If you thought yoga was just about sitting in awkward positions while chanting repetitively, think again. Whether you’re looking to cure a cold, ease back pain or simply become more flexible, yoga is a discipline that’s seriously underrated. We’ve spoken to the experts to find out more about just a few of the ways yoga can benefit us all.
Due to the way in which yoga helps us to become more flexible, it’s especially ideal for those with cardiovascular problems. ‘Hatha yoga emphasises methods of doing yoga postures (asanas) and energetic breathing exercises (pranayamas) for physical health and wellbeing,’ says UK yoga instructor Kirsty Weir.
‘The benefits of this type of yoga practice from a physiological point of view include changes to cardiovascular functions along with benefits to musculoskeletal structures. For example, standing postures and forward bends are known to be sedative and can lower blood pressure, while backbends and inversions are great for stimulating and increasing blood pressure. Shoulder stands promote circulation to the neck region and are well known for their beneficial effects on thyroid conditions.’
If the daily commute or pressing deadlines are getting you down, yoga might just be what you need to put things into perspective. ‘Yoga has a balancing effect on both body and mind and as such it’s perfect for addressing stress-related illnesses such as insomnia, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome and IBS,’
If you’re new to yoga but concerned about a lack of flexibility, Iyengar yoga could be a great place to start. ‘Iyengar yoga is good for people who are slightly older because it’s not so dynamic or strenuous and there’s a big emphasis on the use of props to create safe alignment – something that’s very important as we all get older,’ explains Miami yoga instructor Fred Busch,
Feel the burn
You might be surprised to learn that yoga can actually help us to lose weight and tone up, thanks to its ability to aid digestion and promote the burning of abdominal fat. ‘The physical exercises benefit the whole body, both on the muscular and inner organs level,’ explains Minakshi at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas. ‘For example, the benefits of the sitting forward bend [as illustrated in the photo] include developing a healthier and more flexible lower back, the burning of abdominal fat and better digestion.’
Osteoporosis is just one example of a condition that can be helped by yoga, thanks to the focus on correct bone alignment.
‘For preventing osteoporosis, correct posture is paramount,’ explains Juliana Mitchell, a yoga instructor at . ‘This can be explained by a principal called ‘Wolfe’s Law’ which states that bone density grows along lines of stress. In good posture, we evenly distribute the body’s weight through the key weight-bearing bones, helping the body to continually rebuild bone mass. Many yoga classes emphasise a pose called tadasana or mountain pose. At first glance it can seem like just standing there. But tadasana is a master pose which can be refined for the rest of our lives – it teaches the body and mind how to distribute body weight, and works as a maintenance plan for our key weight bearing bones.’
A breath of fresh air
The emphasis on correct breathing technique means yoga is ideal for those suffering from respiratory conditions while those suffering from insomnia can also benefit. ‘Certain pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) can be very beneficial for asthma, as well as sleep disruptions caused by sleep problems,’ says Juliana at New York Yoga. ‘A yoga teacher with a strong knowledge of pranayama and of yoga therapeutics would be necessary in this regard. Certain restorative yoga poses can also be excellent for asthma.’
Get tough on toxins
It’s all too easy to ignore the damage done by a poor diet – alcohol, processed foods and smoking can all have disastrous effects on our bodies – but certain types of yoga are known for their ability to neutralise some of these poisons. ‘I find that ashtanga and vinyasa yoga, due to the high cardio nature of the practice, help to bring about a better alkaline to acidity pH ratio in the body,’ says Donnalynn Civello, holistic health coach at New York Yoga.
‘These yoga styles help to release both physical and emotional toxins in the body. Through these practices, the physical toxins (from processed foods, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol and prescription drugs) are slowly released from storage in the fat cells and discharged from the body as sweat, etc. This enables a lower acidity level in the body as these toxins are highly acidic.’
Sort the sniffles
Feeling the first snivels of a cold? Yoga isn’t just great for getting rid of colds – it can prevent them coming back, too. ‘Colds can be repaired with yoga – that’s the good news,’ reveals Tara Stiles. ‘The even better news is the more yoga you practice the less you’ll get colds in the first place. A regular yoga practice will strengthen your immunity. Your yoga practice and these additional breathing techniques can cleanse the body and the sinuses, leaving you feeling refreshed and relieved even during the worst of colds.’
Yoga’s ability to improve the nervous system means it’s the perfect solution for a wide range of related conditions. ‘When we practice the yoga asanas (postures), they give us physical benefits such as flexibility and strength, as well as balance our parasympathetic with our sympathetic nervous systems, which in turn allows our endocrine system and our digestive system to function more efficiently,’ explains Michelle Dortignac at Unnata Aerial Yoga.
‘If your endocrine system is functioning more efficiently, you will have fewer problems with conditions such as hot flushes for menopausal women, hypothyroidism and insomnia. If your digestive system is functioning more efficiently, you will have fewer problems with conditions such as constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux.’
Back to basics
If long days hunched over a computer have left you with a bad back, yoga might just be the answer to your prayers. ‘Yoga stretches can help to unravel the tension which builds throughout the day, and the impact of hours sitting at a desk, hunched over a screen,’ says Katie Mutton, a yoga instructor at London-based Yoga Team. ‘Once the body is free from physical tension it’s easier for the mind to relax, sleep improves and your immunity gets a boost, so you stay healthier.
What are you waiting for?
With yoga increasing in popularity, there’s never been a better time to find out more. ‘I’d suggest that an absolute beginner finds a qualified teacher (the British Wheel of Yoga website is a good start) and trys a beginners’ course to learn some of the basics,’.
‘Fundamentally I think you should find a good teacher that you like and that you can learn from. Keep looking until you find that person. The beauty of yoga is that the more you do it the more you want to know and your knowledge and practice will deepen over the years. Acceptance, reflection, growth and happiness can all come with a deepening yoga practice. We should all do yoga because quite simply, it makes us feel better!’.