By Rebecca Chabot
As I stand in Tadasana, the simple starting posture of many yoga classes, I reap the benefits of the stillness and focus that are required. As my legs engage and my spine lengthens, my body learns the correct way to stand. My body awareness is increased and my sense of balance is refined. My breath is steady and calm, increasing the oxygen that is circulated through my body. As with all standing poses in yoga, Tadasana not only helps to improve circulation, but also stimulates digestion and elimination, expels dullness and depression, and leaves me feeling invigorated, refreshed and light. The soothing calmness of my conscious breathing helps to cease the fluctuations of my mind. I continue to focus on my breath and my heart begins to open, as the channels of energy connecting body and mind to soul are unblocked. I open. I glow. I become infinite.
In this essay, I will outline the benefits of yoga on the health of a human body. First, I will focus on the physical practice of yoga which consists of two parts: yogic posturing or asanas, and yogic breathing or pranayama. Then I will summarize the general mental health benefits of practicing yoga. Finally, I will discuss the benefits of specific yoga postures, such as standing postures and inversions.
Physical health benefits of yoga: Asanas
Regular practice of yoga asanas such as Tadasana provides one with many physical health benefits. As our bodies age, we begin to lose the supple tenderness that youth affords us. We become tighter, stiffer and often heavier. This tightness actually causes internal constriction which inhibits the circulatory system. Blood and other fluids, as well as the life force energy, or prana, begin to have restricted flow and the body’s cells become starved of nutrients. This undernourishment causes the body to age further, and nerves, glands, and muscles begin to malfunction. With yoga, this cellular level starvation can be retarded, if not reversed.
Practicing yoga asanas increases the circulation of blood in the body, nourishing and reinvigorating each cell in the various glands and organs. Improved circulation improves the blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart troubles, and simply improves the overall function of the organism. The endocrine system also benefits directly from yogic exercise. Yoga restores the secretions of the glands to their balanced, normal state. Practicing yoga postures from standing poses (e.g. Virabadrasana I and II) to balancing poses (e.g. Vrksasana and Garudasana) to inversions (e.g. Sarvangasana and Sirsasana) to supine poses (e.g. Matsyasana and Supta Virasana) increases balance, strength, and flexibility, and our bodies can begin to perform as younger bodies would.
The word “Yoga” means union, and in practicing the physical hatha yoga, we bring into balance the opposing forces of our beings. On a metaphysical level, our male and female energies, our yin and yang forces, our dark and light sides are united and brought into alignment. On a physical level, when we are asymmetrical or one side of our bodies is stronger than the other, stress occurs to compensate for this asymmetry. Practicing hatha yoga brings the body into balance from left to right and from back to front, instilling a functional symmetry that alleviates stress and strain and improves the health of the body.
A healthy body is a strong body. When we are tired and weak, we feel heavy and lethargic. Conversely, when we are strong, we feel energetic and light. The regular practice of yoga strengthens the body and tones the muscles, giving us a lighter feeling in our bodies, and a more pleasant experience of life.
Pain is a form of blocked energy and often results from neglect or misuse of the body. Becoming more flexible releases this blocked energy and frees the circulation, easing pain and increasing overall health of the parts of the body. With time, all yoga practitioners become more flexible and thus, more healthy.
Physical health benefits of yoga: Pranayama
Yogic breath control, or pranayama, is essential to any yoga practice and is responsible for a myriad of health benefits. The breath is regulated as it flows into and out of the lungs, allowing each inhale and each exhale to become slow and steady, and the body and mind to become relaxed. Reducing the rate of breathing from the normal 15 breaths per minute to approximately 5 breaths per minute reduces the heart rate so the heart can pump more freshly oxygenated blood with less work. In addition, the blood pressure is lowered, allowing the release of tension and strain in the body.
