This article was originally published in Self Magazine.
While all those yoga poses can seem intimidating at first, it’s actually a very approachable form of exercise. And that’s just one of the benefits of yoga anyone curious about the practice should be aware of.
That’s partly because so much of yoga is about turning inward and focusing on aligning your body and your mind.
“Despite popular belief, yoga is more than just a physical practice—yoga is a complete program of how to live in the world,” Ingrid Yang, M.D., a board-certified internal medicine physician and registered yoga teacher in San Diego, tells SELF.
In fact, she says, it all comes down to its definition: Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke or bind, she says. “Understanding the definition helps us understand that the experience of yoga is one of connection, referring to the union of our own body and mind. In this manner, yoga is an organic technique of helping us keep our mind and body in the same place at the same time.”
But there’s more to yoga too—here’s what you need to know about the mentally grounding form of exercise.
What is yoga?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, yoga is an ancient practice based on the Indian philosophy of promoting physical and mental health that began more than 4,000 years ago.
What makes yoga particularly unique is that it combines the mindful benefits of meditation with physical poses, also known as asanas. So you’re not just training your muscles to handle life’s challenges in the way you move through the poses, but you’re also using the power of your breath and your mind to keep you grounded.
The poses in yoga are designed to strengthen and align your muscles and bones, which helps relieve tension in your body and mind, Dr. Yang explains.
“We become sensitized to the feelings that arise—both physical and emotional—during a yoga session and develop an awareness of the thoughts in our mind. When we do this simultaneously, our heart opens and our mind calms down, and we live our lives with more grace and positivity in a very natural and easy manner,” Dr. Yang says.
What beginners should know about starting yoga
There are many different styles of yoga, including hatha, vinyasa, Ashtanga, and even hot yoga such as Bikram. But if you’re new to the practice, a hatha class may be a solid start, since it’s gentle and teaches you basic poses that are the foundation for other forms of yoga, Keisha Courtney, a registered yoga teacher based in Oakland and founder of The Driven Yogi, a continuing education program for yoga instructors to become safer and more effective and inclusive teachers, tells SELF.
“Hatha tends to move at a slower pace, and poses get broken down in a little more detail,” Amanda Tripp, a certified yoga teacher from The Driven Yogi community, says. Those a little more experienced may want to try a beginner vinyasa or Ashtanga class, which tend to be more vigorous and quick paced. Hot yoga is done in a heated room, which makes the practice more challenging, so it’s generally another great option for more seasoned yogis (in non-pandemic times, at least).
If you’re not quite sure where to start, taking classes to familiarize yourself with the different kinds of practices can be a great option. And even though most in-person options aren’t available right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can find plenty of yoga tutorials and classes online.
Start with a simple online search like “yoga for beginners,” says Courtney. This will introduce you to tons of different kinds of practices, some just a few minutes and others as long as an hour. “Either way, the class should get you familiar with basic poses of yoga. Once you are comfortable with the basics, you can add more and more to your routine,” she says.
Tripp says a beginner program that runs six to eight weeks could be a helpful way to learn foundational yoga poses step by step. You’ll not only learn common Sanskrit terms and what they mean, but you’ll also become familiar with breathing techniques and the use of props like blocks and straps.
If you’re able to book a virtual private session, Dr. Yang also suggests working one-on-one with a certified yoga teacher to help tailor the poses to your needs and goals. “A yoga teacher is trained to notice imbalances in your body and make recommendations on where to find more balance and strength,” she explains.
As for how frequently you should practice yoga? There isn’t one answer: It depends largely on your fitness schedule and your goals, Courtney says. If your goal is to get better at yoga, practicing it two or three times a week as part of your workout routine might be helpful, says Dr. Yang—though you can see significant improvements in practicing it just once a week.
But if you’re not sold on devoting a solid chunk of your workout time to yoga, you can also easily incorporate it into your workout routine as a warm-up or cooldown. It’s especially beneficial during the latter, since it activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing down your heart rate and promoting relaxation.
That’s just one of the benefits of yoga you can experience by adding it to your routine. Here are some other advantages of the ancient form of exercise you should know.
Physical Benefits of Yoga
If you work at a desk (or couch) all day, you may be experiencing some low back, shoulder, and neck pain due to poor posture. “Yoga improves posture, which can prevent low-back pain, as well as shoulder and neck pain,” Dr. Yang says.
Yoga promotes low-back pain relief in two ways: First, the meditation techniques used in yoga encourages relaxation from the physical discomfort related to chronic low-back pain, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Then there are the poses themselves: The physical practice builds core strength and stability—something important for posture too—which is one of the main lines of treatment for addressing low-back pain.
In fact, a 2016 review of 27 studies published in the Journal of Rheumatology and Orthopedics concluded that yoga appears to be better than the usual standard of care in reducing people’s perceptions of the severity of chronic low-back pain, or how bothered they are by their discomfort.
