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The Benefits of Yoga

Sherry Roberts

Babies are born yogis. Once we were all able to pull our toes up by our ears and laugh about it. Then we aged, got injured, began carrying stress in our shoulders and back.

In short, we lost our balance.

Yoga is an ancient practice that helps create a sense of union in body, mind, and spirit. It brings us balance.

I was seriously out of balance when I started practicing yoga in 1999. I had plantar fascitiis in both feet, and my doctor had put the kibosh on all the things I loved to do: walking, hiking, and playing tennis. I was desperate for exercise. Yoga became my salvation and even enhanced my other fitness activities.

I practice hatha yoga at least twice a week, but I consider yoga to be part of my daily life because after awhile you no longer just practice yoga - you live it.

Stretching into a Fit Life

Yoga becomes part of your physical life. Your body grows stronger, more toned, and more flexible as you move from one asana-or pose-to the other. I spent a week in Mexico at a yoga retreat, and it was the first vacation on which I lost weight. "Rather than building muscle, yoga builds muscle tone," says Shakta Kaur Khalsa, author of the K.I.S.S. Guide to Yoga. "Because yoga helps maintain a balanced metabolism, it also helps to regulate weight. Additionally, yoga stretches muscles lengthwise, causing fat to be eliminated around the cells, thus reducing cellulite."

What yoga can do for you

  • The physical benefits: Creates a toned, flexible, and strong body. Improves respiration, energy, and vitality. Helps to maintain a balanced metabolism. Promotes cardio and circulatory health. Relieves pain. Helps you look and feel younger than your age. Improves your athletic performance.

  • The mental benefits: Helps you relax and handle stressful situations more easily. Teaches you how to quiet the mind so you can focus your energy where you want it to go - into a difficult yoga pose, on the tennis court or golf course, or in the office. Encourages positive thoughts and self-acceptance.

  • The spiritual benefits: Builds awareness of your body, your feelings, the world around you, the needs of others. Promotes an interdependence between mind, body, and spirit. Helps you live the concept of "oneness."   

I do yoga poses throughout the day. After hours at my computer, I stretch my stiff shoulders and arms. When I need a boost of energy, I do energizing poses. When I am feeling exhausted at the end of the day, I do restorative poses.

Yoga becomes part of your mental life. Yoga teaches you to focus on breathing while you hold the poses. This attention to breath is calming; it dissolves stress and anxiety. I use yogic breathing on the tennis courts, in the dentist's chair, when I'm stuck in traffic.

You should always leave a yoga practice feeling energized, not tired. If you feel tired after yoga, it means you spent the time "fighting" yourself, trying to force yourself into poses. In yoga, you "surrender" to the pose by letting go of the tension.

Yoga becomes part of your spiritual life. Yoga is practiced by people from all religions; it is nondenominational. Yoga teaches "right" living in how we deal with ourselves and others. As I work on a difficult pose, I learn patience, forgiveness, and the value of gentleness. Yoga advocates proper eating, but you don't have to be a vegetarian to practice yoga. 

There have been some medical studies on the positive effects of yoga. And a growing number of doctors are following the lead of cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish and incorporating yoga into their patient recovery programs.

But for the most part, the evidence of the benefits of yoga is anecdotal. They range from the simple "I can touch my toes again" to "it helped me handle my disease." A woman who was diagnosed with hepatitis C, for example, said: "Yoga has helped me immensely to deal with the hepatitis C treatment. I truly feel that the reason that I have had such a successful treatment so far is that my whole being was ready, calm, and accepting of what would be-and throughout the treatment the ability to focus, breathe, and stretch the limits of my body and mind has definitely kept me together."

Getting Started

Anyone can do yoga-no matter how young or old you are, whether you're a couch potato or a professional athlete. Size and fitness level do not matter because there are modifications for every yoga pose. The idea is to explore your limits, not strive for some pretzel-like perfection.

Start by going to a yoga class. Look for a teacher who challenges you but does not push, who offers modifications, and who works one-on-one with students. Wear comfortable clothing that allows you to move. Use a yoga mat for cushioning and to keep from slipping. If there is no yoga studio in your town, practice with a video and read books. Just remember one thing: "No pain, no gain" is NOT the yoga way. If it hurts, stop. Patience and feeling good about yourself and your world is the way of the yogi. 

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