Yoga is a multi-faceted practice designed to unite the mental, physical and spiritual. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali defines yoga as “the stilling of the changing states of the mind”. Devotion to practice strengthens the body-mind connection and helps build insight and awareness. The physical practice, called asana, is only one limb of yoga. It was originally meant to quiet the body and mind in preparation for meditation. Yoga also includes spiritual observances, ethical behavior, mindful breathing, and focused concentration.
The following are benefits cited in the research as well as personal observations about the ways yoga can decrease suffering and enhance your life.
The changes one experiences through yoga can be amazing, but they are incremental and occur over years – not weeks or even months. Unfortunately, there is no reliable shortcut to what can be gained through yoga. Little by little you may begin to notice changes in how your body feels and functions. You will become stronger, increasingly flexible, and more mentally and physically balanced. You may feel calmer, more centered, and better able to focus on the important things while letting go of minor frustrations. Learning to quiet the mind and be in the moment is one of the biggest challenges of yoga, but this is quite likely what brings about the greatest degree of change.
Yoga shows you the priceless rewards that devotion and committment to practice have to offer. You will see how being consistent and persistent in your practice gradually wears down your afflictions (emotional and physical) not unlike waves that slowly erode the shoreline. You may also begin to notice the subtle ways in which you suffer more (and subsequently cause greater suffering for others) when you don’t have the opportunity to practice. This awareness will only strengthen your commitment to practice. The frequency of your practice may not be as important as the consistency. Listen to and honor your own body in order to determine the appropriate frequency for you.
For many of us, yoga increases body awareness and appreciation. In the beginning you will be painfully aware of the way your body has suffered from benign neglect. Even very fit people may notice this as there are muscles activated through yoga that we rarely use in other types of activities. For example, runners can have a hard time in yoga initially due to tight hamstrings and relatively weak upper bodies. Through yoga, you will become aware of parts of your body you never noticed before. You will understand the importance of breathing and you may wonder how you ignored your breath for so long. You will see how attention and care helps your body thrive, becoming stronger, increasingly flexible and more balanced. You might even surprise yourself with what you are capable of. Yoga will not likely make drastic changes in the appearance of your body, but with devotion, it will increase your fitness and improve your overall wellness.
Something about practicing yoga consistently motivates many of us to take better care of ourselves in other ways. We become better attuned to our own feelings and needs and we notice more readily when something affects us. We may find ourselves eating better because it helps our practice. Most people find that it is more comfortable to practice on an empty stomach and afterwards you may tend to crave healthier or “cleaner” foods. Heavy alcohol consumption (and certainly drug use) the night before will make practice the next day more difficult and less fulfilling, so you may find yourself imbibing less. Many develop a deeper sense of compassion and stewardship for the Earth and its beings through their yoga practice, which may steer them away from consuming animal products.
Wellness (physical and mental)
Research has uncovered empirical evidence that yoga can provide relief for such conditions as: chronic back pain, anxiety, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, menopause, stress, asthma, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. In a 2010 review of 81 research studies collected from core scientific and nursing journals conducted at the University of Maryland, Ross and Thomas concluded “in both healthy and diseased populations, yoga may be as effective as or better than [other forms of] exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcome measures.”
People who regularly practice yoga understand firsthand how it allows us to be more in the moment and understand ourselves a little better. However, there is also increasing empirical evidence that yoga can make our brains work better. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health concluded that “cognitive performance after the yoga exercise bout was significantly superior (ie, shorter reaction times, increased accuracy) as compared with the aerobic and baseline conditions for both inhibition and working memory tasks.” There has also been research showing that individuals with a robust meditation practice tend to have increased grey matter concentration in their brains. Grey matter is involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.
As with anything in life, the practice of yoga is not without risks. Yes, even yoga can become a weapon when ego gets in the way. Pushing yourself too hard without listening to your body can cause injury and break you down mentally and physically. If you have a medical condition, it is best to consult your physician before engaging in a new routine of physical exercise. Be wary of the “guru” who pressures you to devote yourself exclusively to them, without question. This is also an ego trap. Learning to practice safely and wisely from a certified and experienced yoga instructor will increase the odds that you will get the most benefit from your practice.