Doing yoga can help you feel better in body and mind.
Yoga is sometimes described as holistic exercise – for the body and the mind. In my opinion, all exercise is holistic. Running on a treadmill listening to music on your headphones might not seem as ‘mindful’ as yoga, but if you feel better afterwards, in body and mind, then it’s holistic.
The idea of yoga as a form of exercise might surprise some people. If you’ve never done yoga the image you have of it might be a group of tie-dye wearing hippies sitting in a circle chanting ‘om’. That does happen in some classes, the Om bit at least (it’s a very nice thing to do), though not many people wear tie-dye.
A typical yoga class will be a mix of being active and passive. Classes often start with moving sequences to help warm up the body which in turn helps the body to be more receptive to stretching. Towards the end of the class the level of activity will drop, and the very end of the class is often spent in Savasana, a passive, resting pose.
Some styles of yoga are more active than others and are based almost entirely on movement. In Ashtanga-Vinyasa or Vinyasa Flow you can expect to be moving most of the time, flowing from one pose to the next. These classes can give you a very effective cardio-vascular workout, certainly as effective as a session on a treadmill. A Hatha or Iyengar style yoga class will still be quite active though there is less focus on movement and more focus on holding poses for long (ish) periods of time, which allow muscles to be stretched effectively. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is easy. Holding poses can be physically demanding, requiring strength, stamina and focus.
An active yoga class gives you the opportunity to work towards the recommended amount of physical activity you need to be healthy, helping to prevent illness and disease associated with being inactive. You can read more about activity and health here.
Yoga is also very effective at keeping you mentally healthy. Recent studies presented by American psychologists state that yoga is effective at relieving depression. It can also help with low mood, anxiety and stress. The way yoga helps is as simple as it is ingenious. The body has a ‘fight or flight’ response to certain situations. When you experience anxiety or stress hormones are released, you tense up and your heart rate goes up as your body prepares for action. This reaction is automatic, but it’s not out of our control. Yoga teaches you how to control the body’s response to stress, with the aim of turning on the body’s “relaxation response”. Scientific studies show the impact of this. For example, in one study participants did yoga (including meditation) daily for eight weeks. The participants reported feeling less stressed and brain scans showed shrinkage of part of their amygdala, a deep-brain structure strongly implicated in processing stress, fear and anxiety.
So there we have it, yoga, possibly the best medicine we have to keep us healthy.