How does yoga benefit you physically?

Benefits-of-Yoga-Infographic

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.

Body
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.

Flexibility
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.

Strength
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).

Healthy joints
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.

Immune System
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.

Lymph drainage
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.

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Office yoga in 5 minutes

Office Yoga Complete

To be able to do yoga, you don’t necessarily need a mat or a calm and quiet room. Calming down your mind in a stressful situation is very important, no matter what the conditions are or the place you are in. The picture shows a sequence of yoga postures that you can do in your office chair. It will take about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on how long you hold the poses. A perfect quick escape from a hectic moment at work! And believe me, taking these 5 minutes to calm your mind, will save you time later on because you have a clear mind and be stress-free.

So what are the basics you should know when doing the postures on the chair:

  • Follow the sequence as reading a book. Go from left to right and then a row down.
  • Make sure to work on both sides of your body. If you have twisted to your right, or took up your right leg, then do the same for the left.
  • Sit on the front end of your seat, so your back is not touching the back of the chair. By doing so you force your spine to stay active and upright.
  • Have both your feet flat on the ground and knees 90 degrees over your ankles.
  • With the first and the last photo you take 3 deep breaths in to your belly and all the way out (through the nose). You can take more breaths depending on your need and time.
  • Let your breath initiate a movement. So when you inhale make a movement upwards. When you exhale make a movement downward or twist.
  • If you feel uncomfortable standing up behind your chair, then skip these 3 poses and continue with the seated ones as shown in the sequence.

But most importantly, enjoy, breathe and clear your mind!

How yoga helps to reduce stress (the scientific explanation)

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Ardha Padmasana – Half Lotus Pose. 17th of May in Inothim.

Stress is all around us, everyday. If it isn’t because we are stressed ourselves, it is because our friend is stressed and stays home to get rest, people in traffic are stressed because they need to get somewhere fast, our colleague stresses over a deadline, in other words: Stress is there, always!

People often tell me they like practicing yoga because it reduces their stress, it calms them down. And even though I know from my own experience that this is true, I couldn’t help but wonder how it actually works in our body and brain. Why does yoga reduce stress?

In the past few years a lot of research has been done on the effects of yoga. And while most of it showed that people practicing yoga reduced their stress levels, there was never a clear understanding of how that happened.

Controlling the breath
One thing they agree on is that the breathing used in combination with the postures help to reduce stress and to be able to deal with stress in our daily life. The scientific explanation of why controlling your breath is beneficial is that with every inhalation your nervous system goes into a ‘sympathetic activation’, which means it goes into a flight modus and brings up the stressors, basically it brings up the heat. This also shows in the increase of the heart beat. With every exhalation the opposite happens. Your nervous system goes into a parasympathetic activation, which means it calms you down and cools down the stressors. Which also shows in the slowing down of your heartbeat.

In other words, in our bodies we have a built in mechanism to control our stressors and heartbeat, the breath. In yoga you learn to control your breathing and synchronize it with a movement. So by controlling your breath & slowing down your breathing, you bring down your heart beat and come into this parasympathetic activation.

We might all have had an experience of stress, where we felt our heart racing, breathing fast and our mind racing at a 1000 kilometers per hour. Now imagine controlling your breathing, by focusing on slowly breathing in so you diminish the sympathetic activation and slowly breathing out to calm down even more. If you would do that in a stressful situation, you would be able to think more clearly in a short period of time. And you would not be stressed, but enjoying the energy that is created by the situation to use it for the better.

Challenging yoga postures
Another explanation is given in a research done by Kerstin Khattab, about the benefits of Iyengar Yoga. He found that when people practice a challenging posture, such as an arm balance or a headstand, and remain focused on a stable breath, then you are training your mind to remain calm in a stressful situation. You teach your nervous system to move quickly from a challenging & stressful situation to a calm state of mind, and store that response for later use This increases your own flexibility of moving in between these two states of mind, which helps you to deal with stress in your daily life.

Effects on genes and brain activity
The first scientist that also showed how yoga affects the genes and brain activity, is John Denninger – a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He did a five year study with chronically stressed people and found that techniques used in yoga (pranayama: breathing exercises; and asanas: postures) can switch genes on and off, that are linked to stress and the immune system. This study showed that one session of Kundalini yoga was enough to get a positive response from the genes involved in energy metabolism and insulin secretion and helped to reduce the response of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress. In other words it helps you to relax and diminish the stress you feel in your body.

What does it mean?
To me this means the following: the more stressed you are, or the more stressful situations you encounter, the more you need to learn to control your breathing and calm your mind. You need to find a way to bring down your heart beat and the effect that it has on your nervous system. For many people, yoga turned out to be a very effective way to do so.  In yoga we come to the mat to learn something new about ourselves, so not to compete, not to be on a fast pace and not to be with scattered thoughts. We focus on our own body, boundaries, restrictions, thoughts and breath. We are the masters of our body: we allow stress and we decide the level of stress. When you become aware of this fact, you know that you can change the situation; it is just a matter of practice and mindset.