The many health benefits of yoga

Today’s guest post on the health benefits of yoga is written by the wonderful by Meera Watts: a yoga teacher, entrepreneur and mom. Her writing on yoga and holistic health has appeared in Elephant Journal, Yoganonymous, OMtimes and more. She’s also the founder and owner of Siddhi Yoga International. Enjoy, everyone!

We’ve all heard that yoga is great for our health. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that has raving (relaxed) fans in all four corners of the world. Our instagram accounts are jammed with pictures of tightly toned bodies demonstrating yogic acrobatics of almost unreal proportions, and the wellness industry is awash with gurus touting the wondrous benefits of yogic philosophy. So why is this ancient practice so good for us? What are all these health benefits of yoga that people keep touting?

What is yoga really about?

Yoga is a union of the mind, body and spirit. It’s about awareness, and the physical asana practice is one of several key elements of yoga. The poses and posture learned, combined with daily meditation and breathing practice, work to strengthen the body and mind. We are then better placed to cope with daily fluctuations in mood and negative external triggers.

Yoga teaches us control. And through this higher level of control, we can learn to react less to our external world, thus having a more serene and enjoyable life.

Not only are there general physical and mental health benefits to yoga, it is also used as a type of complementary therapy. Yoga therapy can help with digestive illnesses, mental health problems and other major diseases like arthritis. It is understood that yoga can even help with the stress and side effects of cancer treatment.

Yoga promotes flexibility, strength and weight control

Yoga asanas, from downward facing dog to warrior one, all have specific benefits and each posture has a reason for being.

When you hold a pose, you are creating an isometric muscle stretch. This is a static stretch that works to activate large muscle groups deep in your body. Isometric stretching is strengthening.  As muscles become stronger, they are better able to support our bone network, which is especially important as we grow older and our bone density begins to decline. For example, a stronger core will support a weakening spine that might otherwise be prone to rounding. It will protect brittle bones and stronger muscles can stabilize joints, reducing the chance of injury.

The action of asana, results in muscles become more efficient in burning calories, aiding weight loss, as well as giving the appearance of a taller, leaner body. By lengthening muscle fibres, flexibility is increased. Flexibility is necessary for good posture, feeling comfortable…and let’s face it, a great sex life!

Theres a reason why yoga is seen as the key to eternal youth.

How does yoga differ from other exercise?

You might be thinking, “I can achieve these benefits with plenty of other forms of exercise”. Some people only see yoga as a one-dimensional thing or “just a bit of stretching”. That’s why it’s important to talk about the other elements of yoga that also provide great benefits.

Not only are you required to hold a pose in a specific way; you are also required to hold your gaze at a certain spot during the postures. This drishti has an important meaning linked to it; it helps teach control. For example, when your drishti is directed to the floor it is said to help quiet the mind. Drishti improves concentration and brings us back into the present moment; it is extremely powerful when combined correctly with asanas in improving mental health and clarity of thought.

Pranayama and Meditation

The final elements of yoga are pranayama, breathing exercises and meditation.  There are various pranayama techniques, each with their own benefits. Some are good for cooling the body, others can help rid the body of toxins and massage the internal organs to aid digestion.

Meditation has been proven as an effective tool for stress management. Sitting in silence for ten minutes can help with chronic pain issues such as migraine headaches, as well as recurrent problems such as insomnia. Again, it is about increasing the mind-body connection and fostering a feeling of empowerment and self-control in the individual.

Yoga as Therapy

Yoga therapy can be administered by yogis, physiotherapists or psychotherapists, but the essence is the same. Yoga therapy uses the ancient knowledge to aid healing. Yoga therapy as an industry is still relatively new, so it is best to do thorough due diligence, before you embark on any course.

Yoga therapists will employ a variety of techniques. They may help you to deepen your physical practice or give you existential guidance based on yogic philosophy. They may marry ancient techniques with newer methodologies such as physiotherapy or counselling.

As yoga therapists can help with a broad base of physical and mental conditions, your checklist should include the following questions:

  • How much experience does the therapist have with your particular issue?
  • Are you able to see testimonials from previous clients?
  • What is their background, how long have they been practicing?
  • What is their own private daily practice?

I can’t stress the absolute importance of the last question. The ideal therapist will not only help you during your coaching sessions, but they will also teach you how to incorporate yoga into your daily life. It is after regular, consistent, daily practice that the powerful and transformative health benefits of yoga are really seen. Ideally, you want someone with a strong daily practice of their own. They will be motivated to help you set up a routine you can do independently, once your sessions end.

Yoga therapy is about helping the patient help themselves, so ensure you have a taster session before you commit. You need to feel at ease and comfortable with the therapist to get the most value.

Areas where yoga therapy can help

A great example of the health benefits of yoga is the positive impact it has on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Studies have shown regular practice can help to reduce symptoms, pain and help IBS patients with their coping ability.

Yoga therapy has also been shown to help in the following areas:

Yoga for life

Yoga should be seen as an additional therapy that can work to reduce pain, improve function and create a more positive mental state.

The true health benefits of yoga come from the transformative effects of daily practice and this must be your end game when embarking on your yoga journey.