Many people attending yoga classes today do so for the physical benefits. Often the additional effects of calming the mind and tuning the inner processes of the body are an added bonus. This differs greatly from how yoga students in Eastern cultures practice yoga; as a way of life not just an hourly class for three times a week. The popularity and growth of yoga in the UK has moved along at a rapid pace with new studios and styles of classes appearing. There’s something for everyone’s tastes and personal preferences from sweating it all out in a hot power class to soothing and unwinding in a gentle restorative class.
Stretching or calisthenics may look similar to yoga on the surface but delving deeper below the initial impressions and appearances there is a great difference. Calisthenics are an aerobic workout of stretches and movements, such as bending, jumping, swinging, twisting or kicking, using only one’s body weight for resistance, designed to challenge the cardiovascular system and burn energy to build strength and flexibility. Routines are often used as a warm up before any sporting activity. The movements are performed in a rhythmical way, often to music, with a smooth transition between each move. They are designed to get the body warmed up and the heart rate increased ready for intense, high energy sport or exercise.
Whilst yoga increases muscular strength and flexibility the practice doesn’t stop with the physical effects. Yoga (meaning to join together or union) aims to integrate the body, mind and spirit using physical postures, the breath and the mind. Yoga goes beyond purely burning calories and toning the body. Yoga is a philosophy, a spiritual path and moral and ethical framework. Yoga is an examination of the self or soul. The philosophy behind yoga explains human existence in terms of energy – physical energy in the body from cellular processes, mental energy that is sensory, emotional and intelligence and spiritual energy or prana that is distributed throughout the body and connects the physical to the mental and mental to the spiritual.
The practice of yoga allows the body to fine tune its performance and for the physiological systems to function correctly. Yoga postures (asana) and breathing practices (pranayama) allow the body to open up in certain ways, sending blood, energy and other fluids are sent to the muscles and organs. Asana and pranayama are the foundations of yoga that link the body to the mind and the soul. They work together to provide a basis for providing the body what it needs perform at its best. Both of these practices are seen as a foundation to prepare the body and mind for meditation and moving closer to connecting with the soul and your true self.
A regular yoga practice has many health benefits for both body and mind such as reduced blood pressure, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reduced body fat, improved cognitive function, better mood regulation and emotional stability, increased flexibility and a better ability to manage chronic pain. These benefits pave the way for good health, improved emotional wellbeing and that sense of wanting to delve in to something a little deeper. That spiritual, soulful side of yoga that has a way of working its way in to your practice and daily activities. As one of the most influential yoga teachers, BKS Iyengar once stated ” Yoga is a light that once lit, will never dim.”
Words by Jacqueline Coleman