June 21 was International Yoga Day, so today we’re sharing with you some health benefits of this increasingly popular form of relaxation and exercise. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the practice of yoga. First, yoga is not a religion, nor do you need to subscribe to any particular religion or be of any particular ethnic background to practice yoga and enjoy its benefits. Second, you do not need to be super-flexible or look like a supermodel to do yoga! The beauty of yoga is that you can start where you are, no matter what your fitness level. Let’s get started!
Yoga is a mind-body practice that originated in India thousands of years ago as a spiritual practice. Yoga connects your body, breath, and mind using various physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. This combination leads to overall better health. Practicing yoga can:
- Lower your blood pressure
- Reduce your heart rate
- Help you relax
- Give you self-confidence
- Lower your stress level
- Improve your coordination
- Increase your concentration
- Help you sleep at night
- Ease an achy tummy by aiding in digestion
- Reduce anxiety
- Help with back pain
- Improve depression
- Help you eat more mindfully
How does yoga do all this? By focusing on our breathing, and by concentrating on holding postures (which do not have to be difficult), yoga teaches us to focus intently on our bodies and nothing else. Being more mindful this way allows us to really connect with our bodies and forget about the stress and anxiety that remains off our mat. Certain postures gently stretch the body to ease aches and pains, or a bloated stomach.
There are many different forms of yoga. The most popular are Hatha yoga and Ashtanga yoga. Hatha yoga is your everyday yoga, which includes basic breathing and various postures. Ashtanga yoga, popular in the west, is also sometimes called “Power Yoga,” and involves moving quickly from one pose to another, giving you a good workout. Other popular forms of yoga include Bikram, or hot yoga, where you practice in a heated room; Iyengar yoga, which focuses on the correct alignment of the body and which often includes the use of yoga props; and Kundalini yoga, which focuses on breath and energy with movement.
You can get started with yoga by taking a class in person, or following along with videos on DVD or online. If you’re just starting out, it might be a good idea to take an in-person class so a certified yoga instruction can help you with proper alignment so you don’t hurt yourself. Be sure to wear loose, comfortable clothing that allows you to move easily, and stay hydrated by drinking water afterwards. Eating a large meal before doing any kind of yoga class is usually discouraged. If you do take a class, make sure the teacher is certified. Start slow with a beginner class, and if something doesn’t feel good to you, don’t do it!
One final misconception about yoga: You don’t need to know Sanskrit to understand yoga. Yoga postures, or “asanas,” are often referred to by their Sanskrit names. Yoga has become so popular in the West that these postures are now just as frequently referred to by their English translated (or as close as we can get!) names. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing or not using the Sanskrit names for poses.
If you’re interested in starting yoga at home, here are some tips to help you work this beneficial practice into your day:
- Start the day with a quick meditation; sit up in your bed and take a few deep breaths, really focusing on your breathing in and out. Close your eyes and try to quiet your mind for 5 minutes. Set a timer if that helps. Set your intention for the day: What do you hope to accomplish today?
- Before breakfast, do 1-2 rounds of Sun Salutations to energize yourself.
- Take a yoga class after work or bring your yoga mat to work and try an online class before you eat your lunch.
- End the day with some gentle stretching and a long Corpse Pose to completely relax yourself before bed.