Yoga began as a sacred form of worship and a way to reach enlightenment by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization more than 5,000 years ago in northern India.
In recent years, it has gained traction in Western cultures as it transformed and adapted to promote longevity and quality of life, however, it’s often dismissed as a “fitness fad” or reason for women to wear extremely comfortable pants all day.
What you might not realize is that yoga actually has astonishing health benefits that go far beyond a flat stomach and toned body.
- Increased Flexibility
With so many yoga poses focusing on increased flexibility, you might be wondering why there is so much attention on flexibility.
Flexibility is just the term used to describe the range of use our muscles have–if you have little flexibility, you’re not using your muscles to their full potential. Our muscles naturally lose strength through lack of use and even loss as we age, which leads to aches, pains and stiffness in our joints.
Consistent practice of yoga, in any form, will help you slowly stretch and strengthen muscles you didn’t even know you had, extend their range, and increase your flexibility to give you a strong body.
- Additional Strength Training
While free weights and machines at the gym definitely have a place in your strength training circuit, yoga also holds its own for building muscle.
Yoga poses like chair pose or the humble plank feel easy enough at first, but after just 30 seconds of holding (and probably for a few days after), you’ll notice it’s not just your arms and legs that are burning. As with most yoga poses, your entire body is engaged, and you’re often supporting your own body weight.
Think of yoga as free weights, but you’re lifting the weight of your own body!
- Better Posture
Posture is more than just old-fashioned dinner table manners–it actually informs how well (or how poorly) your muscles and ligaments are aligned in your body.
Good posture ensures muscles are in their correct place and you’re not placing undue stress on any one muscle or muscle group. Unaddressed poor posture can not only cause muscle strains and injury, but can also lead to digestive and breathing problems in the long term.
- Protection From Injury
As already mentioned with flexibility and posture, yoga actively keeps your muscles aligned correctly in the body, with each muscle in its intended place and being used within its full range.
One benefit of this is protection from injury, with many runners and top athletes engaging yoga as part of their injury-prevention toolkit. For instance, a long distance runner may use poses like standing forward bend or low lunge as a means of keeping the muscles between the hamstring and knee strong and flexible to prevent a serious knee injury.
- Lowered Blood Pressure
Yoga is equal emphasis on focused stretching and focused breathing. While overall fitness can certainly contribute to lowered blood pressure, research shows that focused breathing can provide immediate and long-term positive effects on blood pressure.
This breathing technique in yoga is called pranayama, which translates as “control of life force”, and is the incorporation of intentional breathing with various poses. Although this controlled breathing temporarily causes blood vessels to widen, research indicates that, over time, it can continue to keep low.
- Stress Management
“Stress sends the entire physical system into overdrive,” says Garrett Sarley, president and CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Mass. “The muscles tense, the heart beats faster, breathing patterns change, and if the cause of stress isn’t discontinued, the body secretes more hormones that increase blood sugar levels, raising blood pressure. Yoga is one of the few stress-relief tools that has a positive effect on all the body systems involved.
Several studies on the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment for depression and anxiety provide compelling evidence of the practice’s benefits. Some of these studies focus solely on the effects of frequent yoga on women, while others take a play a large role at the area to provide the most complete picture possible.
Participants in these studies reported lower stress levels, improved mood, and relaxed nerves in every case.
- Effective Pain Relief
Numerous studies have been done on how yoga can specifically help alleviate low-back pain, although, as we’ve already seen, when the body begins to work as it was intended, undue stresses to joints and muscles are reduced and related pains alleviated.
If you’re experiencing chronic pain, it is absolutely worth consulting with your doctor about incorporating yoga into your pain management program. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has consistently found that patients who practiced yoga for three or more months experienced significant and sustained improvements, even more than usual medical care.