Yoga has officially hit the mainstream. It’s hard to believe that just thirty or so years ago the word “yoga” was still taboo, associated primarily with mystical yogis and dreadlocked hippies. Luckily, yoga has broken free (for the most part) from its bohemian stigma, which is evident in the yoga studios that are becoming as commonplace in cities as coffee shops. Hitting the mainstream also means media hype, and magazines, television, and even yoga studios themselves promise weight loss, glowing beautiful skin, peaceful mind, good health, and of course that “yoga butt” as a result of practicing. However, there is more to yoga than tight black pants. Yoga is commonly understood as only referring to the physical asanas (poses), which leads to the belief that most of yoga’s benefits are limited to the body. In reality, yoga is so much more than about getting a yoga butt!
The word yoga itself means “to yoke”; it is the process of connecting the body, mind, and breath that is the essence of yoga, rather than the physical practice itself. In fact, the physical practice, or hatha, is only one of the six systems of yoga originally detailed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and is one of the many vehicle that brings the mind to the ultimate goal of samadhi, or transcendence. Raja (meditation), bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge), karma (action), kriya (cleansing techniques), and hatha (asanas) are all pathways to union, and are each suited to the different temperaments of individuals.
When yoga is seen as being purely physical, it can be easy to overlook the immense power that the practice of yoga has to unite the body, mind, and breath. This is what makes yoga different from traditional exercise; yoga has the unique capacity to bring your attention to the mind, body, and breath simultaneously, bringing all aspects of yourself into one line of focus. In other words, yoga harmonizes your entire being, leading to a healthy, limber, body, and calm, focused mind. And when you feel physically robust and mentally composed, it becomes natural and easy to show up to life with your full attention and energy.
While physical yoga is not the only yoga, it is indisputable that the benefits of a hatha yoga practice are infinite. Check out the top 10 benefits of yoga practice:
1. Holistic fitness. If you take a look around your gym, you will see people of all sizes pushing their bodies as hard as they can, all for the sake of achieving the “perfect” body. However, true health comes from not only being physically fit, but also mentally and emotionally balanced. In the words of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “Health is not a mere absence of disease. It is a dynamic expression of life – in terms of how joyful, loving and enthusiastic you are.” This is where yoga comes in: postures, pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation are a holistic fitness package. Yoga is a workout for not only your body, but for your mind and emotions, as well. By synchronizing the breath with the body, you bring your attention into the present moment. At the end of a session, you should expect to feel refreshed on all levels.
2. Weight loss. While yoga is not all about the body, weight loss is one inevitable effect of a regular practice. Besides being a form of exercise, yoga calms down the mind and impulsive tendencies, which leads to an enhanced ability to slow down and make healthier decisions when it comes to food. Feeling naturally calm also reduces the urge to reach for food as a reaction to stress. Plus, with a regular yoga practice we tend to become more sensitive to the kind of food our body asks for and when, which can lead to more intuitive decision-making. Sun Salutations, when practiced daily, are one of the best yogic tools for managing weight, as they work every part of the body while increasing the heart rate.
3. Stress relief. Even practicing yoga for just a few minutes can rid your body and mind of the stress that has accumulated throughout your day. With the modern world being as hectic as it is, the fact that most people live sedentary lives only increases the buildup of stress in the mind. We spend the majority of the day with our attention focused on the events happening outside of ourselves. When we take the time, even just five minutes, to focus our attention on the way our body feels, the content of our mind, and the quality of our breath, we enter into the present moment, which is a constant source of peace. And the more we take the time we take to release stress through yoga, the less stress we feel as we go about the rest of our day!
4. Inner peace. Have you ever yearned to escape from your daily life and be at a beach in Hawaii? While beaches are no doubt serene, we cannot simply go to Hawaii every time we need repose. Beach or no beach, peace is a state of being that can be cultivated within ourselves, and we can take a mini-vacation to experience this at any time of the day! Yoga is one of the best ways to calm a disturbed mind and bring ourselves to a place of peace. And the best part is, you don’t have to pay for plane ticket! Practicing yoga is like taking yourself on a small holiday every day of the week.. The more you practice and connect with your feelings of inner peace, the more your daily routine will seem as fun as a vacation.
5. Improved immunity. Our body, mind, and spirit are inextricably connected, meaning any imbalance in the body affects the mind (think a sore back causing mental agitation). Similarly, disharmony in the mind can manifest as an ailment in the body (think irritable bowel syndrome). Yoga poses massage the internal organs, strengthen muscles, and increase circulation, all of which detoxify the body. Yoga also increases circulation of the lymphatic system (lymph is a clear, watery fluid that moves bacteria and viruses out of the body). Breathing techniques and meditation also release stress and improve immunity.
6. Living with greater awareness. When awake, the mind is constantly involved in activity and often swings from the past to the future, causing you to miss out on the present moment. By simply being aware of this tendency of the mind, we can actually save ourselves from getting stressed or worked up and instead can relax the mind. When practicing yoga, because your attention is focused on the most present parts of yourself (your body and breath), you create a state of increased awareness, which brings the mind to the present moment, where it can stay happy and focused.
7. Better relationships. Yoga can even help improve your relationship with your spouse, parents, friends and loved ones. And no, you don’t have to do acroyoga to experience the relationship benefits of yoga (though it doesn’t hurt!). When your mind is relaxed, happy, and content, you are better able to be present for others and sensitive to your own behavior and how it affects those around you. Yoga and meditation help to maintain and happy and positive state of mind, and those effects extend out to your ability to listen, be attentive, and have compassion.
8. Increased energy. Do you feel completely drained out by the end of the day? We live in a fast-paced world that places increasing demands on our mental and physical energy, not to mention to constant flow of information available at our fingertips on our phones and computers. A few minutes of yoga everyday provides the secret to feeling fresh and energetic even after a long day. The breath is naturally energizing, as it oxygenates the blood and brain. Taking just a few minutes to move your body can wake you up and even kick your caffeine habit!
9. Better flexibility & posture. This one is obvious, but important! Practicing yoga regularly will automatically leave you with a body that is strong, supple and flexible. A regular yoga practice stretches and tones the muscles and helps improve posture. Yoga brings mental awareness to the body, which can lead to an increased awareness of posture throughout the day.
10. Better intuition. When we practice yoga, we activate and communicate with all the parts of our body, creating coherence in our brain and integration in our entire system. Because of this increased ability to listen to our bodies and minds, yoga and meditation have the power to improve our intuitive ability in a way that allows us to effortlessly realize what decisions are best to make. It works. You only need to experience it yourself.
It is important to remember that these benefits come with a regular practice. So keep practicing! The more you integrate yoga into your daily routine, the more profoundly you will experience its benefits!
While a regular yoga practice can result in increased health, know that it is not a substitute for medical treatment. It is important to learn and practice yoga postures under the supervision of a trained teacher. In the case of a medical condition, practice yoga postures after consulting a doctor. Find an Sri Sri Yoga course at an Art of Living Center near you.