by Sarah Roberts
What pops into your mind when you think of Yoga? Ancient Indian men with long beards bending their bodies into impossible positions? Fit mums in Lycra who get together for a coffee after class to discuss the benefits of kale? While this is how Yoga is often portrayed in pop culture, Yoga is a practical way to improve your fitness and clear your mind.
Yoga is indeed a 5,000-year-old practice developed in India to unite the mind and body. It combines a series of stretches and poses with breathing techniques to stretch, twist, massage and strengthen every part of your body. There are many different types of Yoga and approaches to the practice which means that there is a style that should benefit every age and fitness level from serious sportsmen trying to increase their athletic flexibility and reduce the likelihood of injury, to older people looking to relax their mind and improve mobility when completing day to day tasks.
In this article we’ll explain some of the key benefits of Yoga, and review the different types of Yoga, helping you decide which approach might be right for you.
Benefits of Yoga
When practicing Yoga your instructor will ask you to inhale deeply through your nose and out through your mouth in rhythm with the movements that you are making with your body and to focus your mind on your breathing. This is an established meditative technique, but many find it significantly easier than establishing a separate meditative practice as it is easier to quiet your mind’s inner chatter when focussed on the required movements.
Researchers have observed that meditators shift their brain activity from the stress processing right frontal cortex, to the calmer left frontal cortex, physically reducing the negative impacts of stress. Meditators also display less activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that processes fear.
Even if you find that your brain is too active to reach this meditative state during your Yoga practice, just unplugging from your phone and daily stresses for the 60-90 minutes it takes to participate in a class can increase your inner calm.
We all know the stereotype of the flexible yogi, and this is true, a regular Yoga practice will increase your flexibility. This may help you open your shoulders to improve your forearm swing, or help you finally get down into the splits or perform a back bend. Less drastic, it also improves mobility, the functional flexibility that allows you to complete day to day movements, perhaps making it a little easier for you to sit on the floor when playing with your kids or just help you groan a little less when getting out of bed in the morning.
Increased flexibility can improve your posture, reduces the likelihood of injuries such as muscle strain, and also improve the aesthetics of your muscles, encouraging long, lean muscle development, as opposed to the compact bunched up muscles that you have probably observed on some serious lifters.
The twists and contortions that are performed in Yoga massages and ‘wrings out’ your internal organs in a way that encourages them to perform their natural detoxification processes. And don’t worry, you don’t need to bend into unbelievable positions to see this benefit, even simple twists have a significant impact.
You should quickly see improvements in your digestive system, and you should even start to smell better as the sweat you expel from your body starts to contain fewer toxins.
Push your limits
Everyone thrives from pushing their limits from realising that they can do things they never imagined and from setting goals and reaching them. This is good for our self-confidence, self-esteem and mood, and can make us happier and more motivated in all parts of our lives.
Yoga is the kind of practice that encourages goal setting as you see yourself getting closer to touching your toes, holding your own bodyweight, or balancing on your head. All Yoga moves have easier modifications that you can practice while you are still working towards a movement and that will help you reach your goal. So as well as getting a physical boost, your regular Yoga class should also give you a confidence boost.
Types of Yoga and which to choose
There are many different types of Yoga, and which type is right for you depends on what you would like to achieve with your practice.
Known as the ‘Yoga of force’, Hatha Yoga emphasises strengthening and purifying the body through physical postures and breathing techniques. This is a kind of ‘middle way’ Yoga and is a great type for someone just starting out and wanting to see what aspects of a Yoga practice bring them the most benefit.
This type of Yoga focuses on alignment. It appears fluid and dance like, and uses aids such as blocks and straps to help achieve postures that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to hold. This is a good choice for budding yogis that have limited flexibility and would like to improve.
Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Power Yoga are all quite similar in that they are fast paced and intense, requiring strength and endurance. This is a good choice if you are very fit, and if you are looking to build up a sweat and get a good cardio workout as part of your Yoga practice.
Also known as Hot Yoga, you complete your practice in a heated room. This increases your heart rate and metabolism, making you more flexible and allowing you to burn more calories. The heat can make this type of Yoga quite challenging for beginners, and is best experimented with when you feel like you have reached a plateau with your regular Yoga practice and would like to push yourself further.
A gentler, slower-moving type of Yoga, it is more restorative and focuses more in the breathing and relaxing parts of the practice. This is a good choice for those interested in the meditative side of Yoga.
The type of Yoga you do, and the Yoga instructor that you work with, can have a huge impact on how you feel about Yoga. Remember that it is difficult to judge something like this from just one session, and you need to take a few classes to form and informed opinion, and that you may need to shop around to find the right style/instructor combination that works for you. Also remember that while sometimes when sitting on your couch you don’t feeling like heading out to a Yoga class, you rarely regret having gone afterwards.