Yoga instructor Amy Moore tells us how you can stress less, boost your digestion and sleep better with this ancient practice
Yoga, as we know it in the West, has become a popular exercise for boosting flexibility and mobility, with classes popping up in gyms, leisure centres, village halls and virtually, too! Unlike other fitness classes, yoga goes far beyond the physical practice. It has a rich history based upon philosophy, breathwork and meditation, meaning there are far more benefits to gain than simply being able to touch your toes. From improving your digestion and posture, to soothing anxiety and boosting contentment, now is as good a time as any to step on the mat and discover what yoga can do for you.
Relaxation is one of the big benefits that’s often associated with yoga, and for good reason. The combination of physical movement, breathwork and restorative poses helps to calm our mind and soothe our daily stresses. A number of studies have found that a regular yoga practice helps to decrease our stress response. This not only means that we feel less agitated, but it also eases the physical symptoms of stress, including, lowering our heart rate and decreasing our blood pressure.
The relaxing benefits of yoga have a huge effect on our digestion, too. Our relaxed state is often known as the ‘rest and digest’ response – when we feel calmer, we’re able to digest our food better. There are a number of yoga poses to help with digestion; twisting postures, in particular, help to massage the abdominal organs and stimulate our digestive system. It’s important to work with the natural flow of the body in these twists – for example, we twist to the right first to stimulate the ascending colon, then twist to the left to massage the descending colon. This helps to support the natural flow of the digestive system.
Meditation is another branch of yoga, and is a popular way to find a relaxed state of mind; it has also been found to improve sleep patterns. Researchers from the University of California found that older adults who struggled with sleep disturbances could improve their sleep quality and reduce feelings of fatigue and depression through regularly practising mindful meditation.
Bone density is something to be mindful of, especially as we grow older. Osteoporosis becomes increasingly prevalent in women following the menopause. The NHS says we can lose up to 20 percent of our bone density during this time due to falling oestrogen. Thankfully, weight-bearing exercises like yoga can help. A study from researchers at Columbia University found that those with osteoporosis and osteopenia who practised yoga every day significantly improved the bone quality in their spine and femur bones, with improvements also seen in the hips.
Holding yoga poses requires stamina and, over time, you’ll notice a huge improvement in muscle strength. For example, standing and balancing postures build leg strength, while seated postures can build a stronger core. As you get stronger, you may notice that you struggle less with aches and pains – many people report having less back pain with a stronger core. Greater muscle strength also helps to improve our balance and mobility.
Whether it’s sitting in the office hunched over a computer, driving a car or watching TV, our posture pays the price for our modern-day lives. Sitting shortens our hamstrings, which can also cause tightness in our back and contribute to lower back pain. It also tightens the muscles in our hips, while hunching over a computer tenses our shoulder muscles and rounds our upper back. Yoga poses help to counteract this and improve our posture – forward folds lengthen the back of the body, while backbends encourage openness through the chest. Better posture makes us feel good, too: our energy and mood is more positive when we sit tall compared to when we slouch.
Quivering muscles may be part and parcel of our yoga practice, but it’s how you learn to cope with them that’s one of the greatest lessons. Learning to focus on the breath will help you to hold challenging poses. You’ll discover that you’re stronger and more capable than you realise, which is a huge confidence booster. This analogy is a great one to take off the mat, too – challenging poses don’t last forever, and neither do difficult times.
Finding a local yoga studio or joining a virtual class is an excellent way to make friends. Make the most of the time at the beginning and end of class to chat with the people in your group, or maybe even consider a partner yoga class.
Throughout a yoga practice, you may come across new things that you wouldn’t necessarily encounter in everyday life – it might be anything from breathing like a lion, to chanting om. While you may feel silly at first, stepping outside of your comfort zone is a brilliant way to boost your confidence.
Much of the modern yoga that we practise today comes from the teachings of a sage (or wiseman) known as Patanjali. His teachings have become known as the yoga sutras, which are step-by-step guidelines for a mindful life. This not only includes meditation and the physical poses, but also ethical guidelines. From learning to be content, to doing no harm to other living creatures, yoga philosophy can help us to live peacefully.
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