The Practice of Yoga is over 5000 years old. It continues to enrich our lives today. The essence of yoga is achieving a balance of mind and body through the integration of the postures, the breath and meditation. There are, however, many other benefits of yoga that promote health, wellbeing and an improved quality of life, all enjoyed with self-love and kindness.
1. CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM - A regular yoga practice builds cardiovascular endurance. During a class, the heart rate typically increases. Similar to other "cardio" exercises, over time the heart becomes stronger and more effective at delivering oxygen throughout the body, including to the muscles and joints. With stronger and more effective contractions of the heart, the pulse rate drops as less beats are needed to deliver oxygen throughout the body. There is also a lessening of the resistance to blood flow in the blood vessels reflected in a decrease in blood pressure.
2. RESPIRATORY SYSTEM - The breath is central to the practice of yoga. Listening and connecting to the breath promotes meditative states. Yogic breathing techniques also teach one how to optimize breathing capacity, thereby bringing more precious oxygen into the body that is necessary for the proper functioning of all of the organs and muscles. Since the heart is also a muscle, more effective breathing also maximizes the ability of it to work.
3. NERVOUS SYSTEM - One main goal of yoga is relaxation. The ability to relax is intimately connected to the part of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, consisting of sympathetic and parasympathetic components. The sympathetic system governs "the fight or flight response." When the proverbial caveman is confronted by a saber tooth tiger, regardless of his choice to fight or flee, his sympathetic nervous system diverts blood and oxygen to his muscles away from other parts of his body, like the digestive tract that aren't needed for him to survive the crisis. His heart and respiratory rates increase. Blood vessels dilate to deliver more blood to muscles. He becomes red and flushed as capillaries in the skin dilate to allow heat to escape, along with his perspiration. Even his hands become more "clammy" to facilitate holding a spear or climbing a tree. The sympathetic response is appropriate for times of danger. A problem arises when all of our stresses in life, big or small, trigger that response. Anxiety stems from feelings of being out of control or unsafe. Our culture can promote those feelings that soon become automatic and reflexive, feelings that don't serve us. We enter into chronic sympathetic overload. Yoga can eliminate that overload by tipping the scale towards the parasympathetic system or "the rest and digest" system. Yoga quiets the mind and gives us the clarity to more realistically assess the stressors in our lives. It allows us to enter into a safe place. Once our proverbial caveman is back in the safety of his cave, his heart and respiratory rates slow. Blood is diverted back to organs and functions in his body that promote his wellbeing. He is out of danger and, quite simply, he can relax. A regular practice of yoga can become your own personal sanctuary. It allows one to be in the moment, clear of regrets of the past and worries of the future. Even a single deep belly breath is enough to trigger the parasympathetic response.
4. DIGESTIVE SYSTEM - By promoting the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system, blood and oxygen are better delivered to the stomach, small intestines and colon. Chronic anxiety stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, reflected in poor bowel functioning. Yoga allows one to rest and digest.
5. ENDOCRINE SYSTEM - A regular yoga practice has been shown to cause the release of the so-called "happy hormones". These include serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. Serotonin and dopamine are the targets of many of the pharmacologic anti-depressants. Although not scientifically documented, perhaps yoga is a natural anti-depressant.
6. IMMUNE SYSTEM - Meditative practices, including yoga, can cause "the relaxation response". The aforementioned describes much of that response. Also part of that response is a boost in immunity. A regular yoga practice can cause a decrease in cytokines and other inflammatory molecules that cause and worsen disease, as well as leading to beneficial changes in the expression of genes involved with immunity. Regardless of the cause of a disease, stress can worsen symptoms and interfere with our ability to cope effectively.
7. MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM - Yoga has widespread benefits to the entire musculoskeletal system that are realized in increases in flexibility, strength and posture. Flexibility arises from the progressive stretching of muscle fibers, tendons, and ligaments. The stretching of the stiff connective tissues that hold our joints together increases mobility and range of motion. Strength arises from the isometric effects of sustaining the postures and the support of the body. Although we are often unaware of it as we practice, almost all of the postures activate and engage the core. Strengthening the core results in better posture, along with the conditioning of the spine, that can result in feelings of pride and confidence. One learns balance and grounding through yoga, both of which can prevent falls.
IMPROVED QUALITY OF LIFE
Clarity of one's true self, goals and dreams are all achievable through yoga. Peace of mind, honoring one's body and relaxation can all improve health and well-being. As such, yoga can allow for restorative sleep, better nutritional choices, increased energy and overall better self-care. Yoga can allow you to replace automatic reflexive thoughts and behaviors with positive affirmations. Losing the mind chatter gives you the opportunity to be mindful, be in the moment and embrace life.
Many talk of the light that each one of us possesses. Better physical and mental wellbeing lets that light shine so bright with positive energy that others will see and feel it. Yoga allows you to connect with the world and others. It allows you to have a better appreciation for all of the beauty that surrounds you, including in nature and the arts. More importantly, it allows you to access your inner beauty.
Some say that gratitude precedes the experience of all other positive emotions. Yoga provides an opportunity for self-reflection. Affirmations of gratitude not only trigger all of the above physiological responses, but also create a potential for personal growth and the wonderful experience of all the world has to offer. It has been said, "Happiness does not bring us gratitude. It is gratitude that brings us happiness."