Yoga training can be of enormous benefit to anyone persuing a fitness regime. Yoga tones and strengthens your body uniformly, unlike some fitness training regimens that can lead to overdevelopment of particular muscle groups. Yoga excersizes, meditation and postures also improve your balance, strength and overall flexibility, making you more capable of pursuing a weight loss regimen.
The Physical Benefits of Yoga
Performing yoga postures regularly offers a number of physical benefits, including:
1. Increased Flexibility
But in Western, physiological terms, “flexibility” is just the ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. It’s an ability we’re born with, but that most of us lose. “Our lives are restricted and sedentary,” explains Dr. Thomas Green, a chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, “so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a limited range.”
Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we got the daily exercise we needed to keep our bodies flexible and healthy. But modern, sedentary life is not the only culprit that constricts muscles and joints. Even if you’re active, your body will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time you become an adult, your tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. Your muscle fibers have begun to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our elastic fibers get bound up with collagenous connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissues is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan! Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cellular structure.
2. Increase Lubrication of Joints, Ligaments, & Tendons.
Yoga postures and exercises focus on all of the joints of the body, including joints you probably don’t use regularly. Yoga exercises can strength problem joints such as the knees, hips and ankles. Yoga training also leads to increased spinal flexibility and core strength, both of which can reduce chronic problems such as lower back pain and increase your overall physical strength. Because yoga also exercises ligaments and tendons, your joints will lubricate more effectively, reducing joint pain.
3. Massaging the Body’s Internal Organs
Yoga training may be the only form of exercise that stimulates your internal organs. This helps prevent disease by maintaining organ health. It can also help make you more aware of potential health problems.
4. Detoxifying the Body
Yoga stretches and stimulates the muscles and organs of the body in a uniform manner. This allows increased blood flow to all parts of your body, which helps to flush out the toxins that can accumulate in your body’s tissues. Increased detoxification can increase your energy levels, making you more likely to follow an exercise program designed for weight loss.
5. Toning the Muscles
Muscles are organs—biological units built from various specialized tissues that are integrated to perform a single function. (Physiologists divide muscles into three types: the smooth muscles of the viscera; the specialized cardiac muscles of the heart; and the striated muscles of the skeleton—but in this article we’ll focus only on skeletal muscles, those familiar pulleys that move the bony levers of our bodies.)
The specific function of muscles, of course, is movement which is produced by muscle fibers, bundles of specialized cells that change shape by contracting or relaxing. Muscle groups operate in concert, alternately contracting and stretching in precise, coordinated sequences to produce the wide range of movements of which our bodies are capable.
In skeletal movements, the working muscles—the ones that contract to move your bones—are called the “agonists.” The opposing groups of muscles—the ones that must release and elongate to allow movement—are called the “antagonists.” Almost every movement of the skeleton involves the coordinated action of agonist and antagonist muscle groups: They’re the yang and yin of our movement anatomy.
But although stretching—the lengthening of antagonist muscles—is half the equation in skeletal movement, most exercise physiologists believe that increasing the elasticity of healthy muscle fiber is not an important factor in improving flexibility. According to Michael Alter, author of Science of Flexibility (Human Kinetics, 1998), current research demonstrates that individual muscle fibers can be stretched to approximately 150 percent of their resting length before tearing. This extendibility enables muscles to move through a wide range of motion, sufficient for most stretches—even the most difficult asanas.
If your muscle fibers don’t limit your ability to stretch, what does? There are two major schools of scientific thought on what actually most limits flexibility and what should be done to improve it. The first school focuses not on stretching muscle fiber itself but on increasing the elasticity of connective tissues, the cells that bind muscle fibers together, encapsulate them, and network them with other organs; the second addresses the “stretch reflex” and other functions of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Yoga works on both. That’s why it’s such an effective method for increasing flexibility.
The Emotional and Psychological Benefits of Yoga
Yoga training also offers a number of emotional and psychological benefits. Yoga exercises, postures and meditation increase your powers of mental concentration and can significantly reduce levels of stress and anxiety. Yoga can also help you feel better about your body and your self, by increasing your strength and flexibility, and by allowing you to feel more in touch with your body.