Mukunda Stiles in Structural Yoga Therapy writes “The benefits of yoga are tremendous” I quite agree, in fact, the benefits of yoga asana are so great and so diverse it is a little overwhelming to know where to begin. There are just so many benefits to asana practice, on so many different levels, it would be easy to write a book, as indeed some have, to highlight its many virtues. Many consider the multitude of benefits which I have attempted to break down the benefits into the effects on the spiritual, physiological, physical, mental levels however as will be seen, an effect on one will have an effect on the other, our bodies, both subtle and physical are an integrated whole. HYP 1:10 “Through the practice of hatha yoga, one’s entire being is made fit and strong” 1:1 “Hatha yoga not only brings a balance in the energy, but also in the duality of the mind and between the lower nature and the higher mind, between the individual soul and the universal spirit”
On the physical level, yoga is extremely effective in:
- Increasing Flexibility
- Improving muscle tone
- Massaging all of the organs of the Body – Yoga is perhaps the only form of activity which massages all the internal glands and organs of the body. This stimulation and massage of the organs strengthens and improves the functioning of the various systems of the body and maintains the internal organs in a state of healthy functioning order. This helps to keep the body healthy, efficient and resilient
- Detoxification – By gently stretching muscles and joints as well as massaging the various organs, yoga ensures the optimum blood supply to various parts of the body. This helps in the flushing out physical impurities and toxins as well as providing increased nourishment which is purifying and healing for the body. The body is revitalised and strengthened. This has consequent benefits including delayed ageing and the maintenance of a youthful appearance, life expectancy is increased and increased energy, health and vitality are established. I can say without a doubt that I have been significantly healthier in both body and mind and much more resilient to ailments since I have regularly practiced yoga. I have also found that as my practice has developed, detoxification has been aided by the desire to eat more and more, fresh, nutrient abundant foods and generally take better care of myself. I have increasingly chosen fresh fruit, veg, nuts, seeds etc and have recently found myself eating greater quantities of raw food, it seems the closer to its original form the food is, the better my body seems to like it and the better I seem to function. This process has been on the whole unconscious in that my body has chosen for me as opposed to me making a decision to alter something as such it has been a natural and easy path to take.
- Increased health- Yoga as medicine lists numerous conditions shown by scientific studies to benefit from yoga and lists 40 ways in which yoga heals. Structural yoga therapy reports that scientific research on yoga began as early as 1924 at the Kaiavalyadhama Yoga Institute near Bombay. Since then vast quantities of scientific data has been accumulated the world over demonstrating a remarkable variety of benefits. These benefits are clearly documented and volumes could be written on this area
- Controlling weight through activity, stimulation and increased functioning of metabolic and digestive functions. Increased detoxification
- Increased ability to relax and more natural and refreshing sleep
Svetasvatara Upanishad “the first fruits of practice of yoga are: health, little waste matter and a clear complexion, lightness of the body, a pleasant scent and a sweet voice and an absence of greedy desires”
The systems are in fact all co-ordinated with each other.
- Efficiency and competence of the cardiovascular system is increased.
- Many asanas massage the heart from below which strengthens the heart muscle which increases circulation and lessens the risk of heart disease
- Asanas are isometric, which means they rely on holding muscle tension for a short period of time. This also improves cardiovascular fitness and circulation.
- Studies show that regular yoga practice may help normalise blood pressure reducing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. People with hypertension can be assisted greatly by yoga and hypertension/heart disease can be kept at bay in other people.
- Heart rate is reduced decreasing strain on the heart (this increases longevity as well as offering other health benefits).
- Asanas stimulate optimum supply of blood to various parts of the entire body
- Peripheral blood flow and oxygen transport is increased resulting in better efficiency and functioning of all of the organs of the body.
- A regular yoga practice helps boost antioxidants throughout your body, resulting in a stronger immune system and improved ability to heal quickly from disease or injury.
- Blood and lymphatic systems circulate more freely
- Detoxification processes are optimal.
- Increased respiration and oxygenation minimises anaerobic and degenerative processes within the body
- Asana practice improves blood supply and circulation and nerve stimulation to the digestive organs and elimination systems, which over time increases their efficiency.
- The digestive organs are massaged and the muscles stretched and strengthened, the massaging effect of surrounding muscle stimulates digestion and improves metabolism.
- Food is better assimilated, digested and waste eliminated more efficiently.
- Increased respiratory efficiency and competence.
- Intercostal muscles and diaphragm are strengthened.
- Oxygen consumption decreased as breathing becomes more efficient.
- Lung capacity increased and respiratory amplitude increased, whilst simultaneously the respiratory rate decreases (this enhances mental functioning, digestion, heart rate etc)
- The body structure is re- aligned and the skeletal system is aligned in its correct position. Asanas breaks the vicious circle created by mental and emotional tensions which can produce abnormal posture which then feeds the mental and emotional problem
- Improved posture through realignment of the body with consequent benefits of increased comfort- conditions such as lower back pain are eased, eradicated or prevented. The postures gently stretch and strengthen muscles of the back and neck and enable them to better support the skeletal frame.
