Updated: Jul 12, 2019
The ancient Indian art of yoga has roots that stretch back over five-thousand years. Its name, in Sanskrit, means “a union of body and mind”, and it constitutes a form of slow-paced movement that focuses on maintaining physical postures for certain lengths of time whilst regulating your breathing - with the overall aim of improving flexibility, strength and general mental wellbeing. Alongside the fun names that many of the postures have (we’re looking at you, ‘Half Lord of the Fishes Pose’), there’s also a wealth of evidence that yoga provides plenty of body-strengthening physical benefits and short-term and long-term mental health benefits.
Right from the offset – say you’ve had a terrible day at the office. Everything that could’ve gone wrong seemed to, arriving home, a full evening of overtime ahead of you, you feel yourself fighting a seemingly-uncontrollable wave of stress and anxiety at the situation. You’re in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode; that physical state which functions as an emergency response against predators or natural dangers, but realistically offers us little benefit when dealing with many of the common day-to-day challenges of modern society. The part of your body responsible for putting you in this state of hypertension is known as the parasympathetic nervous system – which we have very little control over – and it works in conjunction with our sympathetic nervous system (the part we can control) to make us function physically and mentally.
One proven manner to help switch your body’s focus from the parasympathetic to sympathetic systems is deep breathing – an action that forms an important part of proper yogic practice. By taking some time out of your day to practice yoga, you may find your anxiety lessening, a clearer state of mind taking over, and the energy and focus appearing to get the evening’s work completed and on your boss’ desk first thing in the morning, alongside the resignation letter you wrote after you realised that you truly would be happier as a Himalayan yak farmer. Okay, so that’s obviously an exaggeration - we’re not saying practicing yoga will solve all your problems, completely banish stress and anxiety and set you upon your ideal life path – but there is plenty of evidence that, incorporated into a general overall regime of healthful self-care, it acts as a very positive contributor to your overall physical and mental wellbeing. A 2014 study, for example, found that 10 weeks of regular yoga sessions significantly helped people reduce the symptoms of PTSD – 52% of the study’s candidates, all of whom were sufferers, no longer met the criteria for the disorder at all! It has also been proven to aid symptoms of depression – decreasing cortisol levels in the brain (a stress hormone that impacts our levels of serotonin – often known as the ‘happy chemical’ due to its influence over emotional states – which may lead to depressive feelings). In combination with traditional methods of treatment, yoga can be a very effective ally in the fight against such illnesses. Pretty powerful stuff.
By approaching it with the proper attitude, practitioners of yoga frequently report finding that they develop a better relationship with themselves, heightening their sense of self and cultivating a judgement-free attitude to their own body and mind. It is this process of self-actualisation that is frequently-credited as motivating people to positively develop other aspects of their health and life. Imagine those times when you wake up feeling groggy and not in touch with your body. You drag yourself through the day on autopilot, almost like a passenger instead of a driver. Even a simple twenty-minute session of yoga in the morning is proven to help free you from this state of disconnect, leaving you more energised, more motivated and more in tune with your body’s needs. It’s common knowledge that exercise in the morning will boost your energy levels throughout the rest of the day – and in general it’s something we’d absolutely recommend anybody incorporating into their lifestyle, but yoga’s combination of physical activity and meditative principles makes it perfect for both decreasing stress and anxiety levels and increasing physical energy. You don’t even have to leave your bedroom, making it an incredibly convenient activity to add to your daily schedule.
Yoga’s purely-physical benefits can’t be stressed enough, either. It’s a particularly low-impact form of exercise, which strengthens muscles without putting pressure on the joints and other vulnerable parts of the body. It’s been shown to have a significant effect on combating chronic pain – a number of patients with carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, were either given wrist splints for eight weeks or performed regular yoga sessions for the same period of time. By the end of the study it was discovered that those who’d been doing yoga had measurably less pain and more wrist flexibility than those who had received the splints.
Yoga has also been proven to lower blood pressure and pulse rate – two significant risk factors for heart disease. Also, as we’ve already noted, it has a major impact on stress reduction; which is perhaps the largest contributor to heart problems that exists. One Indian study from 2004 put subjects with heart disease into a year of yoga training and discovered that by the end, for 47% of them, their condition had not worsened at all. Not to mention - your lungs will thank you too. Yoga has a tried-and-tested effect of increasing their vital capacity, and its practice may well boost your overall stamina and optimise your physical performance. This also makes it remedial for sufferers of chronic conditions like mild to moderate asthma, easing their symptoms and increasing lung function greatly.
Yoga, then, constitutes an ideal blend of physical and mental activity, especially in the ever-more chaotic modern world. Not only can it significantly decrease stress and anxiety, it also has a very positive impact on flexibility, strength, pain reduction and even heart and lung problems. Inclusion of yoga into your daily or weekly routine has a great chance of leaving you feeling more productive, sleeping better, feeling fitter and being more in touch with your body. For an activity that can be practiced with little more than a mat and some comfortable clothes, it’s a pretty impressive list of benefits.
P.s. - remember to check out our wonderful Molly Robinson to read more about getting some help with Yoga yourself!