Anyone who knows me, knows I love yoga. I was introduced to it as a little girl by my Mom who had a copy of Lilias Folan’s book Yoga and You. Mom would lie on the living room floor and work her way through various asanas. I would often join in, along with our cat, Big Kitty, and our gigantic goofy lab/shepherd mix, Bruno. Poor Mom. Shoulder stand isn’t easy with all that extra help.
When I got older, I’d pull that same book off of the shelf and go through the sequences Ms. Folan prescribed, or I’d try to find her PBS program of the same name and follow along in our den. All through my teenager-hood and early twenties I was an on-again off-again yogaist. Yes I made that word up. I loved the slightly counter-culture aspect of this ancient practice,and how it made me feel, but lacking any real guidance I’d wander off after a few weeks or months. I picked it up and put it down all through my thirties too, sometimes finding a studio or friends to practice with for a while.
Now, utilizing various resources (thank you internet!) I’ve managed to practice fairly consistently for the last year. No, I haven’t practiced every single day, but I’m making the effort to get on my mat a few times a week at least. In fact, I committed to 30 days of yoga for July and as of today have completed 23 days with a class scheduled for 4:30pm today.
What have the benefits been, you ask?
I can be a pretty high-strung person. I prefer to call myself passionate, but the truth is under my skin I’m often a roiling mass of emotion and chaos. Oh sure, I look all composed and calm on the outside, but the interior of my brain is like a carnival on crack somedays. Yoga fixes that for me. When I come to my mat and dedicate that time to practicing the physical asana, focusing my mind on the movements and my breath, allows me the space and time to leave all of that crazy monkey-mind stuff behind for awhile. Whether I’m sweating, and concentrating on lifting my knee-caps to steady myself in Tree Pose, or rooting down through my tail-bone and lengthening my spine in Seated Staff Pose, I simply do not have the energy to worry about anything else. And that’s a really nice feeling. I can let all of that go, and just be here now as Ram Dass once said.
If that were the only benefit, it would be enough reason for me to keep building my practice, but it isn’t by a long shot. Yoga has a vast array of physical benefits, and I’d venture a guess most western practitioners focus on these at the beginning. Let’s explore just a few of the positive effects yoga can have on your health.
Improved Cardio Vascular Health
Regular practice of yoga can lower your blood pressure. With Cardiovascular disease being the number one cause of death in the U.S., maintaining a healthy blood pressure is pretty important. High Blood Pressure can lead to increased risk for heart attack, and stroke. The side effects from HBP medications are not always mild, and the drugs themselves are expensive-I know, I used to be on them. Thanks to yoga and dietary choices, I no longer need them. I may be the only person in my family who ISN”T on them, and I have a BIG family. The British medical journal The Lancet, published two studies comparing lying in Savasana vs. lying on the couch. Savasana was associated with significant drops in BP (as much as 26 points systolic and 15 points diostolic!) vs the couch folks. If you’re currently on HBP meds, just adding this one pose into your day could ‘fix’ you. Pretty neat!
But wait, there’s more! In the CV health realm, yoga has also been shown to improve circulation, make your platelets less sticky-thereby helping to prevent clots in your arteries, and increase your heart rate into the aerobic range thus lowering your risk of heart attack. Not too shabby for something you can do at home in your underwear.
The CDC estimates that as of 2014 29.1 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. Those numbers are expected to increase dramatically as our obesity rates continue to rise. We’re all familiar with the increase in associated health problems in diabetics. Kidney and Liver disease, heart attack and stroke, blindness and amputations are all consequences of developing this condition. The good news is that T2D is preventable,and can be eliminated by lifestyle choices including yoga. Yoga has been shown to lower blood glucose levels by repairing insulin insensitivity, lowering our cortisol and adrenaline levels and promoting weight loss. I”ll choose Yoga over the expensive drugs and complications any day.
Depression and Anxiety
This area is one I could write about forever. Our society has seen such a huge explosion in people experiencing depression and/or anxiety. While I think some amount of sadness is normal, too many are suffering with chronic depression and its effects. It can become a spiral of isolation and hopelessness. We’ve also been told the only way to deal with it is pharmaceutically. That may be correct for some extreme cases, but Yoga has been shown to be a very effective treatment as well. Consistent yoga practice has been associated with increased serotonin levels and decreased cortisol (the stress hormone). People who regularly include meditation with their physical practice also report feeling happier and have better immune system responses. I find that by employing yogic breathing practices when I start to feel anxious, I can often head off an anxiety attack. I also use several specific poses to calm me down if I know I’m going to have to deal with a particularly stressful event. And as someone who has battled Seasonal Affective Disorder my entire life, I can report that yoga in the dark months is my lifeline to sanity. It forces me move, and to recognize that nothing is permanent, and everything is already perfect. Whew. That’s deep. But if you are suffering from depression, why not give it a try?
There are so many more benefits to practicing yoga, I could write for days! I encourage you to do some research yourself if you’re interested in learning more about how yoga can improve your life. If you’re looking for ways to practice at home, I highly recommend the Yoga with Adrienne channel on YouTube. I don’t know Adrienne personally, but her videos are accessible for all levels and she has a fun, laid-back approach to her classes. You can also find great videos by Tara Stiles of Strala Yoga, and if you’re feeling old-school check out any of Lilias Folan's videos, DVDs or books. She’s great! There are innumerable wonderful teachers out there as well, and I always recommend taking some classes at a studio if at all possible. Having a knowledgeable teacher to guide you and help you with correct alignment will make your practice that much more beneficial. There are usually donation based, or pay-what-you-can classes available in most towns, and sometimes there’s FREE yoga through community centers and local programs. Give it a try!
If you’re interested in having a little fun in August, I’m starting a YogAugust Challenge, on my FB page. We’ll all keep each other motivated to practice everyday, and see how we feel after 31 days of consistent practice. It’s free, and no-drama. Whether you want to try Hot Yoga, or stay more traditional with Hatha, relax with Yin Yoga, or rev up your heart with Vinyassa, it’s all good…come on over and join in.
See you on the mat!