While many forms of exercise encourage a change in lifestyle – moving from a sedentary state to an active one – few offer a connection deeper than that. Outside of becoming a world-class athlete in your field, these forms of exercise serve as healthy hobbies, but not much more.
Yoga is different.
While yoga too offers a healthy exercise, characterized by building long, lean muscles, improving control of breathe and movement, and strengthening the core, it also offers a rich lifestyle for the practitioner. Yoga goes beyond the basic dogma of traditional exercise and offers something truly connected, a source for philosophical, spiritual, and social enlightenment. When we begin to build a relationship with our practice, the full benefits come to light.
Connecting Your Body with Yoga
At the most basic stage, yoga is about connecting with your body in new ways. Many feel the brunt of this their first few months of classes. Even if you already exercise, yoga can be a challenge. Learning new poses, formally called asanas, can require the same commitment, both physically and mentally, as training for a new sports team or reaching a new max at the gym. It’s a commitment defined by dedication and desire to succeed.
But it isn’t just commitment to fitness goals that connects yoga to the body.
First, yoga can serve as a good source of cardio, depending on how you practice it. Cardio, or aerobic exercise, is defined by a sustained exercise that elevates your heart rate, which is why the term ‘cardio’ is used. Ben Greenfield wrote an excellent article on whether or not yoga counts as cardio, and the main takeaway is this: beginner yoga is not dramatically different than advanced or even hot yoga when it comes to burning calories. Why? Because what pushes burning calories isn’t difficulty of poses or room temperature, but sustained activity. That said, if you want to use yoga for cardio, skip the relaxing, slow moving practice and briskly perform sun salutations, one after another. Keep your heart rate up!
Outside of cardio, there are more direct benefits found in yoga for the body, namely with strength training and joint mobility. When engaging in poses and holding them, your telling your muscles to contract, while opposing muscles stretch without resistance. Every muscle has an opposing muscle, so by performing different poses, you’re working them in very much the same way – contract, release, contract, release – you would with traditional weight training. Power yoga is a great example of this, where you tackle challenges poses with little rest in between, providing an opportunity for growth with each new pose.
Connecting Your Mind with Yoga
Beyond the body, yoga entices the mind. It’s not uncommon to feel intrigued by what your yoga instructor has said throughout your classes. Phrases like, “Reflect on what brought you to your mat today” followed by “Realize and accept these things, allowing yourself to let them go” often help you reach a sense of relaxation and even wonder. It’s here that yoga connects with the mind in incredible ways.
Yoga literally helps rewire the mind. It’s improves depression, improves your body’s immune function, reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure. This is as much a physical phenomenon as a mental one, whereas you’ve primed your conscious and subconscious to better cope and react to stressors in real life.
This isn’t so because yoga is inherently relaxing, but quite the opposite. As eloquently put by Alex Korb, Ph.D., “As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.”
Connecting Your Soul with Yoga
With an improved connection with the mind, yoga naturally leads us to connect with our souls in new ways. Here, the practice of remaining mentally calm while physically stressed pours over into the rest of our life, where calmness becomes a tool for rational thinking and spiritual enlightenment.
To many, spirituality and the concept of the soul provide a toolset directing one toward happiness and fulfillment. Yoga as a practices doesn’t ignore this belief: rather, as you feel healthier and less stressed, it’s common to feel a spiritual connection growing in your practice. It’s common to begin to reflect on yoga as a pathway that has led to a new form of true fulfillment. Simply put, yoga begets a form of joy that is deeply spiritual. It encourages us to seek out compassion and positivity, and to see the divine connection in all beings, in all things everywhere.
Experiencing Full Connection
By no means does this connection need to be so linear – from an exercise to a mental practice to a spiritual one. In fact, it’s completely possible to work backwards, studying the philosophy of yoga first, then connecting that with our daily frame of thought, and then making the leap to start practicing physical, Hatha yoga.
What’s more, it’s important to remember that the full benefits of your connection with yoga completely depends on your level of effort and attentiveness to each connection. In the same way that you grow better at performing new asanas with practice, so will you grow better at relaxing the mind and seeing the connection in life with practice. Take time to dedicate yourself to your craft, and build a healthy, long last relationship with yoga!