Some of the best yoga poses for lower back pain include Child’s pose, Cat/Cow, Downward Facing Dog, and Standing Forward Bend, as SELF reported previously.
When you ground your body to hold all the poses, you recruit a bunch of both big and small muscles. Yoga also focuses on proper form—you need to activate the right muscles—which creates a better understanding of how your muscles, joints, and tissues work together. This can help ensure you move safely, Courtney says.
“Yoga is an alignment-based practice. We learn to stack and align joints to most efficiently utilize our muscles and release active energy,” Dr. Yang says. “More importantly, it builds awareness in our bodies so that we can participate in our lives with more physical freedom and less discomfort.”
For example, when you’re doing Tree pose, which involves balancing on one leg, you’re actively firing your inner thighs, quads, and core to help you stand upright and avoid falling over. This also makes you more aware of the placement of your ankle, hips, and shoulder joints, and how they are supported by tendons and tissues to help you maintain alignment and balance.
When you move—like by doing some yoga stretches during the day—your heart pumps more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and organs in your body. This can help reduce fatigue and tiredness, according to the International Sports Science Association.
According to a small August 2017 study in the Journal of Science in Medicine in Sport, practicing Bikram yoga is linked to better energy and stress levels. When sedentary and chronically stressed adults followed a 16-week Bikram yoga program, they reported improved perceived stress, energy, and fatigue levels and better overall health-related quality of life. Researchers also found similar fatigue-fighting benefits to hatha yoga.
Inversion poses—where your heart is at a higher level than your head—may be particularly helpful at increasing energy, says Courtney. These include poses like Forward Fold and Downward Facing Dog.
Balancing yoga poses, such as Warrior III, Chair, Eagle, Tree, and Crow, help challenge your stability, since removing a base of support (say, by standing on one leg) requires you to activate certain stabilizing muscles. This helps improve your balance, which is particularly important as you get older.
As people age, they tend to lose mobility due to inactivity, arthritis, and other age-related disease. But research shows that doing some yoga-based exercises is associated with better balance and mobility in adults over the age of 60.
Better balance can mean a reduction in injury risk and an improvement in athletic performance, says Dr. Yang. That’s because when you have better balance, you have better awareness to fire up the right muscles to help you maintain stability. Think of doing a single-leg deadlift: If you’re able to fire up the correct muscles—your core, lats, and the glutes on your working leg—you’ll be able to complete the move more efficiently, helping you build strength.
If you’re new to exercise—or are easing back into a workout routine after a break—vigorous exercise may not seem to be the most appealing. That’s why many people looking to get started exercising turn to yoga: It’s a low-impact workout that’s easy on the joints, is accessible for most fitness levels, and requires no special equipment.
This all makes yoga a type of exercise you’re more likely to stick with and make a regular practice. In fact, according to a small study of physically inactive adults published in Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine, taking yoga classes twice a week significantly improved adherence to physical activity, something that persisted even after the participants stopped taking classes as part of the study.
A 2014 review in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology concluded that yoga has shown some promising benefits for improving cardiovascular disease risk, by lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and even cholesterol. It’s likely due to both the physical aspects of yoga as well as the focus on breath.
That’s because yoga trains the vagus nerve, which is the main nerve that directs the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the nervous system responsible for lowering heart rate and promoting relaxation—to be more responsive to your breath, Dr. Yang says. “The very function of your heart may improve.”
Follow a yoga flow for as little as five minutes, and you’ll realize just how calming and relaxing it can be to sync movement and breath. As you deepen the stretch in each pose, you’ll rely on your breath to hold them with proper form.
“Yoga uses a practice called diaphragmatic breathing, where you focus on expanding the diaphragm when breathing. This focus tones the diaphragmatic muscles to become stronger, and thus the lungs are able to take in more capacity and become stronger themselves,” Dr. Yang explains. “The vagus nerve actually runs through the diaphragm, and the movement of the diaphragm around the vagus nerve stimulates the parasympathetic response, allowing the rest-and-digest response to be more accessible to us.”
This type of breathing can easily be translated to something you use in everyday life during stressful situations or during other forms of exercise.
While yoga isn’t exactly known for building strength the same way that weight lifting is, moving through poses will essentially give you the same benefits of doing bodyweight exercises. For example, holding Chair pose is similar to doing a squat; moving through chaturanga involves performing a Plank and push-up.
“The poses we practice may look easy, but holding them for longer periods of time is actually a workout in itself,” Courtney says. With more active asana practices, like vinyasa or Ashtanga, you may experience the strength-building benefits even faster.
