Ever been told by a friend, doctor, family member etc. “Yoga’s supposed to help with that – why not give it a go?” It can feel like yoga is being presented at us left right and centre as a ‘cure all’ for physical ailments or mental stress.
So what can yoga do for you?
What is Yoga?
I think the best way to understand how yoga can be helpful and work through the minefield of offerings and choices is to understand what yoga is.
Simple question with sadly a less simple answer. Hundreds of books have been written on this question over many centuries, all with similarities, all with differences. But I think most people in the yoga community can agree that it’s a philosophy, a way of life, with the Sanskrit word Yoga meaning ‘union’ or ‘connection’.
Therefore what has this got to do with the yoga we know today? Perhaps you think of a yoga class with students pretzelled into various positions, or a hot yoga class where physical endurance can be challenged to a maximum, or maybe a peaceful meditation class where little to no movement is done at all? Each of the above is a form of movement in the yogic world known as an Asana, and is a way to reach that ‘union/connection’. Think of it as branches of a tree, with ‘union’ at the trunk (Yoga), and Asana as a branch (movement).
So in a nutshell? A yoga class is a sequence of movements all with the joint aim of union/connection.
How can Yoga help physically?
The great thing about yoga is with such an open definition; yoga classes have popped up across the world offering lots of different styles, forms and shapes to a class. Therefore, whatever you need physically you can probably find a class that addresses this.
Faster Power or Vinyasa classes can provide aerobic exercise, linked with improved cardiovascular health, lowered blood pressure, reduction to chronic pain, regulation of weight, and aiding sleep.
A very strength based Yoga class builds muscular strength, helping with bone health, balance, reduction to risk of injury, and general endurance.
Or perhaps a slower class is more your style, with a focus more on breath work, helping to relieve pain, improving immunity, stimulating the lymphatic system, lowering blood pressure and improving digestion.
How can Yoga help mentally?
It’s commonly understood that staying physically well helps us stay mentally well – our bodies and minds don’t work independently from each other. A clear example of this is after an active day of physical movement we often sleep better, meaning the next day we wake up feeling physically energised and mentally refreshed. Whereas when we aren’t feeling too physically well this can lead to a poor night sleep, leaving us feeling irritable and exhausted both physically and mentally the next day.
But more than this Yoga offers something else – or why isn’t it the same as all other forms of exercise? Yoga offers mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply described as a type of meditation in which you focus on being aware of what you’re feeling physically and mentally without judgement or trying to interpret it. Mindfulness is widely taught during a yoga class and has been proven to help relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. And as you can imagine the knock on effects of this can be massive, improving self-esteem, confidence, and happiness etc.
With all this being said why aren’t we all glued to our yoga mats – it does indeed sound like the ‘cure-all’ we’ve been told about? As a yoga teacher of 7 years, and a studio owner surely this would be the best marketing out there! But we all know life is complicated and there’s a wide range of different factors we need to consider in life to help us physically and mentally. But it’s undeniable that it can help us – whether that be help us directly with our wellbeing, or open us physically and mentally to other ways in which we can take care of ourselves.
So where to start?
5 Tips to Get You Started:
1. Find the style of yoga that works for you.
Yoga comes in all shapes and sizes. Classes can be slow, fast, hot, cold, with music, without music, incredibly spiritual, not spiritual at all…etc. the list goes on! Don’t judge all yoga on the first class you go to – try different styles, teachers, studios etc. and see what suits you best. Yoga is for everyone remember!
2. Try different locations.
It could be for you the most relaxing environment is a yoga studio with dimmed lights, ambient music and no clock to watch; or perhaps you feel more comfortable in your local gym where you can access all sorts of different classes. But if 2020 has taught us anything it’s to be mentally flexible! The yoga industry has had to completely reshape itself and some incredible options have popped up including outdoor yoga, as well as online as live-streamed classes, YouTube tutorials, and courses. Make it work for you!
3. Commit to a 90-day practice.
A habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form, averaging on 66 days. So committing to a 90 days before deciding whether yoga is for you can be great! Most in-person and online classes will have package options so definitely give them a go. They tend to be the best in terms of price, but also helping you commit.
4. Set up matters. Our environment matters!
Make sure you’re ready when you start, if at home put the cat or dog out (as cute as it can be to have them join in, it can be hard to switch off when your dog is trying to sit underneath you), turn your clock around so you don’t clock watch, perhaps light a candle or switch on some relaxing music. And remember if you’re not at home set up still matters – are your clothes comfortable or will you have to keep adjusting them, is your hair tied up, is your mat comfortable, do you have the props you need to help. Taking that bit of extra time before you start will do you wonders!
5. Enjoy yourself!
Try not to take it too seriously! It’s only Yoga! Not everyday will be the same, some day’s you’ll feel flexible others stiff, sometimes energetic, others slow. Let go of that and just try to enjoy the class for what it is. Why not get a friend or family member involved? Getting others joining in can be a great way to motivate yourself too! But mostly, if your yoga practice isn’t giving you what you want/need change it up, try something new and remember Yoga is meant to be fun!
Written by Frances Good, owner of Hotpod Yoga Bristol