Yoga Fitness Benefits

Now more than ever before, people are pursuing yoga fitness benefits and yoga health benefits. Now, although yoga’s been around for over 5000 years, during most of its existence it was practiced primarily as a means of uniting body, mind and spirit and was used for spiritual and meditative purposes. Meaning, yoga was intended as a means to prepare the body for meditation. You might at some point want to bring yourself up to speed about the history of yoga and how it has evolved to be practiced the way it is today Our culture has dissected out the physical asanas (poses) and only recently have we acknowledged and started to tack on the spiritual aspects. In any event, yoga in the United States is simply one more choice on the exercise and fitness menu.

As a means of experiencing an improvement in how your body feels and in what it can accomplish for you, there’s no better way to achieve that

yoga fitness benefits

Yoga fitness benefits include improved flexibility, strength, posture and relaxation. Photo by c/o Photos.Com.

goal than through yoga. Let’s face it, getting through the day is much easier when we aren’t burdened with random aches and pains. Nothing is better for eliminating these problems than regular yoga practice, no matter what your age and level of fitness when you start. You’ll improve your standing (and sitting) by just easing in gently under the experienced guidance of a trained instructor.

So, however you practice yoga meditation (my terminology since it acknowledges the “unity” of yoga and meditation, but I digress). The question is whether yoga as currently practiced has any fitness benefits, and to what degree can they be realized for the practitioner. Is there a preferred style of yoga? Is there an optimal intensity and frequency of practice? I’m going to review for you here just what we do and don’t yet know about yoga as a form of fitness training.

First, just what do we mean by fitness anyway? Fitness generally implies the ability to do the work that’s required of us on a routine basis without being out of breath or feeling tired all the time. Now, if all you do is sit on the couch and eat potato chips and watch TV, I guess you’re “fit” for what you do, but that’s not truly fitness. If you routinely walk several miles every day, take the stairs to get to your floor at work, and dig in the garden on weekends without it wiping you out for the rest of the week, you’re fit for that level of activity. Then again, if you suddenly decided you were going to enter a triathalon the following week, I’d tell you that you probably weren’t fit enough for that level of intense activity. So, fitness is not an absolute measure but a relative one, although there are certain minimums that need to be maintained for long term good health.

So how do we go about defining fitness? Are there certain characteristics that a fit person has that we can objectively measure? Well, in fact, there are. For the moment, we’ll set aside those physiologic measurements such as VO2Max and cardiac output. I’ll discuss those in my other article on yoga health benefits. For now, let’s just focus on what most people want to experience as yoga fitness benefits such as improved flexibility, posture, strength and level of relaxation.

Greater Strength

We exist in a gravity field, and because of that our bodies have evolved to adapt and deal with it. Yoga very naturally uses gravity (i.e. weight bearing) to strengthen the core muscle groups. Since our bones and muscles work together as a group, when the muscles get stronger, so do our bones. As we get older, we naturally lose muscle mass and bone density unless we fight to keep it. Yoga quite naturally forces the muscle groups of the abdominals, back, chest, shoulders, pelvis and spine to get stronger, which forces the bones attached to them to strengthen as well. This really helps ward off muscle wasting, increases coordination (which prevents falls), and wards off osteoporosis.

Certain styles of yoga do tend to emphasize strength aspects more than others. Ashtanga yoga in particular is one of the most vigorous styles and provides for the most gains in muscle strength and tone. That being said, less intense styles can still provide you with strength and muscular endurance. Hatha yoga (aka Iyengar)

Better Flexibility

When we’re young our flexibility is greatest. I remember doing yoga with my mother when I was about ten years old and I had no trouble doing any of the poses that the instructor on TV wanted us to do (mom not so much). Returning to yoga practice when I was much older made me realize that we really do get less flexible as we age. There’s a reason for it too. Muscles shorten and become less elastic. Tendons and ligaments contract and even lose their level of hydration, further increasing their stiffness and resistance to stretching. This gradually makes us less mobile and sets us up in our later years for an increased likelihood of falls. Yoga poses stretch our muscles, ligaments and tendons which also helps to promote fluid migration back into these structures to help keep them supple. Now, you don’t have to be flexible to start yoga, but if you practice at an appropriate level for where you are starting out, you will improve whatever amount of flexibility you currently possess.

Many people new to yoga believe (wrongly) that you have to be able to stretch and contort like some gymnast at the Olympics, but that simply isn’t the case. You can always improve your flexibility at any age. Doing the asanas (poses) helps to release lactic acid from your muscles that tends to accumulate with overuse. The poses also safely lengthening and loosening your joints and connective tissues so they start to regain their youthful flexibility. It is possible to improve your flexibility by 30-40% in as little as 6-8 weeks of regular practice. Quite amazing!

Improved Posture

Yoga meditation makes you more aware of where all of your body parts are in space and what they’re doing moment by moment. Practicing and achieving proper bone and joint alignment will let each body element do what it’s supposed to do and not some extra work it wasn’t designed for. Many poses help to strengthen important muscle groups such as your back and hips that were designed to carry the majority of your body weight, instead of shifting it off onto other weaker muscle groups that can “buckle” under the constant strain and can even lead to injury.

If your strength and flexibility are better, your posture will follow. Those poses that involve standing and sitting will automatically improve the strength of your core muscle groups. This increase in core strength will also make your posture better. Having your deep abdominal muscles be stronger will make it easier for them to support you in a more upright position, which is actually easier on your entire body and shifts your weight onto your spine, which is the way it was intended to be carried. Because your body awareness is better, you will be more alert to when it’s getting out of line and be able to correct it right away and get yourself back into alignment. It simply uses the least amount of muscular energy to have and maintain good posture.

More Relaxed

Yoga helps diminish excessive levels of stress hormones such as catacholamines (adrenalin, norepinephrine) and cortisol, while enhancing the release of natural brain opioids (endorphins), and oxytocin (the trust hormone) in the brain. These changes to our physiology make us feel relaxed and at peace and greatly diminish stress. These are changes that are good for us and are not just a quick escape. Our current society is so stressful and toxic to our very physiology, we need this reversal of the fight or flight response to undo some of the damage that daily living costs us. I see casualties of it every day in my practice. Human beings were never meant to endure chronic stress for days, months, even years on end. It takes a very definite toll on us unless we practice yoga meditation daily in order to re-balance our physiology and psychology.

Yoga and meditation were intended to be a sequence or a progression, and the meditation aspects of yoga are designed to quiet the “mind chatter” that promotes stress. Focusing on the breath and breathing calms the mind very effectively.  There are also many who practice yoga who achieve improved concentration. This depends on being able to consistently quiet the mind and to silence the internal dialogue that usually runs rampant in overly stressed individuals.

There is new research supporting improved blood and oxygen flow to the brain. This finding may have far reaching benefits, including improvements in learning and memory. This even extends to people experiencing depression and even helping those having had a stroke to recover more of their previous functioning.

Yoga fitness benefits extend themselves to all the parts of your body as they enable you to live your life. These fitness effects continue to build over time and with regular practice. A fit body is your vehicle that will enable you to live a fuller and more productive life. The quality of life you experience will also improve as a result of being able to accomplish more with less effort and feeling better while doing it. A fit body is fit for life.