Even though I’m a fitness professional and know about the many benefits of yoga, I’ve never really gotten into it. I’ve always preferred free weights, sports, outdoor activities, and almost anything I could do to avoid sitting on a mat, thinking about how tight my hamstrings are or how insanely flexible the human pretzel next to me is. But recently a few bouts of nagging tendinitis—made worse by my love of cycling and lack of flexibility—motivated me to give yoga a serious college try. After a few months of regular practice, I’m enjoying all the expected benefits, such as reduced stress, improved flexibility, and better posture. However it’s the unexpected benefits of yoga that I’m loving even more.
Greater creativity and problem solving
A good yoga class encourages flexible thinking, experimentation, tolerance for making mistakes, and looking a little silly—all key ingredients for living a more innovative and creative life. A recent study showed moving in circular ways—such as in a series of flowing yoga poses—encourages more creative thinking and better problem solving than moving in more static, linear ways. Yoga includes lots of circular motions. A good flow can get your heart rate up, which also promotes learning and creative thinking. Try this: write down something you are struggling with in your life before yoga class. You may be able to come back to it with fresh and flexible eyes afterward.
A yoga strong foundation
Most of people wear shoes all day, and consequently, our feet are stiff and weak. Happily, yoga is almost always done barefoot, and it’s a heck of a workout for your little piggies. One of the most unexpected benefits of yoga was how much stronger and more flexible my feet and toes have gotten since starting. I’ve greatly improved my ankle flexibility and can now spread my toes farther apart, making space in between each of them, which is not as easy as it sounds if you’ve been living the shoe life. Stronger, more functional feet help to maintain better balance and send less stress to the ankles and knees, which makes for a better foundation for any athletic endeavor.
Stress relief to-go
Most yoga classes start with simple breathing exercises, which is one of the quickest ways to calm the central nervous system and establish a mind-body connection. Breath control is an amazing tool that can be used anytime to reduce stress, manage your heart rate, and improve performance. I find myself doing my yogic breathwork while I’m stuck in traffic, riding my bike up a challenging hill, or as a mental check before any anxiety-inducing situation. While I’ve long known that breathing techniques can be powerful, I had to practice them regularly with the help of a teacher before I could use them in everyday life. Try taking three deep belly breaths right now and you’ll start to feel the difference.
I think many of us are waiting for the ideal break from the stresses of a work day or obligations. We imagine a perfect two week vacation or a day off with no major to-dos. Unfortunately breaks and vacations are too few and far between. Collectively we are probably better off learning to appreciate small bits of downtime between the hustle and bustle. During a challenging yoga class, this can mean taking a break by resting in “child’s pose” and getting back into the flow when you are feeling ready. Learning to take a break when I need it, instead of pushing through at all costs during classes, has taught me to listen to my body and also to be able to transition from working hard to deep relaxation on a dime. I’ve found that 30 seconds of child’s pose can completely refresh me and help me get ready for new challenges. I’ve extended this concept to my life off the mat and learned that taking mini-breaks often keeps me feeling more balanced and more productive than ever.
A chance to be goofy
Most of us spend 99.9% of our time being serious grown-ups. We get up, brush our teeth, put on pants, and get to work being productive. Goofing off and playing around are rarely on the To Do list, but here’s a little secret: with the right attitude, yoga can be a heck of a lot of fun. Where else do you get to pretend to be a horse, a lion, a scared cat, a cow, or a giant baby? The first time my teacher challenged me to do lion’s breath—where you stick out your tongue and make a fierce noise as you exhale—my self consciousness had me sounding like a whimpering kitten. After a few months I don’t have anymore hang ups. I can stick out my tongue and growl like a beast! When is the last time you got to play king of the jungle?
One of the foundational concepts of yoga is “ahimsa” or attempting to not do harm to yourself or others. Ahimsa is the opposite of the more common workout philosophy “no pain, no gain,” which many of us, including myself, have internalized much to the detriment of our aging bodies. Instead of pushing yourself so hard you get injured or start to dread classes, yoga encourages tuning in with your body to try and figure out what it needs that day. Is it gentleness, challenge, relaxation, or a good sweat? This is probably my favorite of the many benefits of yoga: getting to know my body in a friendlier, less adversarial way. Yoga is an ancient practice that can seriously benefit your modern life. Get on the mat to find out which of yoga’s benefits can rock your world.
What are some of the unexpected benefits you’ve found with your regular fitness practice?