretch for one to three minutes, dynamically stretching in short bursts throughout a Power Yoga class, or enjoying a range of short and deep stretches in a Hatha Yoga class, your connective tissues are being stretched a little further each time and your joints are being lubricated by synovial fluid, allowing the bones to gently move over each other.
There are many opinions on the topic of how often you need to incorporate yoga into your lifestyle. In my opinion, having a regular yoga practice once or twice a week is enough to see and maintain these results. However, if you are able to add more, I highly encourage three to four times a week, with the caveat that if you practice Power Yoga, you mix in a little gentle yoga between your power practice days.
Greater flexibility allows for a greater range of motion throughout your body. As most of your work day is spent standing, your yoga practice will help your spine lengthen and your shoulders rest below your ears, creating greater posture and alleviating back pain. Yoga will also create more flexibility in your hip flexors and extensors, allowing a reduction in back pain, better posture and a reduction in pressure on your knees.
If you don’t have time for a full class at home, in a yoga studio or in a gym, two of my favorite poses to offer a full-body stretch are downward-facing dog and triangle. They can be done between clients, at the beginning of the day, or at the end of the day—basically, whenever you feel the need to unwind and stretch your muscles.
Downward dog is a wonderful full-body stretch to do if you only have a short amount of time to spare. By drawing energy through your hands and feet you can really feel the spine and hamstrings open up while also releasing shoulder tension by drawing the shoulders away from the ears. Holding this pose anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes is a perfect addition to your day.
Triangle pose is another standing stretch that gives a deep full body opening in a short amount of time. Drawing in grounding energy by rooting down through your feet and twisting as you reach one hand to the sky and your other hand to the ground helps bring a sense of calm and renewal with the added benefit of a detoxifying twist.
As well as these physical examples of the flexibility yoga creates, there are many mental benefits, such as managing stress better, enhancing your understanding of the mind-body connection to make subtle changes in where you hold tension in your body, and being aware of the role of your breath in everyday situations.
The breath is a huge factor in overall health and one I didn’t realize the full magnitude of until I started attending yoga classes on a regular basis. Your breath is a good indicator of where your mind is and one of the easiest areas to regulate when life feels chaotic.
So, let me ask you this: Do you ever get so caught up in your thoughts or the current task you’re working on that you forget to breathe? I know this may sound crazy, but unfortunately it’s really easy to do! Every now and then I get so into what I’m doing that I don’t realize I’ve been holding my breath until I start to feel my heart pounding and my focus begin to waver.
As a healer, focusing on your clients can be all-consuming, and while trying to help them release tension you may be unknowingly cultivating tension and stress in your body.
Becoming aware of your breath and your tendencies to hold it or let it flow freely are profoundly revitalizing. Yoga offers a space to notice the rhythm of your breath and allow you to learn how to moderate it with deep, full breaths. Whether you tune into yogic ujayi breathing or any other breathing exercise that works for you, the most important outcome is to just breathe.
Through opening the physical body and connecting to the breath, yoga allows a greater awareness of what causes stress in our daily lives and how we react to it. The lessons of compassion for others and self, non-harming, self-study, balance, truth, contentment and surrender are the backbone of yoga and are interwoven into most classes.
The beauty of these teachings is that each person goes away with the lesson that resonates the most for him or her in that moment. Being mindful of your reactions to the poses and staying kind to yourself as you witness your own limitations goes hand-in-hand with being mindful to the fact that others have their own limits, fears and concerns.
Letting go of the need for control and just going with the flow is another profound lesson of yoga.
As Frey says, “Whether it’s the perfectly balanced yoga pose or the flailing tree, blissful relaxing massage or the ‘I can’t wait to jump off this table’ kind, sometimes it is going to feel good, other times bad. Life is all over the place, in all directions; it expresses itself however it is in the moment. It’s what you take from each experience that counts.”
Letting go of the need for perfection, the need to be right and being able to say on and off the mat “I don’t know” is an exercise in freedom. In letting go, you can find an open space to learn, grow and simply be.
It’s been said that yoga works its way into your life from the outside in. It starts as a physical practice with different emphasis on breathing than most exercise routines and involves a period of rest at the end that can be unbearable for a new yoga practitioner.
However, after a few days, weeks or months of regular practice, all of a sudden the breath comes easier and the savasana (corpse pose) at the end is an actual relaxation period, allowing you to feel the effects of yoga resonate throughout your entire body.
Michelle Finerty took her first step onto a yoga mat in 1999 and has never looked back. She became a yoga teacher in Vinyasa (flow) Power Yoga with CorePower in 2007.