Possibly the most misunderstood aspect of yoga is its benefits. People generally think of yoga as an exercise system that aims to improve our flexibility. Yes, yoga will help with flexibility, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more under the surface that flexibility might be better listed as a footnote to yoga’s more impressive benefits.
Living a longer and happier life
No other exercise or health system can match yoga for its health, happiness and longevity benefits. This is because yoga’s unique focus on integrating breath (pranayama) with postures (asana) and mind (meditation) has hit on a health secret that science is gradually unravelling. We refer here to the role of the Vagus nerve and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These systems affect how our brain interacts with our body’s health systems. Yoga excels in tuning up and activating these systems.
Yoga’s benefits include cutting stress, heart rate and blood pressure, helping boost immunity and prevent diseases, decreasing depression and anxiety, reducing fatigue, improving sleep, reducing pain and lowering cholesterol. Yoga improves psychological well-being, satisfaction with life, and self-esteem. It promotes feelings of being energised, better moods, better relationships and greater concentration.
Yoga has also been shown to slow down the aging process. DNA tips, known as telomeres, are eroded by a range of conditions, including stress. They act as a kind of internal clock that gets shorter each time a cell divides. Scientific studies suggest yoga can help reverse this and help telomeres grow longer. In addition, the spinal flexing in yoga slows down the thinning of vertebral discs – the condition that causes us to shrink with age and increases risks of nerve damage.
Exercise systems in general can help lift our mood through the release of chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and endorphins that raise our happiness levels. Yoga is particularly good in this respect. Regular yoga practice helps to sustain higher levels of happiness.
How often should you practice?
A better question might be: “how healthy and happy would you like to be?” Life is full of trade-offs. How much time can we spare investing in health and happiness versus our other commitments? These are personal choices.
Once per week might be a starting point for someone who has never tried yoga and wants to see what it is all about. More regular practice will amplify the benefits. Attending two to three yoga classes each week is an achievable target that would bring significant health and happiness benefits.
When enough experience is gained, attendance at classes can be complimented by home practice, to create a daily yoga practice. When this happens, be prepared to glow from the inside.
p.s. The concepts briefly mentioned here will be discussed at a forthcoming Satsang: The Science of Yoga