This article first appeared in yoga.about.com and is written by Ann Pizer
You’ve probably heard that yoga is good for you. Maybe you have even tried it and discovered that it makes you feel better. A regular practice can offers all kinds of mental and physical health benefits. Some, like improved flexibility, are clearly evident. Others, including mental clarity and stress reduction, may be more subtle but are just as powerful. When put together, all the benefits below contribute to an increased feeling of well-being, which helps explain why so many people find yoga so addictive.
Flexibility: Moving and stretching in new ways will help you become more flexible, bringing greater range of motion to tight areas. Over time, you can expect to gain flexibility in your hamstrings, back, shoulders, and hips.
As we age, flexibility naturally decreases, which leads to pain and immobility. Yoga can ameliorate this process.
Strength: Many yoga poses require you to support the weight of your own body in new ways, including balancing on one leg (such as in Tree Pose) or supporting yourself with your arms (such as in Downward Facing Dog). Holding poses over the course of several breaths also builds strength.
Muscle tone: As a by-product of getting stronger, you can expect to see increased muscle tone. Yoga helps shape long, lean muscles.
Balance: Improved balance is one of the most important benefits of yoga as you get older. Poses where you stand on one leg and, for more advanced students, inversions, are great ways to build core strength.
Joint Health: People with arthritis often see marked improvement in their pain and mobility with regular gentle yoga practice. People with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome can also benefit from specific types of yoga exercises.
Pain Prevention: Increased flexibility and strength can help prevent the causes of some types of back pain.
Many people who have back pain spend a lot of time sitting at a computer or driving a car. That can cause tightness and spinal compression, which you can begin to address with yoga. Yoga also improves your alignment, both in and out of class, which helps prevent many other types of pain.
Better Breathing: Most of us take shallow breaths and don’t give much thought to how we breathe. Yoga breathing exercises, called pranayama, focus the attention on the breath and teach us how to take deeper breaths, which benefits the entire body. Certain types of breath can also help clear the nasal passages (helpful for people with allergies) and even calm the central nervous system, which has both physical and mental benefits.
Mental Calmness: Yoga asana practice is intensely physical. Concentrating so intently on what your body is doing has the effect of bringing a calmness to the mind. Yoga also introduces you to meditation techniques, such as watching the breath and how to disengage from your thoughts. These skills can prove to be very valuable in intense situations off the mat, like childbirth, a bout of insomnia, or when having an anxiety attack.
Stress Reduction: Physical activity is good for relieving stress, and this is particularly true of yoga. Because of the concentration required, your daily troubles, both large and small, seem to melt away during the time you are on the mat. This provides a much-needed break from your stressors, as well as helping to put your problems into perspective. The emphasis yoga places on being in the moment can also help relieve stress, as you learn not to dwell on past events or anticipate the future. You will leave a yoga class feeling less stressed than when you started. Reducing stress can also make a big difference for people struggling with infertility.
Body Awareness: Doing yoga will give you an increased awareness of your own body. You are often called upon to make small, subtle movements to improve your alignment. Over time, this will increase your level of comfort in your own body. This can lead to improved posture and greater self-confidence.
Ann Pizer began doing yoga while living in New York City as an antidote to the stress of big city life. She became a registered yoga teacher in 2004, upon the completion of a 200-hour teacher-training course.