Yoga’s one of the best practices you can add to your routine. It gives you a way to strengthen and sculpt your body, remove unwanted body fat and increase flexibility without the impact of traditional exercise. Not to mention there’s many other physical, spiritual and emotional benefits that can be achieved in very little time. We go into detail below but we’ve also wrapped the benefits into an infographic for fun. Check it out.
Types of Yoga
1. Hatha Yoga: Hatha is one of the oldest forms of yoga which many styles have branched from. The term “hatha” refers to any yoga that uses a series of basic posturing and breathing exercises. It's an easy way to get started and while you probably won’t sweat in a hatha yoga class, you will get loose.
2. Vinyasa: An active style of yoga in which your movements flow from one to the other without skipping a beat. No two classes are the same which can be great if you enjoy pushing your limits but may not be a good option for those just starting their practice.
3. Ashtanga: A series of postures which connect your body and breath to build self awareness and control. In Ashtanga, your series of poses are always the same and performed in the same order every time.
4. Bikram: No doubt you’ve heard this term a few times. Bikram, loosely called hot yoga, is a series of 26 poses which are performed in a heated room (about 105 F). This is one of the most popular styles due to it's ability to rapidly improve flexibility and detox the body. You’ll sweat like never before so remember to bring plenty of water and electrolytes.
5. Iyengar: This style of yoga places the utmost importance on form and the proper alignment of your body. Its use of blocks, straps, props, etc. make this a great option for anyone just starting out. While you probably won’t break a sweat, that doesn’t mean it's easy. Your instructors must go through comprehensive training in order to teach this form of yoga so if you have a chronic injury, this might be the best place to start.
The Benefits of Yoga
While each person's results and benefits are unique to them, we’ve put together a list of some of the most common and notable benefits you can expect from your yoga practice.
1. Improves Mental Health
Among the many physical benefits of yoga, there are a number of mental benefits you might not expect. Chief among them is stress reduction.
According to Dr. Nevins, “Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness, increases body awareness, relieves chronic stress patterns, relaxes the mind, centers attention and sharpens concentration.”
Yoga combines exercise with the breath work of meditation which develops a body and mind connection. By becoming aware of our thoughts, we’re able to redirect negativity faster and short circuit downward spirals before they get us worked up.
Further, yoga physically lowers your body's inflammatory responses which go hand in hand with stress and may eventually lead to chronic illness. According to a study by UCLA, practicing yogic meditation daily for just eight weeks led to a reduction in the proteins directly linked to causing inflammation. But don’t focus on the eight weeks because you’ll likely notice lower stress starting with your very first class.
2. Relieves Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are some of the most common problems in modern times. While any healthy diet and exercise regimen can improve these conditions, a study from Duke proved that yoga can benefit those living with depression among other psychiatric conditions. In addition, the practice of yoga can stimulate the production and release of higher levels of oxytocin and serotonin which are linked to bonding and happiness.
Another study, from the Boston University, found that yoga has a positive effect on mood and anxiety due to increased GABA levels. The study had a group of individuals practice yoga three times a week, for one hour over a 12 week period. Yoga participants reported decreased anxiety, improved mood, and their brain scans confirmed increases in GABA levels (low levels of GABA have been associated with depression and anxiety).
A key takeaway is that you don’t need to practice every day to realize positive results. Whether you practice daily or a few times a week, working yoga into your routine can improve mood and body chemistry resulting in a happier life.
3. Develops Better Focus
Staying focused is a critical foundation of yoga. The act of holding poses (sometimes strenuous), watching your form and observing your breath sharpens your ability to concentrate on the task at hand. And as you progress in your practice you’ll notice the benefits in your work output and, perhaps more importantly, your ability to unplug and relax.
In fact, one of the reasons yoga’s so addictive is because you can forget about the chatter and enjoy the moment, guilt free. In addition, yoga increases the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain which can improve overall cognitive function. One study by the University of Illinois found that just a single session of hatha yoga significantly improved speed and accuracy on tests. So if you have an important test or deadline coming up, you might consider a quick hatha sesh before going.
