According to WebMD, almost 11 million Americans practice yoga, so yoga is clearly not a passing fad. Yoga encourages a healthy lifestyle by incorporating the mind/body dynamic in its practice. The benefits of yoga include:
- increased flexibility,
- relaxation through meditation
- muscle tone and strength
- motor control and balance.
No matter which yoga discipline you choose, from Hatha yoga, the most familiar to the Western world, to the more strenuous Bikram style, the benefits of yoga ultimately encourage a healthy lifestyle through the Bhagavad-Gita’s assertion to “do no harm,” a central tenet in Buddhism.
All yoga involves asanas, or poses, that gradually stretch the muscles in slow, regulated movements. Pranayama, or controlled breathing, allows the student to transition between poses as well as listen to the body and know when the stretch is just at the edge of comfort. The breathing also comes into play when the student relaxes into the pose, and the benefits of yoga can be even more pronounced in endurance athletes, both in terms of flexibility and increased lung capacity as the breathing is lengthened.
Visualization is a core component of sports training, and here again, athletes and weekend warriors alike can see the benefits of yoga when it comes to meditation. Mindfulness and concentration, the two parts of the eightfold path of yoga, pratyahara and dharana, respectively, promote a heightened awareness of the athlete’s body and can give them perspective in terms of training goals and intentions. For those not so competitively inclined, meditation can bring the mind into better focus on day-to-day goals and how they figure into one’s life overall.
Different styles of yoga will give each student increased muscle tone and strength in varying degrees. The benefits of yoga involve a gradual process and a learning curve, which is why many students stick to the program for years. Whereas Ashtanga yoga challenges students through power moves and Hatha yoga is less aggressive, both disciplines allow students to progress at their own speed, through mindful breathing and executing the asanas in the correct form, with the guidance of the instructor.
With stronger muscles come better balance and control, two more benefits of yoga. This is particularly advantageous, not just to gymnasts and athletes, but to the elderly. Many retirement communities offer yoga classes to this end, so the benefits of yoga are available to all ages and skill levels.