The Reader's Digest Version of the Benefits of Yoga
by Jessica Dollard, Guest contributor
Writing a short article on the benefits of yoga, a practice that I hold as the precise recipe to my own happiness and health, is a tall order. To summarize how I feel about a practice that has sincerely led me to a new sense of purpose and to a deeper, more satisfying life in the world – I would need a dissertation! Those who have never tried yoga may ask, “But all of this from a bunch of strange Gumby-like positions?” Yes, all of this.
Yogi scholars say that yoga is definitely 2,000 years old and may be up to 5,000 years old as there are hieroglyphics in caves that depict little pictures of Yogis in familiar postures that date back that far. Regardless of age, I feel yoga is India’s greatest gift to the world as it has allowed me to find: breath, awareness, alignment, and has opened my heart. Let’s take a close look at each of these benefits.
Breath does the beautiful trick of connecting me to this moment, letting the memory of the past and projections of the future fade away. Your breath is the voice of your heart and the way I teach yoga is to always lead with the heart. I have found that if you can lead with your heart, no matter who or what situation is in front of you, you will decrease the amount of drama and conflict in your life. True story.
Awareness is one of my favourite benefits as it can liberate you from the limited notions of who you think you are simply by noticing the tyranny of the chatter of your mind. It can help you let go of your false desires and false attachments connecting the mind, body, and soul, and lead you down the path to discovering your true self. This ancient practice and way of life, begins with one’s purity of the mind and body, contentment with all that is, transcendence of the ego, and contemplation and devotion to the deeper levels of being. All of this comes with breath, stillness, and the ability to listen to your body.
I teach what I call an “alignment-based Hatha yoga”, which is heavily inspired by Anusara teachings (Anusara Yoga is beautiful practice, check it out here: www.anusara.com). I believe that meticulous alignment on your mat leaks off of your mat (as all of the benefits of yoga do). Of course alignment keeps you safe, protecting your joints and body as you practice, but I have found that the more specific you are about where you put your body on your mat – the clearer you are as a person off of your mat. It seems like a stretch (no pun intended) but I have experienced this in my own life.
Lastly is the “heart-opening” principle of yoga. This is the piece of it that many people who are new to yoga have a hard time with. Isn’t it a bit hippy-dippy to think that a bunch of poses, some chanting, and possibly some meditation could have the larger effect of “opening your heart”, and do you want this any way? I will not answer the latter question for you but before we leap into this discussion, let’s talk physical, psychological and biochemical benefits of yoga. Fortunately the internet is abundant with credible information on Yoga’s C.V. of accomplishments, which will impress even the most tight-hamstringed cynic.
Physiological benefits range from balance and postural improvements, strength and resilience improvements, dexterity improvements, decreased blood pressure, increased joint range motion, increased cardiovascular and respiratory efficiency, increased balance, increased depth-perception, even your excretory system will improve with a regular practice (think of all of those twisting postures wringing out your internal organs). Regular practice will also: stabilize the autonomic nervous system equilibrium, increase Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), normalize endocrine function, and increase flexibility and joint range of motion. The list goes on and on. Alas, my dissertation awaits.
Psychological benefits include increases and improvements in: somatic and kinesthetic awareness, social adjustment, concentration, memory, attention/focus, learning efficiency, mood and self-actualization. Also hostility, anxiety and depression decrease. Biochemical benefits include decreases in glucose, sodium, cholesterol, triglycerides, catecholamines, lymphocyte count, and total white blood cell count while the desirable cholinesterase, ATPase, hematocrit, hemoglobin, lymphocyte counts, thyroxin, vitamin C and total serum protein increase in the body.
I can personally attest that these benefits are palpable as I have been practicing yoga for almost ten years and have experienced much of this. I started practicing diligently simply because it “made me happy” and honestly, that is enough to sustain a practice through a lifetime. As a teacher, this result thrills me and is all I ask for. Anusara Yoga even advocates that students will leave the mat feeling better than when they came, feeling connected to their own inner divine being (or Higher Self).
This is my clever segue back to this “heart-opening” business. Yoga is a process that week by week, as you practice, you will find that you are connecting to the voice of your heart (RE: your breath) and with this comes a natural curiosity about your body, mind and soul connection. As a teacher I try to theme my classes so that the lessons of alignment and movement on the mat have “leakage-off-the-mat” possibilities. Thinking about the postures and cues with a greater theme in mind allows you to practice yoga from the inside out, and take greater meaning from your practice into your life. This inevitably encourages you to relocate your personal sense of identity to a more intrinsic place. It allows you to use the postures as the embodiment of creative expression of your own individuality and feel the greater meaning in your practice.
I challenge you to join me on your mat for a little dose of happy! Find me teaching at www.tri-yogacalgary.com or 403.228.YOGA (9642). I also teach at Samadhi Yoga & Wellness Centre (www. samadhiwellnesscentre.ca). You can keep up with me and my cohorts at: www.projectscatterjoy.com.
Jessica Dollard is an RYT 200, B.F.A., Dip. (Acting/Voice)