4. Reduces Pain
Who needs a chiropractor? Posing is one of the most helpful and inexpensive ways to relieve pain naturally. In many cases, the cause of back and neck pain is muscle spasms and tightness. That’s why doctors will often prescribe muscle relaxers before pain medication in treatment. In a German study published in The Journal of Pain, they demonstrated that just 4 weeks of Iyengar yoga can be an effective remedy for both back and neck pain in many cases (Iyengar is the style of yoga which emphasizes the use of props and form).
That’s because yoga stretches tense muscles and then has you breath into and relax them. This process of stretching and releasing elongates the muscles, reduces tension and strengthens weak muscles which may have been previously overridden by stronger muscles on your dominant side. Over time you’ll build a balanced strength which will keep your back and neck from pulling to one side or another and causing pain.
5. Better Breathing
A common term among yogis is “pranayama” which means the regulation of your breath. Yoga requires that you breathe deep and become aware of your inhale / exhale cycles. Since most of us go through our days at a thousand miles per hour, we aren’t thinking about deep breathing. However, yoga forces you to stop and pay attention.
Fortunately, the practice of pranayama has been associated with improved cardiovascular health, lowering heart rate, and encouraging feelings of well being - so taking a few moments to become conscious can really improve your long term health.
Yoga may also benefit those with asthma. One study found that adults with bronchial asthma who added yoga to their care regimen experienced dramatically improved symptoms. And the practice of pranayama encourages breathing through the nose which humidifies, filters and removes debris that could trigger asthma attacks.
So if you notice yourself breathing shallow, getting anxious or having trouble with Asthma, you may find yoga is just what the doctor ordered.
6. Tones and Strengthens Muscles
You may think you need weights to build muscle. But propping yourself up and holding static positions builds a surprising amount of strength, tone and muscle endurance. Here’s a few of the primary areas you can expect to see big improvements:
1. Core: Your core is one of the most important areas for spinal health and a long pain free life. Yoga targets your core muscles in so many different ways it would hard to mention them all. But if you’re eager to get started, try the boat pose and side plank to feel the burn.
2. Arms / Shoulders: In yoga you’ll rest on your arms and shoulders constantly. You’ll have to change positions, pause, and be up and down often. This repetitive moving and locking builds substantial strength in your arms and shoulders while toning and elongating your muscles.
3. Legs: In practice, there are many standing and lunging positions which require you to hold somewhat awkward positions from time to time. These poses can push both large and small muscles in your legs to work in sync and help you build stronger, sexier legs.
4. Glutes: During class you’ll do many variations of bridges, squats and other exercises which help you build a more sculpted behind. Strengthening your glutes is also important for overall balance and posture so you get the benefit of walking upright and looking great in all your jeans.
5. Back: With practice you’ll dramatically improve both your flexibility and health through strengthening the many muscles that direct posture and keep your spine secure.
7. Strengthens Connective Tissues
As you may have noticed, you’re building a lot of mental and muscle strength in yoga. However, you may not have thought about the benefits it has on your connective tissues. Your whole body is connected through this web (hence the name) and by doing all the physical work of yoga, you’re simultaneously releasing tension and promoting the health of your connective tissues.
8. Improves Flexibility
Improved flexibility is the main thing we all think about when picturing yoga. You may not be very flexible right now. In fact you might not even be able to touch your toes. But within a few classes you’ll start noticing that you’re walking upright, small aches and pains begin disappearing and you’ll be able to touch your toes in no time.
Most of us work at desks so our body is in a seated position which promotes poor posture and tight hips. When your core areas are rigid and inflexible it can alter the alignment of your entire body.
Tight hips can change the alignment of your knees and ankles causing you to compensate and further modify your alignment. Tight hamstrings from sitting can cause your lower back to flatten and become prone to injury. And a general lack of flexibility can lead to poor posture and upper back / shoulder pain. I’ve found heated yoga to be the best way to increase flexibility quickly but it can be rigorous so always consult your doctor first.