- Yoga is often prescribed to help heal various injuries, including repetitive strain injuries, knee and back injuries, pulled hamstrings and other injuries or anomalies caused by bodily imbalance or overuse of a particular muscle group. Minor misalignments of the spine can also be corrected.
- Yoga is also used preventatively in the is area, for example many premiership football teams now employ yoga teachers to work with their players in an attempt to rebalance the body in an attempt to make players less injury prone. It is being received with much praise. Balance the body- Develop strength in weaker parts of the body and softness in tighter parts.
- Practicing equally on both sides creates equal feed in to each side helping to balance the 2 sides of the brain – Ida and Pingala
- Joints are moved through their full range of motion, lubricating joints through stimulating the production of synovial fluid encouraging mobility by making the joints more supple and better able to remove waste products.
- Gentle stretching releases muscle tension, overcomes stiffness in the body and increases overall flexibility. This action helps to prevent arthritis and relieve symptoms in those who have the condition.
- Joints, tendons and muscles are both strengthened and made more flexible
- Yoga keeps the body strong. It uses all the muscles in the body to hold and balance yoga asanas. The various yoga postures strengthen every muscle in the body.
- Weight bearing asanas increase bone density which has been proven to help prevent the onset and progression of osteoporosis
- Strength and endurance is built up over time
- A flexible spine is essential for health, playing a major role in vitality and rejuvenation. Nerves from the spine go to every organ and gland in the body thus spinal health is necessary for optimum health and functioning in the rest of the body. I have heard it said that we are only as young as the spine is flexible
- Improved blood circulation, easing of muscle tension and focusing the mind and control the breath all combine to sooth the nervous system and increase its efficiency.
- Asanas increase blood supply and circulation which stimulates the nervous system, the body being holistic with changes in one part having an immediate effect on another. This has the effect increasing vitality and functioning of the nervous system e.g. increased responsiveness, increased memory and intelligence.
- The autonomic nervous system responds to asana by balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- The skin is stimulated during asana activating the skin cells. This results in firmer, healthier, younger looking skin
- Increased detoxification, blood flow and oxygen levels all add to the skins overall ability to maintain it youthful appearance and healthy glow.
The endocrine system
- Asanas regulate and control the secretion of hormones from all the glands in the body resulting in increased endocrine and metabolic competence
- Asana balance the hormones and peptides of the body, increasing feel good endorphins with consequent effects on mental functions such as self esteem etc
- Many women going through menopause report an easing of symptoms when they begin practicing yoga through hormonal regulation
- Flexibility of the body produces flexibility of mind
- Asanas make the mind strong. Determination, willpower, concentration and memory are all enhanced which in the long term facilitates meditation.
- When we are doing asana practice we concentrate on what we are doing. This concentration breaks the negative internal monologue and actually constitutes the first stage in our meditation practice (I have always considered my yoga practice to be a moving meditation, it’s a time when I can put my mind to one side and just be)
- Stretching stops the tension feedback, the process whereby tension in the mind produces tension in the muscles of the body, this then creates more tension in the mind setting up a vicious circle. Asana reverse this and substitute a virtuous circle instead. Physical relaxation produces emotional and mental relaxation thereby eliminating the vicious circles of accumulating mental tensions within our lives
- Increased self awareness through becoming more aware of the body and its associated functions
- Increased self concept and body image
- Increased confidence and self esteem
- Decreased anxiety/depression
- Positive thinking
- Increased assertiveness and ability to make decisions
- Open to life and experience
- Reduced stress and anxiety levels, and increased feelings of calm and wellbeing
- Intelligence increases along with increased mental agility and functioning
- More stable emotions. Balance in the body creates a balanced mind
- Yoga has been used to help treat a wide variety of emotional and mental disorders, including acute anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
- Relaxation- asanas develop physical relaxation which then relaxes the mind and consequently affects the physiological processes of the body, the mind and the body being inextricably linked means that a change on one level will affect the other.
General benefits of postures
In general forward bends are considered to:
- Loosen the joints and muscles improving flexibility
- Relax and clam the mind and are often beneficial prior to meditation and relaxation.
- Encourage sleep
- Are physically and mentally stimulating
- Promote will power and strength of mind
- Increase concentration
- Adjust the spinal column
- Improve metabolism and digestion
- Stabilise the mind
- Backbends open the front of the body, particularly the chest (targeting the heart and lungs), which improve the breathing process and flow of energy in the body.
- Stimulate the abdomen, kidneys, reproductive and digestive systems.
- Backbends are exhilarating, invigorating and are known to raise your spirits, from the perspective of the chakras, backbends open the heart center creating joy.
- Induce heart rest
- Can help to relieve tension and insomnia
- Promotes relaxation and renews energy.