While Ben uses the word ‘exercise’ often within the blog, anyone coming to my classes will quickly be introduced to the idea that we are doing more than simply a ‘workout’ or making fancy shapes with our bodies in order to achieve an aesthetic peak or ideal.
I’ve had many different relationships with my physical body. One of the reasons why yoga has stuck and helped me so much is that I quickly understood that it was less about physique, more about feeling at home in my body.
Why yoga is boss for your body
I think most people already agree that yoga is good for your body. Stretching, balancing, and moving through poses is instantly recognisable as exercise. Even if you didn't know it was called yoga you'd probably intuitively know that it was beneficial for the body.
But why is moving your body good for you? What is it specifically about articulating joints, manipulating muscles, and bearing weight through bones, as we move through space that our bodies love so much? And why is yoga one of the best-known types of exercise for the human system?
Move, move, move
Human beings are built to move. Our long limbs, upright position, and forward-pointing eyes make travelling across the face of the earth a walk in the park.
A lot has changed since we hunted and gathered on the great plains of the world. A more sedentary lifestyle and processed food chain have left our bodies susceptible to injury and degradation if left unchecked.
There are lots of countermeasures to having an unhealthy body and most of them are simple and timeless. Drinking lots of water, eating a mixed diet with lots of vegetables, and getting lots of fresh air and exercise are almost guaranteed to make anyone's body healthy and strong.
Exercise is fundamental to wellbeing. Moving your body helps strengthen your muscles, which helps stability, balance, and coordination. Movement also helps build more durable, denser bones.
While yoga is much more than 'just' exercise, it is a fantastic way to move your body. There's next to no equipment, you can do it from your own bedroom, and there's yoga for every level.
If you want to know more about how yoga can be more than just a physical activity, and the relationship between yoga and the nervous system, read Charley’s blog piece on Embodied Yoga.
If you're just starting out, you can try slow and gentle practises and progressively build a foundation of strength and experience. If you're looking to clear out the cobwebs and put your strength to the test, throw some spiral-dancer-to-plank-push-up combinations and you'll be bouncing off the mat and into your day feeling like a ninja.
Breathe, breathe, breathe
Alongside movement, yoga means breathing. Pranayama means controlling or simply focusing on the breath in order to move energy (or Prana) around your system.
As we put our bodies through a variety of poses in a yoga class, we are often invited to notice, return to, and meet our breath.
In doing this, sometimes we come to recognise that we are out of breath, short of breath, or even holding our breath unconsciously.
Other times, our breath guides us and we fully meet our breath; it fuels us, renews us, and empowers us through challenges thought previously insurmountable.
Our breath is with us through our whole practice whether we recognize it or not. And it's there, after we step off the mat and into the rest of our lives.
People (super smart scientists) have been researching the benefits of breathing and yoga for decades and the findings will blow you away... (sorry about that.) If you want to find out more about the benefits of breathwork, check out my previous article: Yoga and Breathing.
Yoga seems to be one of the best, most accessible ways for people to learn about their breath, develop, and strengthen it. Nandini Vallath writes in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care, 'The asanas and pranayama [of yoga] harmonize the physiological system and initiate a “relaxation response” in the neuroendocrinal system. This consists of decreased metabolism, quieter breathing, stable blood pressure, reduced muscle tension, lower heart rate and slow brain wave pattern.'
All good, right?
So, let's get specific. How exactly does practising yoga benefit the human body?
Yoga for strength
It takes a lot of strength to move your body across time and space. Our bodies stop growing somewhere around our mid-twenties. From then on, it's degrading, albeit slowly. From around 30 to 50, the muscle strength and power decline is relatively slow, then it tends to speed up around 55-60.
There's a lot we can do to help our body maintain its muscle strength and power. Some exercise like weight training and sprinting tend to put the body under intense stress in order to maximize gains.
Yoga, on the other hand, tends to build muscle a little slower and steadier. While yoga tends not to focus on exclusive muscles (like bicep curls, for example), moving through poses is a great way to strengthen the body holistically, especially the core.
When most people hear the word core, they think of the abdominal muscles, especially the transverse abdominals – you know, your six-pack. If you go to a Core Blast class at a gym, that’s probably what you’ll focus on.
Charley’s mentor, Julie Martin, talks about the Universal Core: ‘any muscles that need to be fired up to do whatever movement you’re doing optimally.’ In this scenario, what you define as your core depends on the movement: ‘What is the core of the movement? What are the main muscles involved in the movement?’
The answer to this question will be different if you’re standing up in Warrior II, for example, compared to downward facing dog or half-bridge.
Dynamically and fluidly moving through shapes, rarely becoming stiff or straining, will help you build balanced and complementary muscles in the arms, back, legs, and core.
Strengthening your body through yoga is also a great way to fend off injuries. Injuries often arise when we move too quickly or react to something in a quick, knee-jerk way, often putting our bodies into unexpected, imbalanced shapes.
By playing around on the mat and voluntarily putting yourself into novel, varied and creative shapes (as well as simple, straightforward ones), yoga helps your body react when it needs to.
Practising yoga also strengthens joints and can help prevent cartilage breakdown, making it great for developing strength and for people with conditions like knee arthritis.
Yoga for balance & flexibility
What does it mean to be balanced and flexible?
