Do you ever wonder why the arcane Eastern practice of yoga has taken Western society by storm? Once a practice confined within the borders of India and applied as a method to train and discipline teenage boys, yoga is practiced by more than 20 million people of all ages in the U.S. today. Lululemon is now a household name and downward dog is a part of everyday parlance. How does yoga manage to draw us in and never let us go?
I think once you start practicing yoga, you become addicted (in a good way!) to the benefits it provides. It's a sneaky practice that initially entices people by promising a good workout, more flexibility, relaxation or a way to recover from an injury. But it delivers so much more.
Here are the top 5 reasons I've continued to come back to my mat every day for the past 6 years.
1. Develops a Strong Body. Even if you're not in it for anything but a workout, on a purely physical level, yoga is great for your body. You couldn't ask for a more comprehensive, effective physical practice. It builds strength, it improves stability, flexibility and balance, and develops those amazing lean muscles you see on yoga bodies everywhere. It works muscles you never even knew you had. And a really strong vinyasa class will even give you a pretty good cardiovascular workout to boot.
2. Keeps the Body Young. We age in our joints. Our ligaments, which attach one bone to another and stabilize our joints, need to be constantly moved and worked. Otherwise, they go through a shortening process and this tightens and stiffens our joints. When we're young, our ligaments are supple and resilient and we can fight the shortening process merely through our daily activities. But as we age, if we don't actively exercise them, our ligaments will stiffen and shorten. Yoga, unlike any other form of physical activity, works all your ligaments and gets every joint in the body moving (shoulders, hips, wrists, ankles, neck, the joints between each vertebrae of your spine) and therefore keeps your joints agile and spacious and young. And trust me, you can feel it.
3. Relieves Stress. If you've practiced yoga, you've probably experienced that chilled out, Zen-like state at the end of class that leaves you feeling completely tranquil and at peace with the world. So where does that come from? It's all about the GABA. Gamma-aminobutryic acid, that is. GABA is a chemical messenger in our nervous system that tells our brain to chill out and calm down (depression and anxiety are both associated with low levels of GABA in the body). And a recent study found that GABA levels increased by 27% in people after they practiced an hour of yoga. And nervous system aside, yoga is a practice that helps you get out of your head and into your body.
4. Cultivates a Steady, Calm Mind. Here's where the more subtle benefits of yoga sneak up on you. When we practice yoga, we get on our mats and hold a series of poses which are sometimes hard or uncomfortable to hold. But we stick with it, steady our mind and focus on our breath. By staying focused and breathing through the discomfort, we teach ourselves how to deal with unpleasant situations and the stress that may arise from them. Rather than fighting the stress and discomfort, we learn to acknowledge it, accept it and even settle into it. And sooner or later, we may realize that it passes as quickly as it arose. And, ideally, if we practice this enough times on our mats, we can begin to apply this technique in our daily lives outside the yoga studio.
5. It's Fun. Your mat may be the only place in the world where you can stop taking yourself so seriously, loosen up, twist your body up like a pretzel in a variety of crazy-looking positions, fall over, go upside down, float and fly and have fun! Who can resist that?
I may be preaching to the choir about the benefits of yoga here on MindBodyGreen. But if you’ve never tried it, I encourage you to succumb to the peer pressure and give it a shot. It's the healthiest addiction you may ever have.
If you're already an addict like me, tell me, what's got you hooked?