Many of us are aware that we would be healthier, fitter, if we take part in some kind of exercise several times per week. But each of us faces a different set of challenges to living our best life. For some it is timing – it is impossible to fit an exercise routine with working long hours and looking after a house and kids – while others worry that they aren’t fit or strong enough to start something new.
In the past few years, yoga has become an increasingly popular activity for those concerned with healthy living. Studios and classes have popped up everywhere, making it easier than ever to get onto the mat and see if yoga is right for you.
While the gym can be intimidating, yoga classes are open to all. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done yoga before. It doesn’t matter if you think you aren’t “flexible” enough to do some of the poses. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, fit or unfit, a healthy weight or overweight.
Keep reading for 8 Reasons to Establish a Yoga Practice!
It relieves stress.
Most of us have stress in our lives. Whether it is our workplace, our family life, or changing circumstances of some kind, many of us are exposed to an unhealthy amount of stress on a daily basis. As well as making us feel out of control, stress has a negative impact on our health. It can cause high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and make existing conditions like diabetes, obesity, migraines and heart disease worse.
Psychology Today has estimated that 80-90% of doctor visits are stress related. Doctors tell us to reduce stress for the sake of our health, but only 3% of doctors actually talk to their patients about how to relieve stress. Those that do suggest practicing yoga.
Yoga effectively trains your body and mind to deal with stress better. By focusing on meditation and breathing, making slow deliberate movements, and engaging in deep stretches, practicing yoga helps you cope with stress and improves your overall health and wellbeing. A national survey suggests that as many as 85% of people who practice yoga reported that it helped them relieve stress.
While other forms of exercise – like going to the gym, swimming, or attending a spin class – are also good at relieving stress, yoga is different because it helps both body and mind. Unlike these other forms of exercise, yoga combines physical fitness with an underlying philosophy that encourages compassion and awareness towards yourself and others – all things that are central to lowering your stress levels. Studies have shown that stress hormone levels can drop after just a few sessions of yoga.
It encourages mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness has become a “buzzword” over the past few years. But what does it even mean?
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Yoga and mindfulness therefore go hand in hand. Many people say they like practicing yoga because, unlike running or a session at the gym, they are able to switch off completely and focus on steady breathing and movement. Yoga becomes a retreat from the stresses outside of the room, because it is impossible to concentrate on both at the same time.
Being mindful is something that we innately know how to do. It is not something we need to learn. By combining it with yoga, we can tap into our ability to be present and aware of what is going on around us in a stress-free environment. We can learn more about ourselves, grow in awareness of other people, enhance our performance, and reduce stress.
It makes you breathe better.
If mindfulness is something we know how to do without thinking about it, breathing is even more natural than that! Many of us never think about breathing at all, unless we have a cough or cold.
For people with asthma or COPD, breathing isn’t just something you take for granted. Running and other high-intensity exercises can feel daunting, or closed off all together, because of the risk of wheezing or a full-blown asthma attack. However, doctors advise that everyone should exercise 4-5 times per week for 30 minutes.
Breathing is a fundamental aspect of yoga practice. So much so that many yoga practices require their own type of breath – ujjayi breath or ocean breath – which is deeper, more controlled, and more intense. Good teachers will teach ujjayi breath and its benefits as a fundamental building block of yoga, meaning it is one of the first things you learn.
Breathing deeper, filling your lungs, and learning to control your breath is beneficial for everyone. Better breathing makes it easier to cope in stressful situations and can improve your stamina and performance in other sports. People with pre-existing breathing conditions like asthma will feel even greater benefits from the breathing aspect of yoga practice. Better breath control can ultimately help some asthmatics cope better with symptoms like wheezing and chest tightness.
What is more, certain yoga positions – called asanas – like back bends and chest openers help open up the lungs and get rid of mucus.
It makes you stronger.
Health and fitness experts advise doing some kind of strength training at least twice per week to keep your metabolism running properly and your bones strong. Strength training typically conjures images of weight machines and dumbbells, but the fact is – yoga does make you stronger. That’s because in many poses, you are effectively lifting your own body weight. Though you are not lifting a separate “weight,” you are using your muscles to support many of the positions you will do in every yoga class.
You may have seen yoga practitioners – yogis – on social media with toned, lean muscles and great physiques. It is appealing to consider that yoga might be the easy way to strengthen and grow your muscles. Nicholas DiNubile, M.D. confirms this when he says: “Yoga can be just as effective as weights when it comes to building a stronger, more impressive physique.” However, because you’re limited to lifting your own body weight, achieving visible body changes through yoga can take time, greater determination, and more skill than just lifting weights.
