Yoga has been around for thousands of years in India as a mental, physical and spiritual practice, but over the past few decades it has been popularized as a form of exercise. You probably already have friends who swear by it and see many Lululemon-clad ladies toting rolled up yoga mats around Starbucks. Sure, it’s a great workout good for any level and uses all the muscles in your body (some you didn’t know you had). It’s also a great stress reliever, with the breathing exercises and meditation helping you to focus and relax. Bikram yoga is even done in a heated room to increase your heart rate, loosen muscles and improve flexibility. Sure, I’ve heard friends complaining that yoga is boring and it doesn’t move fast enough; if you want something pumped up and quick you’d better get your buns over to the Zumba studio next door. However, if you want an overall practice that connects your mind with your body, yoga might be right for you.
In my past high-stress, fast-paced life as a consultant, I started practicing yoga to get some exercise and take some time for myself. Five years later, especially as an entrepreneur, I’ve come to appreciate the practice as more that just a one hour workout. There are a number of reasons why you should give it a shot, and the benefits of yoga will carry over to your life off the mat as well:
Yoga doesn’t use any weights or fancy equipment, but that doesn’t mean it’s less effective than going to the gym. No amount of lifting weights is going to make your arms as strong as holding up your own body weight. You learn to focus on and activate different muscles in order to achieve different postures. The practice also engages your core, from balancing poses to moving from one yoga pose to another, using your core to stabilize your body. It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis.
Yoga helps develop strength of the mind. After a minute of holding a squat or lunge with screaming, burning quads I really do want to quit; but oftentimes I realize my body can still go on, it’s my mind that’s the problem. After focusing and breathing through the pain, I realized how much longer I could go. Meditation is also an important part of the practice, and at the beginning I found it really hard to focus my mind. Eventually I learned to be present and put aside everything else that was demanding my attention. This carries over to other aspects of your life; the discipline that fuels yoga practice and that regular practice builds can be extended to overcome inertia and change dysfunctional habits. You may find that with less effort you start eating better, exercising more, or are finally able to quit smoking after years of failed attempts.
Unless you were a gymnast or dancer in your youth, most of us start yoga with stiff, inflexible tendons and muscles after years of sitting at a desk hunched over a computer. At the start, I couldn’t even touch my toes and I had chronic back and neck pain. After years of practice, the pain is gone, and though I’ve accepted that I’ll never be able to fold myself into a yogi pretzel, I have greatly improved flexibility in my back and hips, which is critical to preventing injury in old age. Tight hips can strain the knee joint due to improper alignment of the thigh and shinbones. Tight hamstrings can lead to a flattening of the lumbar spine, which can cause back pain. And inflexibility in muscles and connective tissue can cause poor posture.
Yoga also extends flexibility of mind. Each person’s body is different, so his or her ability to achieve each pose differs not just based on strength and flexibility but also on bone structure and body proportions. Yoga teaches you to not just try to copy what the instructor is doing, but adjust the pose based on your body’s capabilities. I’ve learned that this applies to my business life as well; starting a new company from scratch comes with its share of challenges and frustrations. Regular discipline and flexibility of mind has helped me think of different ways to approach difficult situations, avoid anger and maintaining my sanity.
Try standing on one foot for one minute. You’ll realize that this not only requires strength in the standing leg but also an ability to focus your mind on the task at hand. Various yoga poses encourage you to balance not just on either foot but on your hands, shoulders and head as well (headstand, anyone?) Yoga is also a balance of energy exerting muscular postures (yang) with relaxed, stretching poses (yin). Every class is finished with a period of relaxation in savasana (corpse pose, it’s exactly how it sounds, you lie on the ground unmoving like a dead person and it's more challenging than it seems.) I’ve learned to apply these principles to the rest of my life; you can power through your day focusing on work and family life, but it’s also important to take a minute to slow things down and just... relax.
After practicing for a while, I’ve learned subtle things about my body I never realized before: my right leg is tighter than my left, my ribcage is slightly twisted to the right and I used to breathe only using the top half of my lungs. Why am I telling you this, you ask? Understanding the subtle aspects of your body helps you preventing future injury. You become aware that you are hunched when sitting at your desk or scrunching your shoulders when you drive. You understand where that back pain is coming from and learn how to stretch and improve your posture to relieve it. You learn to use your whole lungs to breathe to reduce anxiety and relieve stress. I also learned that my mind moves like a bullet train from one thought to the next, which does not help in the stress department. I’ve learned how to focus better, which has helped improve my work life as well. You may start to realize the habitual reactions you take such as anger, frustration or fear and take steps to change how you respond to the world.
So have I made enough of a case to get you to try yoga for a couple of sessions? Oh, I forgot to mention that you’d look better and lose weight too. Not bad for an hour’s work, huh?