Beyond the Mat: 4 Ways Yoga Can Improve Your Life
Yoga represents an ancient, and multi-faceted, set of practices that extend well beyond the physical (asana) practice that we do on our yoga mats. When we start to incorporate the many practices of yoga into our lives, we can begin to witness the magic of yoga for ourselves in the way that it transforms not only our bodies, but our minds too. In the West however, it is generally the case that when we talk about yoga, we are referring only to the asana practice as well as some aspects of mindfulness that are broadly taught in most studios.
Below, we outline 4 scientifically recognised benefits of incorporating a consistent yoga practice (asana + mindfulness) into your life. These apply regardless of whether you practice in a studio, or at home, and regardless of how much experience you have – you will start to gain these benefits from your very first day of practicing yoga!
1. Improved Body Image
Every time you get onto your yoga mat, you are focusing on your body’s capabilities in the present moment. We each bring different (emotional, physical, spiritual) “stuff” to our yoga mats each day, and through a regular asana practice, we learn to develop an inner awareness of all our “stuff”.
We learn to recognise our bodies as “containers” for all our “stuff” and we learn to work with our bodies to release tension, stored emotion, and the physical symptoms we often suffer as a result of our daily stresses that we experience in today’s fast-paced world. One of the many amazing things about this practice, is that you can use your life as a laboratory and test this all out for yourself! The next time you experience a headache developing, just ask your local instructor for a few pointers, or simply search on YouTube for a “yoga for headaches” video and try it out for yourself.
Naturally, as we engage in asana practice, we are also gaining physical strength, increased mobility, better posture, improved cardiovascular health, flexibility, and balance. All of these physical benefits start to become noticeable in our daily lives, as we feel stronger and more grounded, as we experience less aches and pains, sleep better, and experience improved mood. Naturally, our outward appearance starts to resemble all these positive changes too.
The true magic of all this though, is the practice focusing inward - on the breath, on the subtle movements and adjustments in each posture. It builds a deep awareness of the connection between body and mind. For this reason, alongside others, research has found that yoga practitioners tend to be less critical of their bodies and experience improved body image and self-esteem. As a result, yoga has become an essential part in the treatment of eating disorders, and in programs that promote body positivity and positive self-esteem.
2. Mindful Eating Habits
The practice of mindfulness refers to focusing your attention in your present moment experience, without any judgment. This means that you practice paying attention to whatever sensations and thoughts might arise in your consciousness, and then merely witness it, allow it, and let it go. You learn to witness your thoughts as passing clouds in the sky of your mind – clouds that you can acknowledge and let go of, without any self-criticism, and without acting upon them.
This happens naturally as part of an asana practice, as you become aware of uncomfortable sensations in your body, as you use your breath as a tool to create space in those areas that might feel tight and uncomfortable, and as you stretch deeper, hold longer, and gently challenge yourself physically, while the mind remains accepting and calm.
This active practice of non-judgmental awareness of the physical and emotional sensations that arise during your time on your yoga mat, translates to your daily life as improved emotional regulation. This means that this practice can help you to be more conscious of how your body feels in each moment, what you really need in terms of nutrition, and it can help you to be less inclined to engage in impulsive behaviours, such as emotional eating.
Research has found that yoga practitioners generally score higher than non-yoga practitioners on the following measures associated with mindful eating:
Disinhibition. This means that yogi’s are better able to manage how much they eat, and stop eating when they feel full, instead of over-eating.
Sensuous awareness. I.e. being aware of how food looks, tastes, and smells, as a result of slowing down, and focusing attention to the present moment to really appreciate the experiences associated with eating.
Emotional eating. Yogi’s have been found to engage less in impulsive or emotional eating, indicating a higher tolerance for negative emotions and less reactivity to emotional stimulus.
Distracted eating. Yogi’s have been found to indulge less in eating when distracted by other things (i.e. such as mindless snacking when watching television, for example).
The bottom line is that practicing yoga helps you to be more connected to, and aware of, your body – how you feel and what you need in each moment. This increased body awareness that you practice and develop in the hours you spend on your yoga mat, can then carry over into your mealtimes. You will be able to slow down, pay attention to each sensation, and consciously decide what, and how much, you will eat - instead of impulsively giving into cravings, overeating, and snacking mindlessly on unhealthy foods that do not nourish your body.
3. Improved Weight Loss and Maintenance Efforts
Research has found that yoga practitioners (practising at least 30 minutes, once a week, for at least four years) gain less weight during middle adulthood than those who do not practice yoga. Further, yogi’s who start practicing while overweight, tend to lose weight and keep it off, and yogi’s generally have a lower body mass index (BMI) when compared to those who do not practice yoga.
Although our individual yoga practices (and lives / lifestyle factors) might vary, the main reason for these positive outcomes that we seem to have in common as yogi’s, is the focus on mindfulness, as mentioned in the previous point about mindful eating. Of course a regular yoga practice also provides physical fitness benefits, but the main contributing factor to weight loss and maintenance seems to be that mindfulness developed through yoga, can make you more sensitive to your body’s cues of hunger and fullness. This leads to a more positive relationship with food and how we choose to nourish our bodies.
4. Improved Fitness & Cardiovascular Health
Researchers studied a small group of sedentary individuals who had not practiced yoga before. After eight weeks of practicing yoga at least twice a week for a total of 180 minutes, participants had greater muscle strength and endurance, flexibility and cardio-respiratory fitness.
Several other studies have found that a regular yoga practice leads to positive outcomes in terms of the following cardiovascular risk factors:
It helps lower blood pressure in individuals with hypertension;
It helps improve lipid profiles in both healthy people, and in those who suffer from coronary artery disease;
It lowers excessive blood sugar levels in people with non-insulin dependent diabetes and reduces their need for medications.
Due to the many cardiovascular and stress-relieving benefits that a regular yoga practice seems to offer, yoga is now being included in many cardiac rehabilitation programs. Further, there seems to be promising evidence for improved outcomes in other physical, and mental, health conditions, such as arthritis, auto-immune diseases, depression, anxiety, and even improved survival rates in cancer patients.
Incorporating yoga into your busy life may, at first, sound a bit daunting. But you can start with no equipment, and with as little as 10 minutes a few times a week. There are a multitude of free resources online for you to begin with and you do not even need an expensive studio membership to start incorporating this magical practice into your life. In our next blog post, we will be sharing some of our favourite local resources with you, to help you to start learning about, and practicing, yoga – anytime, anywhere!
Until then, may you be peaceful, may you be well.
Disclaimer: No content on this site, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.