As with breathing, yoga can be a great addition to a diverse fitness routine. Attending a yoga class each week can have a positive impact on your mind, your body and your performance in other sports. Yoga poses can make muscles stronger and increase your stamina, while the stretching facilitates flexibility. Impressive poses may take many years to master, but regularly practicing certain yoga poses can ultimately make you stronger, more flexible, and less prone to injury.
It helps you get a better night’s sleep.
In our stressful world if there is any commodity that is in short supply, it has to be a good night’s sleep. The more stressed we are, the harder it can be to fall asleep at night – or get back to sleep if we wake up worrying. There is plenty of research to suggest that practicing yoga can help you get a better night’s sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that yoga can help you sleep better, especially if you suffer from insomnia:
“When people with insomnia perform yoga on a daily basis, they sleep for longer, fall asleep faster, and return to sleep more quickly if they wake in the middle of the night.”
But insomniacs aren’t the only people who could benefit from spending time on the mat. Those over the age of 60 also experience better sleep quality, sleep for longer and have more energy during the day when they practice yoga regularly. Pregnant women who begin a mindful yoga practice in their second trimester sleep better and wake up less during the night. Finally, it has been found that cancer patients also sleep better if they practice yoga regularly during their treatment.
Even if you sleep soundly on a regular basis, there are still ways that yoga can contribute to you feeling more rested, and having more energy during the day. Adopting good breathing practices, stretching your muscles, improving your balance, and learning new meditation techniques are all important skills that can carry over from the yoga mat to the rest of your life.
It can improve your health.
This probably sounds like a given, as we’ve already covered the way yoga can help relieve stress, help you sleep better, make you stronger, and improve your breathing. However, there are still more health reasons to encourage you to step onto the mat regularly.
The CDC estimates that, as of September 2018, one in three adults suffers from hypertension (high blood pressure) – a leading cause of stroke, heart attack, and kidney failure. These figures are especially high among those who are overweight or obese. The good news is, yoga can be extremely beneficial in controlling and lowering blood pressure naturally.
Reducing stress is a good start, but it has also been proven that certain yoga poses help to “turn on” the parasympathetic nervous system, which is used for rest and repair. It also “turns off” the sympathetic nervous system, which is the reason we have a fight-or-flight response to stress. Practicing yoga regularly can have a positive impact on your nervous system, lowering your blood pressure and – combined with a well-rounded approach to exercise and healthy eating – lower the need for medication and the risk of heart attacks, strokes, or kidney failure.
As well as high blood pressure, yoga is enormously beneficially for those struggling with chronic pain. Recent medical journals have suggested that practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as chronic pain. While chronic pain had a negative effect on both the volume of grey matter (the part of your brain made up or neurons) and the integrity of white matter (the part of your brain that connects these neurons together), yoga has a positive one. What’s more, practicing yoga and learning meditation techniques have been shown to reduce perception of pain and increase pain tolerance.
Last but by no means least, yoga can give your immune system a boost. Working long hours, eating on-the-go, and not getting enough rest often create a perfect storm, can leave us vulnerable to catching every bug around. By lowering the stress hormones that compromise our immune systems, attending a yoga class regularly can put you at less risk of colds and flu. Healthy breath techniques condition both the lungs and the respiratory tract, while certain yoga asanas stimulate the lymph system and ensure that the different organs are supplied with fresh, oxygenated blood.
Whether you suffer from hypertension or chronic pain, or just seem to catch every cold your friends pass around, good yoga teachers and regular sessions can help you to feel your very best!
It can be social.
The focus on meditation and mindfulness might lead you to think that yoga is a pretty solitary activity. But it doesn’t have to be that way – in fact, it is much more social than meeting up with a friend at the gym. Yoga is fun way to get together with your friends and try something new. Most studios will offer short introductory courses for people who want to establish a yoga practice. Check out the schedule at a studio near you! Challenge a friend to go with you and combine an hour’s yoga with a walk around the park, healthy lunch, or coffee date.
Introductory sessions are also a great way to meet new people, especially if you have just moved to a new area. After all, you already have one thing in common!
You don’t need much equipment.
Runners need running shoes, and gyms require memberships, but yoga actually requires relatively little in the way of equipment. Most studios advise that you wear shorts or leggings with a t-shirt, and bare feet. The only thing you really need is a yoga mat.
The great news is, you don’t need your own mat to get started. Most studios will be happy to lend mats to new students who want to give yoga a try. Good teachers will provide you with everything you could possibly need – cork or foam blocks, straps, blankets and bolsters – to help you make the most of your yoga class, whether it’s your first time or your 100th time!
After a few sessions of yoga, buying your own mat is easy and affordable. Ready to go? Check out our list of the 5 best (and most affordable) yoga mats on Amazon!