Yoga, as a movement and lifestyle, has really grown in the past 10 years in the Western world. It went from an almost women-only activity to a common good for both men and women. It went from fluffy and hippie to hip and a necessity for our mind and body. Basically it went from underground to mainstream. To me it feels great to realize that so many other people have seen and felt the benefits of yoga.
However, I still often get the question: what is different about yoga when compared to other sports? Or: How is yoga better for you than sport X? To be honest, I prefer not to answer this question. For the simple reason that yoga is no better than any other sport, just like no person is any better than another person. What I can answer are the known benefits of yoga and how it helps me.
There are different categories to answer this question: mind, body and spirit. In this blog I focus on the body and how that works technically, where possible I will share my own experiences.
As I started doing yoga I noticed that my body transformed. It got more lean and fit. In yoga we spent a lot of time stretching, flexing and strengthening our bodies. We always put an equal effort on the left and right side of our body, as well as to the top and bottom.
Most beginners tell me, I won’t be very good at yoga, because I am not very flexible. First of all, yoga is not about flexibility, but about your state of mind while performing your poses, or when you meditate. Having said that, when I started doing yoga the first improvements I noticed were in my flexibility. The first class I found it a struggle to touch my toes, or even worse, do a backbend. Doing these stretching exercises weekly quickly showed me progress. My body was loosening, because I was able to breath to the discomfort and therefore able to let go of the tensions in my body (mainly my hip area). The pain and aches were diminishing as I was gradually becoming more flexible. Nowadays we don’t stretch and flex our bodies often. We spend our days behind our computer, shortening our muscles around the hip, we then get into a car, or on our bikes, to then sit down behind the tv or to have dinner. We need to deliberately stretch our bodies, we need to put in the effort. A great thing is that we can exactly feel where we need the most attention. As soon as we start stretching, our body hurts and aches, in that moment and the days after. It also gives quick results, giving us the energy and power to continue.
In yoga we strengthen our bodies with our own body weight. Usually I see women having an easier time with the flexibility, men have more strength. Same goes for me. Building strength is still my main focus. In life we need both, strength and flexibility – this needs to be equally developed. If you only have flexibility you are like a twig, fragile and easily imbalanced. With only strength you are like a Michelin doll, pumped up with no space to move your body.
I am part of the first category, I have too much flexibility. And even though that allows me to elegantly do the poses (asanas), I really learned that I often need to take a step back and simply squeeze. The squeezing helps to build strength and because of that I have become a lot stronger. I am better in balance poses, headstand, handstand and poses on one leg. This is due to my core muscles (the muscles around your hips, belly and sacrum).
In yoga we go through a full range of movements: forward bends, backward bends, twists. All movements are being done on both the right and left side of our body. Not a single part is neglected. By moving the joints you keep the joint cartilage elastic and lubricated, this is the only way for your cartilage to take in the nutrients it needs. This is extremely important to ensure that your cartilage will not wear out, which prevents bone-on-bone action. This counts for every joint: ankle, knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, neck and the vertebras of the spine. Doing yoga on a daily basis, for me means a lot of joint movement and a lot of possible injuries. To warm up my joints before a class I do a rolling the joints session (credits go to my beloved teacher David Lurey), to prevent myself from getting hurt.
Circulation of blood and oxygen
Yoga helps to improve your blood circulation and it increases the amount of oxygen to our cells. By making a forward-bend, we rush blood to our head, which helps us to release headaches and sinus infections because the ‘old’ blood is replaced by new oxygenated blood once we come back up and we are able to release the built up pressure. By twisting we wring out venous blood from our organs and by releasing we allow new, fresh oxygenated blood in. Inverted poses reverse the direction of all the fluids in our body. Blood from the legs and the pelvis makes it way to our heart, which in turn has to work harder to pump the blood the other way around, and to get new fresh, oxygenated blood into our lungs. Because the oxygen in our blood cells helps against blood cloths swelling, yoga helps to decrease the risk of heart attacks, swelling in your legs and kidney problems. My direct experience with the circulation in my body is that the circulation in my fingers and feet improved tremendously. I used to always have very cold fingers, especially in wintertime they sometimes turned blue and seemed almost dead. This problem has completely disappeared.
Yoga helps to boost immunity at a cellular level. It helps to boost our overall health, since we increase the amount of oxygen in our body, we take good care of our skeletal system (bones and joints) and we improve the circulation of our body, which helps the organs to function at its best. I used to be sick at least 3 times per year. Flu, fever, cold, you name it. Good years 3 times, bad years countless times. Now, I am hardly ever sick. Obviously I have days where I can clearly feel my body is fighting a flu, but it rarely happens that I actually get it, and it usually doesn’t last longer then a day.
Changed nerve system
Back in the days, when offices did not exist, we 0nly had two responses to stress: fight or flight. Nowadays, we cannot fight against our boss, neither can we run away from them. By focusing on your breathing while doing challenging yoga poses, you can learn to slow down your breath and to remain focused and present. This lowers our heart-rate, blood pressure and increases the blood flow to our intestines and reproductive organs. In other words, you create a mechanism in your body to calm down and restore your body. My reactions in stressfull situations have changed a lot. When I notice I get stressed, I also notice I need more meditation and yoga. Which sometimes proves to be more difficult, less time available means less time to do my practice. But these are the perfect practices to work on my nervous system and to calm myself down. In Vipassana it is said that when you get into stressful and difficult situations you cannot do it all good in once, but what counts is the time you get stuck in your emotion. You work on decreasing that time. And that is what I am doing, decreasing my moments of stressed and intense emotions.
Drainage of your lymph nodes is caused by the contraction and stretching of the muscle and by massaging our internal organs through twisting the body. This helps your system to fight infections, to drain the toxins in our body and to destroy dangerous (cancer) cells.
There are many more physical benefits to describe, but these are the once I know of and am able to explain and describe. The next blog I will go more in-depth in the benefits for the mind and spirit.