Flow Your Way to Health: The Benefits of Practicing Yoga

Not sure if sitting on a thin mat in a quiet room filled with plenty of people is your kind of fitness class? Especially if you’re a fan of cardio, you may be turned off by the idea of not instantly getting your heart rate up high or interchanging between high- and low intensity intervals. But yoga is a unique and highly efficient workout of its own that can benefit your life in more ways than most exercise routines out there.

What is yoga?

Yoga is far more than a simple physical exercise. It’s been a holistic way of life for various cultures, with its origins dating back to the sixth and fifth centuries. In practice, yoga is a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices that utilize various poses and breathing techniques to achieve the goal of living a more meditative, harmonious way of life. Through its series of simple yet effective posture, balance and breathing strategies, yoga enhances the mind, body and spirit all at the same time.

Who does yoga work for?

Everyone! From small children to 90-year-olds, anyone can be an able and willing participant of yoga if they’re willing to give it a try. In fact, most of us have been practicing yoga since we were in the womb, already having mastered the fetal position.

The physical benefits of yoga:

Flexibility

Even if in your very first class you have trouble coming close to touching your toes, keeping up with yoga can have you hitting a backbend in no time. The constant stretching of various positions gradually loosens your muscles to the point where aches and pain points that once existed slowly dissipate. A certain move that would instantly result in an “ouch!” become almost effortless.

Strength

It’s not easy holding the downward dog position for almost a minute. Not only does it require a great deal of focus, but it also requires a great deal of strength in your arms, shoulders, core and legs. The longer you hold positions, the more strength you’re building in the muscles you’re working.

Posture

If you’re like most people, you probably spend the majority of your day slouched over a desk. That bending of your spine and neck not only takes a serious toll on your joints and causes pain, but it also messes with your posture. One of the key principles in yoga is standing up straight and finding your “chi,” or inner energy, by utilizing your core muscles. Often, instructors will tell their students to imagine a string is holding their head up straight so they properly align their body in a position that promotes good posture.

Bone-boosting

Drinking a glass of milk isn’t the only way to reduce your risk of osteoporosis. In fact, many yoga positions, particularly downward- and upward-facing dog, help strengthen your bones because you’re placing your weight down on them. One study even found that yoga has the potential to increase bone density and even prevent osteoporosis.

The mental benefits of yoga:

It enhances focus

We’re all moving a mile a minute. We wake up early, head to work, sneak in an exercise class, somehow make it home in time for dinner and then attempt to get a full eight hours of sleep. When we stop to take the time to find out zen in a yoga class, we’re dialing back on the speed our life is naturally paced. Taking deep breaths and removing all over thoughts from your mind also helps you refine your train of thought.

It makes you happier

Seriously! One study found that a consistent yoga practice had the ability to ward off signs of depression by increasing serotonin levels and lowering cortisol (the hormone that causes stress). Another study, by the University of Wisconsin, found that practicing yoga led to greater levels of happiness and better immune function.

It helps you relax

When it comes to yoga, it’s all about setting your sights on the present—not past or future. By doing this, your mind is naturally more relaxed and more ready to take on life post-yoga class. The stress might be there before you sat down on your mat, but for the short period of time that you’re focusing on your movements and positions, you are released from the burdens of work, social life, etc.

If reading this article alone has you feeling a bit more relaxed and well-centered, it’s time to give yoga a try. Whether you’re a seasoned yogi looking to broaden your horizons or a newbie hoping to find your workout of choice, yoga can be beneficial to both your fitness and health goals as well as your stress level and sense of self.

Jenn Sinrich is an editor in New York City, a self-proclaimed foodie always looking for the healthier version of all recipes, a passionate lover of all things cheese, a friendly New Yorker, Bostonian at heart and proud Red Sox fan. Love cats? Cheese? Mac n' Cheese? Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.