Yoga is a 5,000 year old practice that originated in India. It was originally a group of physical, spiritual and mental practices with the goal of training the body and mind to become aware of their nature through self observance. Today, it’s become a popular mode of physical fitness that improves the body’s strength and flexibility, although many practitioners also find an attraction to the spiritual side of it.
There are many different varieties practiced, with 8 major styles dominating most of what you’ll find in the U.S. Each style focuses on a series of poses that seek to challenge your body and link breath to movement. Some classes may focus on relaxation, others on physical exertion, and others take that up a notch by adding heat to the mix in a Bikram or hot yoga class. Each has a benefit, that may speak more to the individual practitioner and their goal of physical improvement, and or spirituality and self knowledge. If you’re curious about the various options, GAIAM has a good basic overview of them here.
What are the benefits of yoga?
There are numerous health benefits recognized by the practice of yoga. Because of it’s spiritual background, sometimes yoga gets a bad reputation. Many people see the funny poses and hear of practitioners chanting and immediately dismiss it as some kind of snake oil, or weird religious practice that they don’t want to have anything to do with.
However, dismissing yoga is a mistake. The American Osteopathic Association recognizes the following physical benefits to practicing yoga regularly:
- increased flexibility.
- increased muscle strength and tone.
- improved respiration, energy and vitality.
- maintaining a balanced metabolism.
- weight reduction.
- cardio and circulatory health.
- improved athletic performance.
- protection from injury.
These benefits are in addition to reduced stress (something we can ALL use in our lives!) and the ability to lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia. Bear in mind that “stress reduction” is doctor code for a number of physical effects, including back and neck pain, headaches, ability to concentrate and a host of other physical maladies that are all linked to stress.
Difficulties and drawbacks to yoga
I’d love to tell you that I’ve uncovered a vast conspiracy and have an exposé about the dangers of yoga, but, the dangers just aren’t all that interesting. Truth be told, yoga is probably a lot safer than most other forms of exercise because it is performed slowly and deliberately. The biggest dangers from yoga are likely overuse injuries (sprains, strains and tendonitis) and even these are usually not a result of yoga itself but rather the individual pushing themselves too hard.
As far as drawbacks, there may be some discomfort – the poses may push your flexibility, and extended hold times may cause muscle fatigue and soreness; but almost all fitness modes have some sort of discomfort associated with them, so it’s probably unfair to call yoga’s fatigue and stretching a drawback.
If you do a search online for the dangers of yoga, or the drawbacks of yoga, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything with any “real” claims against it. You’ll find people who dislike it’s spiritual background, or the fact that it began as a way to glorify ancient Indian deities, but let’s be honest, the chances are that your average hot yoga class has more in common with a french fry warmer than it has with glorifying deities. If you live in the west, there’s a good chance that your yoga class is focused on fitness, strengthening and stretching. If you’re after something spiritual, then you’ll probably have to look pretty hard for a class that has a spiritual focus, or bring it into the class itself.
So yeah, I apologize, the headline of the article is pretty click-baity. In my humble opinion, Yoga is a great and relatively safe way to increase your strength and flexibility with very little downside. It’s safe for almost any age – although check with your doctor before beginning a program to make sure your body can handle it – especially if you have any joint issues. If you’re adding it to your fitness routine in addition to running, lifting, or any other fitness mode, it’s a great way to keep your body limber and challenged – even on your rest days, and the benefits that your increased flexibility will provide will serve you well for your entire life.
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