Western science is starting to provide concrete clues as to how yoga works to improve health, heal aches and pains, and keep sickness at bay. Once you understand them, you’ll have even more motivation to step onto your mat!
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Improved flexibility is one of the first and most obvious benefits of yoga. During your first class, you may not be able to touch your toes, and that’s ok. However, if you stick with it, you’ll notice a gradual loosening, and soon, seemingly impossible poses will become possible. You’ll also notice aches and pains start to fade. Strong muscles protect us from conditions like arthritis and back pain, and when you build strength through yoga, you balance it with flexibility.
Yoga gets your blood flowing. More specifically, the relaxation exercises you learn in yoga can help your circulation, especially in your hands and feet. Yoga gets more oxygen to your cells, which function better as a result. Yoga also boosts levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. Yoga thins the blood by making platelets less sticky and by cutting the level of clot-promoting proteins in the blood. This can lead to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes since blood clots are often the cause of these killers.
Prevents illness. When you contract and stretch muscles, move organs around, and come in and out of yoga postures, you increase the drainage of lymph (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells). This helps the lymphatic system fight infection, destroy cancerous cells, and dispose of the toxic waste products in the body. Yoga also lowers blood sugar and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and boosts HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Yoga can help with weight loss. While not all yoga is aerobic, if you do it vigorously or take flow or Ashtanga classes, it can boost your heart rate into the aerobic range. A regular practice gets you moving and burns calories, and the spiritual and emotional dimensions of your practice may encourage you to address any eating and weight problems on a deeper level. Yoga may also inspire you to become a more conscious eater, with many yogis following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Yoga aids in joint health and release of muscle tension. Each time you practice yoga, you take your joints through their full range of motion. Joint cartilage is like a sponge; it receives fresh nutrients only when its fluid is squeezed out and a new supply can be soaked up. A consistent yoga practice can help prevent degenerative arthritis or prevent disability by “squeezing and soaking” areas of cartilage that normally aren’t used. This can help improve posture, relieve back/neck pain and other joint problems. With regular practice you will notice where you hold tension and learn to relax your muscles.