The benefits of yoga can be categorized into a group of three components: physical, emotional and spiritual. Although all are important to maintain a healthy balance, this piece focuses on the physical and the benefits and of a regular asana practice. Some of the main physical benefits of yoga are increased strength, improved flexibility, better body posture, stronger spinal stability and a greater command of the breath.
1. Increased Strength
Asana, otherwise known as the physical practice of yoga, is only one of eight facets of yoga. Through asana practice, we achieve control of the body by positioning ourselves into different postures that strengthen and tone our muscles and organs. In every pose, we focus on engaging the bandhas, or energy centers in the body. Tapping into uddiyana bandha, for example, requires us to pull the belly in and up, toning and strengthening everything around the abdomen, including the abdominal muscles and organs nearby. By flowing through and repeating yoga poses, the body learns to hold these postures more comfortably and creates muscle memory for the next time we practice. The more we practice, the stronger the physical body becomes.
2. Improved Flexibility
In addition to becoming stronger, we become more flexible with a regular practice. Most yoga postures can be categorized into one of the following: standing, balancing, forward fold, backbend, and hip opening postures. Each one of these categories focuses on lengthening different areas of the body, and therefore increasing the flexibility of the muscles around those areas. Backbends, for instance, improve the flexibility of the front body (quads, abdomen, front of the neck). On the flipside, forward folds lengthen the back body (hamstrings, spinal erectors, calf muscles). Similar to how the body becomes stronger and better at performing a movement the more we repeat it, the same applies to the flexibility of a muscle group. The more we position our bodies into a certain position that stretches a particular muscle group, the more comfortable and deeper we can settle in that position.
3. Better Body Posture
In addition, having a strong and flexible body help contribute to healthy body posture. The spine is comprised of 33 vertebrae. This collection of bones is stabilized by muscles that help keep the upper body straight up. Sometimes after sitting for long periods of time or when our muscles grow tired, these spinal stabilizers don’t do a very good job at securing the spine and we either slouch or rely on the strength of the neck muscles to hold us up. Overtime, poor body posture can produce chronic pain or nerve impingements, like sciatica. Therefore, it’s critical for the spinal stabilizers to be strong and healthy to stay pain free.
4. Stronger Spine
Proper body posture throughout the practice of yoga is important to maintaining a strong spine. Through constant practice, the body learns how to shift its center of gravity to hold different poses. For each pose, the spine is lifting, flexing, extending or rotating. Each of these movements strengthen the different muscles that support the spine helping prevent compressed discs and maintaining the necessary space between each vertebrae. A strong spine is key to preventing many types of injuries, particularly spinal injuries. However, ankle, wrist, knee and hip injuries can also be prevented by maintaining a strong and flexible spine, naturally developed with a regular yoga practice.
5. Control of the Breath
Most importantly, one of the main physical benefits of practicing yoga is mastering a greater command of the breath. It has been said that if you can control the breath, you can control the mind. It’s one of the tools that connects the body to the mind. This connection allows us to access a parasympathetic state, which is the opposite of fight or flight. Practicing yoga helps us control our breath by putting us in a position where we must hold poses, some rather uncomfortable at times, and simply breathe. In Ashtanga yoga, for example, each posture is held for five slow breaths. Not only does each exhale allow us to better access a posture, but the awareness of the breath also brings us to the present moment, which can be difficult to achieve throughout the rest of our day-to-day. By mastering better command of the breath, we achieve a better control of our bodies and minds.
The physical practice of yoga is incredibly beneficial to the human body. The more we practice, the stronger and more flexible we become, contributing to healthy body posture, a stronger spine and better breathing mechanics. These physical benefits allow us to keep up with our daily activities pain free.
Michelle Kirel aspires to share with as many people as possible the necessary tools to maintain a healthy, strong and resilient lifestyle. Michelle has a lifelong passion for yoga. She was exposed to yoga at an early age by her mother who is a certified Iyengar yoga instructor. It was during college when she started practicing daily and falling in love with the feeling that comes after a yoga class. Following graduation, Michelle completed her 200 hr certification training in Vinyasa Yoga to dive deeper into the ancient tradition. She currently combines her understanding of yoga with Neurokinetic Therapy to help people treat chronic pain, injuries and postural imbalances. Her goal is to continue to learn as much as possible to be able to help people move better, feel better, and stay inspired.