With the science-backed benefits of yoga going far beyond flexibility and relaxation, if you're at all interested in improved physical performance – from building lean muscle to injury reduction – you should make a date with the yoga mat.
But what are the benefits of yoga beyond flexibility and relaxation, and how can you start experiencing them?
Yoga’s stress-related upsides are well established. Studies suggest that consistent practice can lead to significant increases in your body’s levels of serotonin; a neurotransmitter commonly associated with calm and happiness. With practice, it can also improve your body’s ability to respond to stress by keeping your heart rate and blood pressure under control in stressful situations.
But the positive effects of a bit of downward dog can go well beyond simply calming you down. A paper published in Frontiers in Immunology, for example, found that mind-body exercises appear to suppress the expression of genes and genetic pathways that promote inflammation – which can become chronic, making you more prone to injury and even potentially affecting your mental health.
There are all sorts of benefits of having a calming exercise routine in your life. One study, for instance, found that volunteers who did yoga took less time to fall asleep and reported having significantly fewer sleeping disturbances than a control group – while getting higher-quality shuteye.
Build muscle and bone strength
It's well known that yoga can make you more flexible, but did you know it can also make you stronger? A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that eight weeks of hot yoga led to increases in lower back, hamstring, and shoulder flexibility among young adults. But there’s also evidence that yoga can build strength and muscle mass, with the happy side-effect of offsetting the early signs of arthritis and osteoporosis.
Increase lung capacity
In a study from Khon Kaen University in Thailand, volunteers who did three 20-minute sessions of Hatha yoga (focusing on the cat, tree and camel positions) for six weeks benefited from increased lung capacity, giving them more oxygen with each breath and helping them breath easier.
Improve spatial awareness
Finally, in studies on young people, yoga’s been shown to improve proprioception (your sense of where your body is in 3D space) making other party tricks such as walking on your hands or bicycle kicks (theoretically) easier to pull off.
Getting started with yoga
So where do you start? If you’re intimidated by the thought of a class full of limber, Lululemon-loving yogis carrying their own mats, the simple solution is to start at home.
Adriene Mishler is the queen of yoga YouTube, with more than 7 million subscribers and hundreds of videos covering everything from a 10-minute de-stress to full 60-minute classes. But if you’re looking for something a bit more specific, there are dozens of other channels covering a range of goals.
Australian trainer Shona Vertue, who counts David Beckham among her fans, offers dynamic flows for runners on her channel, while California-based Tim Sinesi runs regular 7 and 30-day yoga/meditation challenges on Yoga With Tim.
It’s also worth remembering that yoga isn’t all about twisting yourself into the most advanced possible poses – it’s about being more aware of your emotions and your own body. One of the basic tenets of yoga is to be present, so something as simple as noticing the urge to check your mobile when you’re bored – rather than immediately giving in to the temptation – is a good start.
Another good place to start is by being more aware of your breathing: it’s easy to start chugging like a steam train during even the most innocuous-looking poses in class, so start being more aware of your inhales and exhales during everyday life and you’ll give yourself a head start – while helping to reduce the physical impact stress can have on your body.
Crucially, it’s worth starting small: research on habit formation suggests that little, manageable changes are easier to maintain than drastic wheel wrenches. Instead of planning on leaping into a 90-minute session once a week, commit to a small daily practice like the sun salutation before you shower every morning.
By making yoga part of your routine, you’ll reap the everyday benefits, improve faster and build the habit. Then, by the time you’re ready for your first class, you’ll be bending with the best of them.