9. Corrects Posture
Yoga is designed to help you improve all functions of your body and posture is one of the big one's. You’re head is heavy and when you're sitting forward, hunched over a desk, it's up to your back and shoulder muscles to keep it in place. This results in tension and pain over time which leads to big massage bills and a fierce ibuprofen habit.
Through yoga practice, you can begin to correct these imbalances by loosening your muscles and making it easier to maintain proper spine curvature. An additional benefit of yoga is that you're cultivating mind body awareness. This means you’re more likely to notice your posture throughout the day and make corrections often.
10. Protects Your Spine
Yoga strengthens and elongates the muscles surrounding your spine. It also strengthens the other muscles in your legs and upper body which work in unison to keep you walking upright and balanced. In this way yoga is helps to keep your body mobile and ready to handle the demands of your day.
Another benefit is that yoga decompresses the discs between your vertebrae and allows nutrients to flow in. This ensures that your discs stay limber and can help to prevent injury or herniated disks which can pinch nerves and cause pain.
Here's a quick video that explains yoga's relationship with your spine.
11. Strengthens Your Bones
Improving bone density can be a catch 22. While impact exercise can improve bone density, too much can lead to injured joints and the same inability to be active. Dr. Loren Fishman conducted a two year study where she found that participants (average age of 68) who did just 10 minutes of yoga daily were in fact able to significantly increase their bone density. Some even reversing the damage of osteoporosis.
Further, the participants in her study did a total of 20,000 hours of yoga without a single injury. If osteoporosis runs in your family then starting yoga early could theoretically prevent onset in the first place.
12. Improves Blood Flow
If you notice your hands and feet getting icy, this could be due to decreased circulation. The good news is that positions like downward dog, shoulder stand and even backbends open different parts of your body to increase the flow of oxygen and blood.
Inverted positions encourage blood to flow from the lower extremities to your heart where it can be freshly oxygenated and carried to other parts of your body. Back bends open the abdominal area (you may need a yoga wheel) and twisting poses are thought to squeeze blood from the organs making room for newly oxygenated blood. Additionally, recent studies have shown that yoga can help lower blood pressure with regular practice which may also aid circulation.
Here's a great video you can follow along with to get your juices flowing.
13. Builds a Stronger Heart
Yoga has been demonstrated to lower the risk of heart disease along with a healthy lifestyle. One study showed that an 8 week yoga regimen positively affected the levels of inflammatory markers in patients with heart failure. In addition to reducing inflammation, vigorous yoga gets your heart pumping and improves your cardiovascular conditioning.
14. Promotes Lymphatic Drainage
Your lymphatic system flows and drains based on muscle movement and gravity rather than the beating of your heart. So twists which contract and release muscles, inverted poses which cause lymph to flow with gravity and other bending and standing poses all work together to increase the flow of lymph throughout your system.
Lymph is rich in immune cells and carries away waste products so the next time you feel yourself getting the sniffles, give yoga a try. And if you can do hot yoga, that’s even better because sweating opens your pores to further detoxifies your body.
Yoga Poses for Lymphatic Drainage:
15. Helps to Balance Adrenal Function
Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenals in response to stress. Yoga lowers stress and thus, cortisol levels. That may not sound like a big deal at first. But many of us operate in a low level “fight-or-flight” all day. This constant drip of cortisol in the system encourages your body to store fat, has been linked with depression, impaired memory and fatigue among many other negative side effects.
While high intensity exercise may further deplete your adrenals, yoga can help the healing process by lowering those stress hormones (source). Key takeaway: By adopting yoga as a part of your regular routine you can lower stress and cortisol levels which carries a host of long and short term benefits.
16. Forms the Foundation for a Healthy Lifestyle
You’ve probably had an exercise routine at one time or another. Did you notice how you just felt like eating healthier after working out? You’ve probably experienced the opposite before too, right? Adding yoga to your routine becomes a foundation for other healthy habits.
First and foremost, you’re getting exercise - which promotes weight loss. You’re also forming a mind-body connection which may help you eat more consciously and become more self-aware throughout the day. Who knows, it may inspire you to start working out and adding even more healthy habits to your life.
