Many people begin their yoga practice looking for a unique way to challenge their physical body or are searching for something different from the usual workout routines. Usually, the end goal for most who begin yoga as a workout routine is to lose weight or become more flexible. While both of these are definitely real results of a consistent yoga practice, there is something to be said about the rewards that have little to do with toning your abs and touching your toes. Here, I will speak to some of the benefits that go far past a better physical appearance.
Clarity of Mind and Self
When we practice yoga, we oftentimes leave class feeling very “zen.” But what does this feeling actually represent? For most of us, it’s usually a sense of relief or calm, relaxation, and an elated mood. Our thoughts have stopped chattering, our anxiety may have calmed, and we are somehow able to think a little bit more clearly. When we tune into our bodies and are fully in the present moment, we achieve a higher sense of clarity. Yoga helps to teach us how to focus on the now and on the internal, bringing anxious thoughts about the future to a halt, which usually results in a more calm and clear mind. In this state, we can begin to have more clarity around what to do when faced with important decisions, complicated relationships, or personal problems, thanks to the ability to lay aside emotional reactions or anxious, distracting thoughts. Having a consistent practice helps us embody this clearness of the mind more often, which usually leads to better decision-making and more self-awareness.
Connecting with the Breath
Breathing is something we may hardly ever think about. Oftentimes, the way we breathe goes completely unnoticed. Until we can’t, then we definitely notice. When we are stressed, anxious, feeling panic or fear, our breath is one of the first physical reactions to these emotions. It can become short, pressured, or even inaccessible. But our breath can also be a powerful tool to help restore our emotions and physical body back to a balanced state. Yoga teaches us to be mindful of our breathing, to pay attention to its depth and texture. In doing this, we begin to learn how to deepen our breathing, and how to use it to cultivate relaxation, alleviate anxiety, and bring the body back from panic or distress. Deep, mindful breathing can lower blood pressure, slow your heart rate, calm the nervous system, and help bring someone out of panic mode. Yoga helps enhance the awareness of our breath, and in turn teaches us how to harness its power and turn it into an ally.
Awareness of the Body
When you step foot into a yoga class, there are constant reminders to bring the attention back to the physical body. The instructor may cue to engage a muscle or straighten through a certain limb, or we may be in a pose that takes intense concentration on what the body is doing in order to hold it safely. As we continue our practice, we begin to notice that this focused body awareness will bleed into life outside of the yoga studio. When we routinely start becoming more present with our bodies, we quickly begin to notice when something is off. Things like bad posture, muscle pain, rounded shoulders, or a craned neck all become more obvious. As these physical maladies become more obvious to us, we will hopefully be quicker to remedy them. The practice of yoga helps us tune into what our bodies need, and thus alleviate pain at an earlier stage, compared to what we might have done had we not been paying attention.Instead of holding our bodies in a way that may prolong painful symptoms, yoga helps us notice an unhealthy pattern and fix it through different postures or movement. For example, poses like chest openers and backbends can begin to counter years of poor posture, heal back pain, and retrain us to sit and stand in a less detrimental way. Through yoga, the body begins to recognize what is good for it and what isn’t. This learning process helps us integrate healthy body patterns, and the more unnatural (and painful!) it will become to let your body sink into an unhealthy shape.
Yes, weight loss and flexibility are both rewarding outcomes of a consistent yoga practice, and who doesn’t want to shed a few pounds? However, I believe the outcomes that are related with emotional balance and well-being heavily outweigh the former. Yoga offers a chance to harness the enhanced awareness of the mind, body, and breath — all of which will serve us greatly long into our lives, and certainly long after we stop caring whether we lost those 5 pounds or not.