In the beginner level pranayama, the ratio of inhale to retention to exhale is 1:1:2. The longer exhale allows the residual air left in the lungs after a shallow exhale to be completely released, thus purifying and detoxifying the body. Blood circulation is improved during pranayama, as the oxygenated blood travels to the muscles, tissues and cells of the body. Pranayama strengthens the digestive system and removes toxins, thus boosting the immune system. Fatigue and lethargy are also eliminated as the body is rejuvenated with such deep regulated breathing. Yogic breathing exercises fundamentally purify and cleanse the body’s cells and nerve channels, and boost the system’s vitality preparing it for a deeper state of consciousness. Prana, or the life force energy, is most readily controlled through the control of the breath in pranayama. An abundance of prana in the body leads to greater strength, vitality and spiritual power.
Mental health benefits of yoga
Mental health is the overall psychological well-being of an individual, combining all aspects of life from social to spiritual to emotional. A person’s mental health is affected by their self-confidence, their sense of purpose, their relationships with others, and their thoughts. Negative thoughts and emotions that pass through one’s mind can cause great stress or emotional damage if they are identified as part of the self. Yoga can improve the balance in mental health, the sense of self-acceptance and well-being. It facilitates a better understanding of the self, and empowers people to be more true to themselves, more positive and more accepting of life. Practicing yoga can also relieve irregularities in the brain which may lead to mental health problems, the most common of which are anxiety and depression. Regular, focused breathing helps eliminate negative and harmful emotions such as anger, fear, greed, and arrogance. Practicing pranayama gives us feelings of inner peace, and improves sleep, memory, and concentration.
Yogic meditation also reduces the level of stress in the body, thus increasing the overall functioning of the human organism, and reducing the risk of stress-related illnesses such as heart disease. Stress is often a result of an over-committed, busy schedule. Both practicing hatha yoga and meditating slow us down and encourage us to ground in the present moment, relax, and enjoy life. Through regular practice of asanas, pranayama, and meditation, yoga can help regulate the thoughts that pass through the mind, improving the health of the mind and of the inner being.
Benefits of Specific Asanas
Specific health problems can be addressed with particular yoga postures. Each posture targets certain muscles of the body and has a specific effect on the system. Yoga postures or asanas can be categorized into 1) standing postures, 2) forward bends, 3) inversions, 4) balances and 5) backbends. In this section, I will select an example posture from each category and discuss its specific health benefits.
1) Standing posture: Trikonasana
Trikonasana increases the strength and flexibility of the back, hips, legs and feet. The chest is opened, the spine is elongated, and digestion and elimination are improved. This posture also relieves backache and strengthens the neck.
2) Forward bend: Paschimottanasana
This pose is a seated forward bend which creates an intense stretch to the entire back of the body: the legs, the back, and the neck. It lengthens and strengthens the spine and therefore increases the vitality of the body by improving the flow of energy. The abdominal organs are massaged and stimulated. The mind and emotions are refreshed, and a general feeling of peace ensues.
3) Inversion: Sarvangasana
Sarvangasana, as all inversions, irrigates the brain, thyroid, and parathyroid with fresh blood. It strengthens the upper body and opens the chest. The neck, shoulders, and upper back muscles are stretched. It is an aid to insomnia, exhaustion and fatigue as this pose energizes and rejuvenates the body, while simultaneously calming and soothing.
4) Balance: Vrkshasana
This pose develops balance and concentration. It strengthens the legs and feet and increases flexibility in the hips and knees. The chest is opened and the shoulder muscles are toned. Vrkshasana has an overall calming effect on the body.
5) Backbend: Setu Bandhasana
In this posture, the chest, hips, lumbar spine, and fronts of the thighs are strengthened and opened. This backbend works the nervous system to invigorate the whole body. Like all backbends, it reverses the forward bending that the spine is in most of the day when walking and sitting.
In conclusion, the practice of yoga is becoming increasingly popular in the West as more people realize the incredible effect of yoga on health. The body, mind and spirit are nourished in yoga, which can be described as the practice of moving into stillness. The stillness that is discovered and nourished by practicing yoga is not a lifeless or motionless stillness, but one that gives us a feeling of uninhibited movement, harmony and peace. The body benefits physically, and perhaps more importantly, the mind and spirit become one.
Rebecca Chabot is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in Blackmans Bay, Tasmania.