Further, studies show that yoga reduces blood sugar in patients with diabetes. You may be thinking “I don’t have diabetes”. That's good. But considering that yoga lowers cortisol, which causes the body to store fat and promotes overeating behaviors, my bet is that it will help those without diabetes as well.
17. Improves Balance
It seems obvious but yoga can make a big difference in your balance. So much in fact, that athletes could seriously benefit from adding yoga to their training. If your balance is a bit wobbly, yoga can help you build the many stabilizer muscles required to hold challenging positions. Additionally, by practicing one legged postures you're improving your balance both in and out of class.
However, if you’re seriously lacking in balance, you may want to start with Iyengar yoga first. Its emphasis on props and form can help you build your foundation without getting injured in the process.
18. Calms Your Nervous System
A healthy nervous system allows you to stay calm in the most challenging situations. According to the Cleveland clinic, “Yoga has been shown to stabilize the response of the nervous system to stress, removing the constant muscular tension produced by the repeated alerts from the central nervous system, and calming the involuntary symptoms of threat…”
You know the feeling of having tension all over your body like you just drank a case of Red Bull. Practicing yoga stretches your nerves and eliminates toxins in the process. This purification process has the benefit of making neurotransmissions easier for your nervous system to handle. And when your nervous system isn’t working in overdrive, you get to relax and calm down even in situations that were previously stressful (like after a case of Red Bull).
19. Improves and Deepens Sleep
The hustle and bustle of everyday life, over-stimulation from electronics and general sensory overload we all experience can take a toll on sleep. Regular yoga practice encourages you to focus on the moment, take deeper breaths and turn your focus inward - rather than on the sleep interrupting things outside. If you’re experiencing insomnia, try casual poses like legs up the wall and forward bends which can have a calming effect and improve circulation.
20. Relieves Muscle Tension
Tension builds up over time. It can be from acute stressors, chronic stress or things like bad posture when sitting at a desk. No matter where it comes from, it's usually stored in the muscles and nervous system. Yoga asanas help you stretch your muscles and nerves, which can melt away tight spots in your back, neck and shoulders. Moreover, it strengthens your core, stabilizer muscles and improves posture which can prevent the buildup of knots and tension in the future.
Here's a great routine you can use at home or even at your desk:
21. Increases Immune Function
If you find yourself getting colds every time the weather changes, you may need some yoga in your life. Being that yoga has so many aspects which promote health, it's hard to say which one in particular is responsible. However, it's a holistic practice so it seems they all work together.
Yoga is a physical activity which builds a stronger cardiovascular system. And moving around promotes blood, oxygen and lymph to flow into the deepest areas of your body and push immune cells and nutrients to all areas. And of course, yoga lowers cortisol which is taxing on your immune system.
But if that's not enough, it may also serve as a foundation for other healthy habits such as conscious eating and deeper sleep. I could go on, but to make a long story short, yoga can boost your immune function in more ways than one so try it out next time you’re feeling under the weather.
22. Helps IBS and Digestive Problems
Digestive issues and IBS are intensified in stressful situations. Yoga can help by lowering cortisol levels and causing your body to calm down in stressful situations. Additionally, there are various twisting and bending poses which many ancient and modern day yogis believe to accelerate waste moving through your system. Which could then minimize the time that toxins are leaching into your colon and theoretically reduce IBS symptoms as well as risk for colon related diseases in the future.
Here's a routine you can follow along with to get some relief:
23. Boosts Energy
Yoga’s better than a double shot of espresso! Imagine waking up with a desire - no - a need to do yoga. You stretch, get your blood flowing, detoxify, release tension and set the stage for a healthy day before anyone else even opens their eyes.
Chances are that you’ve experienced this before. Whether it was a fitness boot camp, running club or something else - you felt great after your morning workout. Yoga is the same way but it's easier to wake up and go to yoga than it is to wake up and run a marathon - and you get the same endorphin rush and energy boost.