On our yoga mat, this might mean feeling greater ease in forward folds, or feeling comfortable balancing on one leg in tree pose, or even being able to notice when we are putting in too much effort and ease off or take rest.
Off the mat, it might mean becoming more aware of your stress levels at work and finding ways to manage this; it could be a greater capacity to respond well when the unexpected happens.
One of the great things about practising yoga is how easy it is to see the benefits playing out in the rest of your life. Who doesn't want to be more balanced and flexible?
Let's see what the science says. One study from 2016 at an American university looked specifically into the impact of yoga on balance and flexibility.
Members from the university's baseball and soccer teams undertook a 10-week bi-weekly yoga program, including such classics as downward facing dog, lunges, and chair pose.
After the ten weeks, the study found 'significant gains' for flexibility and balance in the yoga group, so much so that enhanced their athletic performance.
Another study found that practising 90 minutes of yoga a week helped increase spinal mobility and hamstring flexibility in women aged between 50 and 79.
The study concluded by recommending yoga to the elderly to help improve their flexibility and range of motion, which is 'particularly important for improving life quality.'
Yoga's great for improving strength, balance, and flexibility, but how about therapeutic benefits?
Yoga to combat pain
Back and neck pain are two of the most common physical problems in modern society. There's even a term for it: Non-Specific Lower Back Pain.
Due to its prevalence, there are also plenty of cures, gimmicks, drugs, and quacks, all promising to alleviate your back pain for a few low monthly payments!
Luckily, scientists are working hard to sort fake news from true, and yoga seems to pass the tests with flying colours.
Here's a quick look at some of the most promising findings when it comes to yoga and pain:
One systematic review from 2015 looking at six studies with 570 patients found that Iyengar yoga is 'an effective means or both back and neck pain in comparison to control groups.'
A meta-analysis looked at 12 studies with over 700 participants, concluding that yoga 'could be an effective treatment for chronic lower back pain, which is often difficult to treat.'
One study with 60 people suffering from chronic pain for more than 10 years found that a 'yoga protocol appears to have worked for people with different types and location of pain and … improve pain-related outcomes.'
Another study with participants suffering from pain from knee arthritis found that a 12-week yoga program 'can help improve the short-distance mobility in patients as well as having a positive effect on pain relief.'
From unspecified lower back pain to chronic pain and pain stemming from things like arthritis, yoga seems to help across the board.
Just make sure to manage your practise with your pain. If something's super painful, chances are your body doesn't want you to do it.
And remember, yoga teachers' words are just invitations, not orders or commands. Listen to your own body and do what feels good!
Yoga to reduce inflammation
Inflammation can be terrible for our body. Inflammation is associated with lots of nasty conditions like heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.
Just as with pain, there are lots of pills, prescriptions, and wonder cures designed to reduce inflammation. With abundance comes tricks, traps and rip-off artists, though, so beware.
Yoga appears to be one of the legitimate contenders when it comes to natural ways to reduce inflammation.
A systematic review from 2019 looked at 15 different studies looking into yoga's effects on inflammation. It found that 'yoga can be a viable intervention to reduce inflammation across a multitude of chronic conditions.'
Another study with over 200 hundred participants found that regularly practising yoga helps 'lower basal inflammation markers and also reduces the extent of inflammations after physical challenges.' Furthermore, the study goes on to say that regular yoga can actually 'protect people against inflammatory diseases by favourably altering pro-inflammatory cytokine levels.'
So, when it comes to reducing inflammation, yoga smashes it. Plus, the study found that there were no gender differences in yoga's anti-inflammatory benefits, so it's just as good for men as for women.
Yoga to increase airflow
Yogic breathing – or controlled breathing, is known to be really good for our immune systems, nervous systems, and psychological states. It turns out, maybe unsurprisingly, that it's also really good for our lungs.
One study found that practising one hour of yoga three times a week 'significantly improves pulmonary function.' Another study found that 70 minutes of yoga per week 'improved inspiratory muscle strength and global body flexibility.'
Yoga also shows promise for helping people with asthma. Asthma, a respiratory condition, affects over 300 million people worldwide and is often serious and life-altering.
One study looked at yoga's affect on 300 people with asthma, concluding that yoga intervention 'improved their quality of life.' While a systematic review looking at 15 trials with over 1000 participants found evidence that yoga 'probably leads to improvements in quality of life and symptoms in people with asthma.'
Just on a personal note, I've had asthma since I was a kid and have seen marked improvement in my symptoms since increasing the amount of exercise I do, including yoga multiple times a week. I've seen a huge improvement recently since switching to nose-breathing.
Yoga is boss for your whole body
Yoga is holistic – it affects every aspect of your life: vital, mental, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.
Yoga is easy to get started with. You can book onto a beginner’s course in a studio or do a free online video to get familiar with the basics.
Yoga can take many forms, but at its root, it should always be welcoming, non-judgmental and inclusive, which makes it easier to step through the door.
That's the first, and most important step. The moves you decide to do on top of that should correspond to your own body's wants and needs.
Personally, I love doing really intense almost HIIT-style yoga (High-Intensity Interval Training) that leaves me panting and sweating. But I also love slow, almost imperceptible, meditative movements where my heartbeat slows down to practically nothing.
And the beautiful thing is that yoga can be both.