Depending on the style of yoga you’re practicing, the muscle-building benefit is mostly due to the isometric holds. Isometric exercises, such as the Plank, involve contracting a muscle or muscle group without actually moving the joint surrounding the muscle. This makes this form of exercise ideal for people who are recovering from an injury or experiencing joint issues, according to the Mayo Clinic. Although isometric exercises aren’t ideal for growing bigger muscles, they are essential for improving muscular endurance and performance.
Flexibility is the measure of how much your muscles are able to extend or lengthen, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Yoga helps improve your flexibility by helping your muscles relax through gentle stretching, Tripp says.
With more flexibility, you can boost your overall fitness performance. “For a muscle to contract fully, it has to be able to lengthen fully. Flexibility training can help you access your joints’ full range of motion, enabling your muscles to work more effectively,” Tripp explains. “Limited range of motion can limit your abilities in certain movements.”
For example, limited ankle range of motion can dramatically limit your ability to squat, Tripp says. But if you can squat with full range of motion (parallel or below parallel), you can recruit your glute muscles more effectively, allowing you to load more resistance which translates to bigger strength gains.
Better flexibility can also mean a lower risk of injury. For example, chronically tight pectoral muscles (the muscles in your chest) can cause your shoulders to round forward, moving your shoulder out of neutral positioning, Tripp says. If you load weight onto a joint that isn’t aligned optimally, like when you’re chest pressing during an upper-body workout, you risk injury.
With better breathing and relaxation, yoga can help you get more quality snooze time at night. According to a meta-analysis of 19 previously published studies on women with sleep problems, practicing yoga was linked to higher scores on measures of sleep quality. And the more time spent on yoga, the more robust the benefits were.
If you’re practicing later at night, though, you may want to stay away from more vigorous forms of yoga, which may keep you awake. These bedtime stretches can help prepare you for a good night’s sleep.
Mental Benefits of Yoga
Of course, no type of exercise can “cure” mental health conditions like anxiety and depression—and it can be annoying to be told to “just work out” if you’re dealing with them. But the combination of gentle movement and focused breathing may have some mental health benefits, meaning yoga may play a role in how you feel if you experience those conditions.
In fact, a study of 48 office employees published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, & Health found that after six weeks of yoga, the workers reported feeling less stress in the workplace. They also reported feeling less anxious, confused, depressed, tired, and unsure than their coworkers who didn’t participate in yoga.
And a small separate study published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine discovered that those who participated in yoga three times a week for 12 weeks reported greater decreases in anxiety than those who walked for the same amount of time. The researchers theorize that the combination of focused breathing and yoga poses may stimulate the vagus nerve, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system and tamping down anxiety.
Whether you’re doing a few Cat-Cow flows or lying down in Savasana, yoga turns on your relaxation response. By focusing on your breathing and releasing tension in your muscles and joints through the poses, you’ll usher in a sense of calm.
“Relaxation is a valuable skill that you can train,” Tripp says. “Yoga is a movement modality that helps to quiet your mind. In yoga, you might focus your attention on moving with precision or timing your movement with your breath in order to keep your mind focused on what is happening now. It is a great way to get out of your head and into your body.”
After a tough workout, cooling down with a quick yoga stretch could help loosen up your muscles and ease your mind out of that high-intensity mindset. Courtney suggests following a box breathing technique to boost those benefits while stretching afterward.
“Inhale in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and then hold again for a count of four. Repeat this technique for three to four rounds while in a stretch,” she says. “You may notice a balancing of your energy and possibly a release of some anxiety simply from tuning into your breath.”
Remember, by focusing on your breath, you’re activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which reminds your body and mind that you’re done with your workout—and that it’s now time to relax.
Holding a yoga pose correctly takes a combination of concentration and endurance: You need focus to move your body into the pose, and stamina to keep it there for that set amount of time. This combination not only helps your yoga performance, but it can also help you sharpen your mental focus on other stressful situations in your everyday life, too, says Courtney.
“When you practice yoga, you hold poses for a period of time. That takes focus and constantly telling your mind that your body is okay,” Courtney says. “With a consistent practice, you’ll be able to take these skills off of the mat and they can help you in times of stress.”
While yoga activates your body’s relaxation response, it isn’t always a walk in the park. Performing twists, binds, and inversions in yoga poses can help you learn how to sit with discomfort and embrace it. But challenging as they may be, there’s an end to each pose, and a new one that comes behind it.
For example, Dr. Yang says she likes to practice vinyasa because she believes it best emulates life.
“You never hold any posture for too long; therefore, if you dislike a posture, you know you’ll get to move on soon enough. And if you love a posture, you learn to let it go because you cannot dwell in only the things you like—the next posture will be called out soon enough,” she explains. “Thus, it teaches us the natural rhythms of life. When you are uncomfortable, you learn to sit with discomfort because you know it will pass. When you are joyful and want to hold onto something, you learn to let it go because things inevitably change.”