Commit to morning yoga for the next 7 days and see how much better you feel. I bet you’ll reach for more salads instead of donuts and have higher energy all day. But for the record, I’m not saying to skip your coffee, do that too.
24. Helps Eliminate Negative Thinking
There’s no way to block every negative thought. However, there's a lot you can do to boost positivity. Yoga helps you embrace a mindful approach to life by developing the skill of appreciating the present moment. In addition to happy thoughts, yoga corrects posture which makes you subconsciously more confident and happy. Try something right now, for the next 10 seconds just sit or stand like a depressed person.
After you’ve done that, take another 10 seconds to sit or stand like a happy/confident person.
I bet you we’re slouched at first and then sat up straight right? That’s because your physiology plays a big role in directing how you feel and the thoughts that follow. For example, just standing up straight boosts testosterone and lowers cortisol - making you calmer and ready for challenges. When you become mindful, you begin quickly redirecting negative thoughts. But when you couple that with confident physiology, you’re less likely to have those thoughts in the first place.
25. Improves Self Esteem
Yoga is a great self-esteem booster. Beyond the increased blood flow and toned body, you’ll witness yogis executing poses that seem to defy human possibility. But, as you advance in your practice, you’ll get closer and closer to those poses until you eventually lock it out. This act of working towards and accomplishing a goal is something to feel proud of and segue into other areas of your life. Every time you’re having self doubts, use that achievement as an emotional springboard to remember what you’re capable of.
26. Builds Self Awareness
Connecting your mind and body with yoga has an amazing effect on self awareness. And when you’re more aware, you become less reactive and ready to handle bad news and big problems.
A heightened self awareness means you’ll recognize things like, “my neck is hurting so I should change my posture” rather than bulldozing through it and dealing with it later (when it's a bigger problem). You’ll also become more conscious of destructive thought patterns which you can redirect to find the positive and change course anytime you want. So while you may still have to put out fires, at least you’ll control of how you feel while doing it.
27. Enhances Your Sex Life
While any fitness routine can ramp-up your sex drive, yoga's benefits go beyond the norm. It tones your muscles, improves the muscles down-there and increases your flexibility. All of which can translate into more fun and pleasure in the bedroom. Additionally, yoga builds focus on things like compassion, friendliness and working together which can increase communication and understanding in your relationship.
28. Promotes Self Care
Self care and mindfulness go hand-in-hand. As you form a sound mind-body connection you’ll become aware of things you’re doing (or not doing) for yourself. Stuff like taking bubble baths, painting your nails, eating healthier and doing a new and fun hobby can all spawn from your yoga practice.
And the bottom line is that yoga helps you cultivate a healthier lifestyle in a spiritual, physical and emotional way. So if any of those areas are out of balance, you’ll quickly realize so you can take steps to pull yourself back into harmony.
Yoga Side Effects and Risks
As with any new exercise regimen, and particularly one that’s demands copious amounts of sweat like Bikram yoga, it's best to check with your doctor first. Since we are not doctors and we aren't giving medical advice we can’t say whether or not you’re healthy enough to do yoga. However, there are a few conditions where it's especially recommended that you consult your doctor:
- Those with herniated disks, rods, or other serious back problems
- If you have certain eye conditions like glaucoma
- If you’re at risk for blood clots
- You have severe osteoporosis
- If you have uncontrolled blood pressure
- If you’re pregnant or getting ready to become pregnant (source)
That being said, for most people yoga is a fun, low stress way to build strength and get in physical, emotional and spiritual balance.
What You Need to Get Started
The beautiful truth is that you don’t need anything to get started. While certain props and accessories can make it much more convenient, you can start in your living room right now without anything.
As you can see there’s many benefits to starting a yoga practice. From chronic pain to deeper sleep and a better sex life, the things you’ll personally gain can be nothing short of miraculous. While this is not an exhaustive list and doesn’t account for where you’re starting from, many people will experience most, if not all of these benefits and more. And hey, at a bare minimum you can improve your flexibility so what do you have to lose?