Bringing Your Body to Balance
The benefits of yoga transcend just getting fit. With this not-just-for-women exercise, you'll most likely hone your mental focus, rid your system of toxins, and even be able to touch your toes.
Yoga has been touted as a powerful, life-changing, even miracle-working way to take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. The myriad health and wellness benefits attributed to yoga — weight loss, heart disease protection, alleviation of depression, and more — are enough to get almost anyone on the mat. But does it really work?
Nearly 25 million Americans do some form of yoga, according to recent studies from the National Institutes of Health and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. That’s a lot of sun salutations and downward dogs.
Yoga started in India 5,000 years ago and comes from the Sanskrit work “yuj,” meaning “to unite or integrate.”
We spoke with Tulsa yoga instructor Andrea C. Neil, who teaches studio and private lessons, and specializes in corporate yoga. A 200-hour registered yoga teacher (RYT), Neil is scheduled to achieve 500 hours of professional training by May 2018. She’s also a Trauma Informed Yoga teacher (TIYT). Her main area of interest is in helping those who suffer from chronic stress related to the workplace and everyday life. She has seen firsthand how yoga improves lives.
“Some of the key benefits of yoga?” Neil asks with a smile. “There are a billion.”
While we’re not going to list that many benefits here, we’re sharing several of the most important ways yoga can benefit you — starting from the moment you hit the mat. Let this list dispel the myths, answer your questions, and inspire you to get to the yoga studio and work on your body and mind.
Yoga is for everyone
We know what you’re thinking — you must be fit, young, even female, to practice yoga. Not true. “We see lots of images of flexible, perfectly shaped, perfectly coiffed, perfectly dressed young folks doing yoga, which is great for them,” says Neil. “But yoga is for every body type. You do not have to compare your body or your yoga practice to anyone else, ever.” Many studios around Green Country feature instructors of different body types, teaching levels from easy to hard, making it easy to find the right class for you.
Improves physical health
While any type of exercise can help improve our physical health, yoga has some cool physical benefits. For starters, yoga has been shown to reduce blood pressure, which is important for cardiovascular health. Yoga also reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines: proteins that cause harmful inflammation in the body, the precursor to many other illnesses.
Better flexibility and balance
Contrary to popular misconceptions, you don’t have to be super-flexible before you start a yoga practice. In fact, yoga is helpful precisely because it slowly and carefully trains the body toward increasing flexibility.
“The thing I hear most often is, ‘Oh, I’m not flexible enough to do yoga!’ Well, why do you think yoga practitioners are so flexible? Because they do yoga,” says Neil. And since flexibility and good balance help us avoid injuries, yoga is a great way to help our bodies age well.
Builds endurance and strength
Yoga isn’t a pseudoscientific fringe activity. It’s a legitimate form of exercise, as proven by the way it can tone your body if you practice it with regular discipline. Poses like the “plank” (the “up” position of a pushup) and “chair” (a squat that you hold) work glutes, hamstrings, thighs, arms and more. A fit yoga body is a real thing, if you work to get there.
Offers the benefits of meditation
Yoga is more than a form of exercise; it’s also a form of meditation. It teaches practitioners to focus on the here and now, letting go of thoughts that cause stress and anxiety. Meditation has been proven to increase the brain’s gray matter. And it’s helpful at teaching us to reframe our emotional responses, giving us a greater sense of control and peace.
Helps you relax
This is a major benefit of yoga, says Neil. “In our culture, we are in a state of ‘fight or flight’ for long periods of time. This takes a huge toll on our immune system, and the proper functioning of all major systems of the body,” she says. “When we do certain types of yoga, we can engage the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing our body to relax. And when we relax, our bodies have a chance to heal, renew and reenergize.”
Yoga’s stress-reducing power seems to have an added benefit to our bodies — weight loss. Studies indicate that by reducing our chronic stress and helping us be calmer and more in control of our emotional responses, yoga can also help us interrupt stress-related eating habits like chowing down on foods high in sugar and fat. And disrupting that habit is an important factor in keeping off weight.
Chronic pain relief
Because a well-trained yoga instructor can help people work carefully through body twists and other lower back and hip exercises, yoga is very successful at decreasing chronic back pain and hip or joint pain. And given how much we sit at office desks or hunch our shoulders while driving around town, we need activities that stretch out our hips and backs. Yoga is great for this.
Another added benefit of yoga’s meditative aspects is increased self-awareness. Yoga invites the practitioner to notice how their body feels, as well as where their mind is wandering off to, and even whether or not they are breathing deeply. As a result, says Neil, “we can learn to listen to our bodies, considering what is best and what feels good. Oftentimes in our culture, we ignore this.” Yoga helps us balance out that tendency and find a better way forward.
Making the Most of Yoga
Now that you're convinced about the benefits of yoga and you're ready to test it out for yourself, Neil has a few tips to help you get started.
- Try different types of yoga to see what you like. “There are so many different kinds of yoga to choose from,” Neil says. “If you don’t like hot yoga, then don’t do it. There are plenty of places that offer non-heated, or warm classes. Want gentle yoga? It’s out there. Or is power more your style? Tulsa has that too.”
- Tell the instructor if you have physical restrictions. Yoga poses can always be modified if you have lower back problems, arthritis, limited range of motion or other injuries. They can also modify poses for you if you’re pregnant. It’s best to let the instructor know before class begins, so they can coach you properly.
- Use the buddy system. “If you need a little support,” says Neil, “invite a friend or family member to come with you. Some studios even have yoga buddy memberships.”
- Ask for a tour or orientation if you’re new. Starting up yoga for the first time may seem intimidating, but yoga instructors can ease you into things. “If you are nervous, arrive early to class, and explain to the teacher that you are new,” says Neil. “More than likely, they will be happy to show you around and show you the ropes.”
- Don’t compare yourself to others. One of the great things about yoga is that it respects the individual and is a judgment-free exercise style. “Remember, we all started somewhere,” says Neil. You don’t have to be as flexible or as skilled as anyone else. You just have to do you.
- Start out gently. If you are brand spanking new to yoga, start with a gentle class. “These classes go at a slower pace, giving you time to get your bearings,” she says. “Taking it slow and learning proper alignment will decrease the likelihood of injury, and increase your strength and flexibility at a faster pace.”
- All you need is a yoga mat and comfy clothes. “Most studios have mats you can borrow or rent, but it’s nice to have your own if you think you will be practicing regularly,” says Neil. “So, investing in one you like is a good idea. As for clothing, just wear something that will allow you a greater range of motion — something stretchy.”
Andrea C. Neil
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