Opinions on yoga are about as diverse and interesting as the multitude of creative poses (or asanas) that comprise the practice itself. Some people write yoga off as a bunch of goofy contortions guaranteed to embarrass you in front of the opposite sex, and possibly rip your pants open from stretching too far. But, the majority of educated opinions on the topic agree that yoga possesses both real and significant physiological, psychological, biochemical, and spiritual benefits to those who engage in the practice.
Although it is tough to study precise, objective indicators of just how good yoga is for you, there is a plethora of scientific research taking place to figure out the many ways that yoga can enhance your quality of life. There are certain obvious benefits to the practice of yoga that can be observed at the surface level: increased flexibility, core strength, muscle toning, etc. But there are also many deeper benefits associated with the practice of yoga that are often overlooked or that are simply unknown to the general public.
The very act of bending, folding, and stretching one’s body has a wonderful massage affect on the internal organs, which subsequently translates to increased functionality and regularity in many of our vital organs, including regulating our digestive systems and cardiovascular activities. Breath control, which is a pivotal aspect of any yoga practice, forms the base for meditation, concentration, and relaxation, all of which are integral elements of doing yoga. Resulting effects on the respiratory and circulatory systems of the body, including: decreased heart rate and blood pressure, increased lung capacity and ability to hold one’s breath, and increased physical endurance levels. It has also been reported that people who practice yoga on a regular basis have demonstrated increases in immune system performance and endocrine function.
From a biochemical perspective, yoga has been found to have detectable, positive effects on many key constituents of our bodies. Some examples of this include: lowering blood sugar and sodium, lowering LDL cholesterol (the kind of cholesterol you don’t want too much of), increasing HDL cholesterol (the kind of cholesterol you DO want more of), decreasing triglycerides, increasing hemoglobin, white blood cells, and much, much more.
Certain aspects of the many challenging asanas can also help to improve hand-eye coordination, balance, dexterity, reaction time, energy levels, and depth perception.
Yoga entails the linking of body and mind, control of your thoughts, your body, and most importantly, your breath, all of which can encourage habits of mind capable of noticeable increases in mood and ability to concentrate as well as memory retention and mental energy. Routine yoga has even been recommended for woman who are currently going through menopause as it has been found to have regulatory effects on many hormones, leading to decreases in hot flashes, mood swings, and other symptoms associated with menopause.
The Sanskrit word for health is swAsthyam, which is composed of the words for ‘me’ and the word for ‘established’, so health just means being established in oneself. Bearing this in mind, when was the last time you felt like your mind and body were properly grounded in one-another? Health is and will always be a very relative state of being, as one’s health is generally tracked in comparison to the greater population, but is most importantly measured by it’s variation within one individual. It is changes in your own personal health that make you go see a doctor, and yoga has been found to regulate the degree of such changes, leaving you with a far more balanced and stable state of life.
But before everyone rushes out to their local, warm, hard-wooded yoga studio, it is important to remember that yoga is a practice; a continually engaging and growing experience that requires both patience and dedication for best results. You can get hurt doing yoga, so be careful when starting out. Make sure to get to class early and check in with yourself, see what injuries or ailments might restrict your practice that day, and also be honest with yourself in terms of how far you want to push your body on any given day. And don't forget to drink lots of water after practice to rehydrate yourself! A yoga studio isn’t like the gym where people are out to see who’s there to be seen, or which guy can do the heaviest bicep curls... Yoga is about the self. It is about focus, control, and self-empowerment. It is about you.
So get a yoga mat, get out to your local yoga studio, and get sweaty!
There’s a new life (and body) awaiting you on the other side of that first yoga practice, and I will even go so far as to promise that first-timers will walk out of their first yoga class with a new outlook on their body and their approach to exercise. To the veterans of the practice, keep doing what you are doing, you know its good for you because you can feel it, and your body thanks you every time you pretzel it up in lotus pose, or stretch it into bridge... Keep up the good work!
Here are some more in-depth looks at the benefits of yoga:
Medical Section Columnist, Kurtis Morrish:
My name is Kurtis Morrish. I graduated from Cal last year as an Integrative Biology major. I am now in the process of applying to medical school in the hopes of one day serving people as a family doctor. By no means do I write to you as an M.D., but I have extensive experience doing all kinds of scientific research; boiling-down long, dry, mumbo-jumbo-dense medical journals into a reduction that is a little sweeter, useful, and hopefully informative for you. I hope to learn as much from my writing as you do, so please hit me up with further questions, concerns, or comments!