Benefits of Yoga
You’ve heard that yoga is a great way to relieve stress, and you may even have a friend or family member who has become a yoga devotee and raves about the way the practice makes him or her feel. For these reasons, yoga is likely on your list of things you "should" try at some point. But because the thought of being a beginner is daunting and the variety of styles is confusing, you haven’t quite gotten around to trying it…yet.
To help encourage you to take the plunge, we’ve listed the major benefits and given you a road map of the most popular styles of yoga, with classes that are widely available.
Yoga: A well-rounded workout
Contrary to popular belief, yoga is not just about stretching: It improves all four of the major components of physical fitness, which are cardio (although some styles are more of a cardio challenge than others — more on this in a moment), strength, flexibility and balance. A good class will work every major muscle group — and several muscles you never knew you had — get your heart rate up, stretch chronically tight muscles and give you the physical endurance and mental stamina to stay steady during uncomfortable situations (such as balancing on one leg). A good yoga class is part physical workout, part massage, part therapy session — making the average $15–$20 class extremely cost-effective. Even better news? Many gyms offer yoga as part of their regular class schedule for no additional fee.
Meditation in motion
Because of its focus on breathing, yoga helps forge a stronger link between your body and your mind and promotes a meditative state that is profoundly calming to your sympathetic nervous system (which regulates the stress response and tends to be chronically overstimulated) and stimulating to the parasympathetic nervous system (which rules the “rest and digest” functions of the body and is typically underactive in our lives of chronic stress). This meditative aspect of the practice fosters your focus, boosts your concentration, reduces stress, paves the way for better sleep and improves your mood.
Yoga is customizable to every age and fitness level, meaning it can help you stay physically and mentally vital throughout your life — whether you’re 7, 37, 70 or 107. Yoga can also be tailored to relieve the particular challenges of every age — you can use your practice to focus on stress relief if you are a young, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends type; to rev your digestion or relieve your menopausal symptoms if you’re in midlife; or to stay limber, nimble and strong as you age. Yoga can also travel with you wherever you go — you can practice it at home or in a hotel room on those days when you don’t have time for or access to a full class.
Stress relief, on the mat and off
As you develop greater awareness of your body and your breath during your yoga practice, you’ll be able to use these skills in your daily life to help you deal with stresses as they arise. For example: Learning how to focus on your breathing during a challenging warrior II pose will also teach you how to tune in to your breath during a tense meeting at work. As a result, you’ll be able to counteract stress as it happens, lessening the impact it has on your physical health and mental well-being: Studies have shown that regular yoga practitioners have lower levels of cortisol — a hormone released during periods of stress — better sleep and greater life satisfaction than people who don’t practice.
Finding the right style for you
Now that you know some of what yoga has to offer, the first step to starting a practice of your own is learning a little bit about the various styles and finding your way to a method that suits your personality and physical needs the best. Here’s a quick tour of the main styles of yoga out there. Choose the one, two or three that sound best to you and try a few different classes with different teachers (check the schedule at your local gyms, wellness centers and yoga studios — which often offer classes in several different styles) until you find one that resonates with you.
- Power, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Anusara, flow, Jivamukti: These physically demanding practices string several poses into long sequences of near-constant movement. As a result, they provide a good cardio challenge in addition to the strength, flexibility and balance benefits that are hallmarks of the practice. These classes also regularly include more challenging poses — such as handstand and forearm stand — so a sense of adventure definitely helps. They all have slightly different philosophies, so if you like the physical aspect of the class but wish they included more or less philosophy or chanting, try another style until you find the right combination for you.
- Bikram, hot: Also very physically rigorous, these two styles of yoga heat the practice room so that sweating — and thus, the theory goes, detoxification and limberness — is encouraged. Bikram classes do the same poses in the same sequence every single time, while hot yoga mixes up the poses more.
- Hatha, Integral, Iyengar: These more gentle styles aren’t as much of a cardio challenge, but they will still increase strength, balance and flexibility. These classes move at a slower pace than the classes in the first two categories — you hold poses for longer, which can be challenging if you are used to constant stimulation but rewarding as you learn how to become more patient and can feel the effects of each pose more deeply. Iyengar is very precise (Martha Stewart is rumored to be a devotee) and uses a wide array of props — such as belts, blankets, blocks and chairs — to help each student find correct physical alignment in each pose. Because Iyengar teachers are highly trained and cautious by nature, this style is a great option for anyone suffering from an injury or chronic condition (such as scoliosis or back pain).
No matter which style of yoga you practice, know that you are doing your mind, body and spirit good. And isn’t that reason enough to start saying, “Om”?