From outside the studio, yoga seems like an easy practice to take up in order to avoid doing cardio during the week. Lessons typically stretch on for an hour, and some instructors even dim the lights and play calming nature ambiance. It should be easy; yoga is just stretching, right?
Wrong. While yoga can be tailored for any level of practitioner, it makes everyone in its study work hard; practice rooms tend to be distinctly sweaty after students shuffle out. But that “work” goes beyond the simple, short-term physical exertion; and when consistently practiced for years, yoga has an appreciable effect on the long-term health of the mind and body.
In the space of a few classes, a person can expect their flexibility and, interestingly, their stress management skills, to improve. Contrary to what the practice appears to be from the outside, a significant portion of the work done in the studio is mental: meditation and self-awareness is crucial to any practitioner. The stress-relief of the practice stems from its meditational components as much as the physical. In this two-part practice, it might help to metaphorically cast the mind as another stress-tightened muscle that needs to be stretched, albeit in a different way from the legs or back.
Because stressors such as work, finances, or even relationships are typically ongoing, the stretching that relieves a tense muscle can only temporarily soothe a stressed mind. However, if practiced regularly, yoga can teach a practitioner how to healthfully manage stress as it happens.
As Stephen Cope of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health notes: “Yoga provides attentional training and self-regulation. In practicing yoga, we’re training our awareness to attend to the flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations in the body – and to be with these different states without self-judgment or reactivity.” In other words, yoga teaches its practitioners to use mindful meditation to understand and accept the stress of their circumstances without adding to the problem with unhealthy cognitive distortions or negative thoughts.
Moreover, studies show that yoga’s positive impact on the mind and body goes beyond rote mental training, as it has a neurochemical impact! Yoga naturally lowers cortisol and boosts dopamine and serotonin levels in its practitioners – in laymen’s terms, it reduces the so-called “fight-or-flight” hormone that keeps us on edge during and after periods of stress, while boosting those neurotransmitters that facilitate feelings of relaxation and well-being. When taken in conjunction with the above-discussed mental training, the exercise’s chemical benefits make it an ideal mood-booster to alleviate day-to-day stress.
Moreover, it is widely accepted by doctors and yogis alike that yoga stimulates the immune system, lessens inflammation, and boosts the parasympathetic nervous system. Taken together, these benefits in turn promote better function of the digestive and circulatory systems, improve focus and memory, and may even assist in the prevention of chronic disease.
Yoga is more than stretching in a softly-lit room; it’s a real way to better your physical and mental health. Achieving those benefits is truly as simple as picking up a yoga mat and heading over to your local studio – so give it a shot!