There is a basic misconception about yoga, which is that you have to be in great shape to start doing yoga. People who feel they “can’t” do yoga because they are not strong enough, or thin enough, or can’t touch their toes are missing the point. This is easy to do, given the popular image of yoga as a “sport” for the young, fit and flexible. But that’s just marketing. Yoga, in the true sense, is a practice that creates healthier, stronger, more responsive minds and bodies.
It doesn’t matter where you start. If you have to take a break walking up a flight of stairs, fine. If you need a mirror to see your toes, fine. If you struggle to lift a pint of milk, fine. You can begin exactly where you are. Yoga gives you the tools to transform four key elements of your health.
Stiff and sore?
One of the most common things I hear is, “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.” That simply isn’t true. You might not be flexible enough to go into a deep backbend, or touch your forehead to your shins, but that is the best reason to start. In yoga you work gradually and progressively, with instruction to prevent overstretching or injury. Regular practice builds flexibility by elongating your muscles and lubricating your joints and connective tissue. Even if you are very stiff or injured, yoga is a safe method to slowly improve and restore range of movement. Another advantage of yoga is that you learn about how your joints and muscles work together, and learn to recognise movements. You can use this awareness in daily life to improve your posture and ergonomics, which will reduce stiffness and keep you limber.
Too weak for daily tasks?
With yoga it doesn’t matter if you can’t benchpress a ballpoint pin. As with flexibility, the point is to begin where you are and develop your strength through repetition. Yoga postures (asanas) have evolved and been practiced over thousands of years, by millions of people, and are proven to be simple and effective. Yoga works your large and small muscle groups systematically to build balanced strength and heal injuries. It helps address common illnesses and complaints like back aches, arthritis, and chronic pain, by strengthening supportive muscles and increasing blood-flow and oxygen to speed healing. And unlike some trendy fitness methods, yoga uses your own bodyweight, so you can practice without going to a gym or investing in elaborate equipment.
Worried about your metabolism?
A healthy metabolism is about more than burning calories. Some studies show that yoga actually decreases metabolism. This might sound like the last thing you want if you are trying to get healthy and lose weight, but if you delve beneath the surface yoga’s effect on metabolism is a positive thing. Our understanding of the link between stress, lack of sleep and weight has advanced greatly in recent years. Research has shown strong links between chronic stress and harmful weight gain, and between lack of sleep and increased weight. Both stress and lack of sleep can trigger over-eating, digestive problems, and harmful lifestyle choices such as excessive drinking.
The fact that yoga reduces metabolism sounds like bad news, but it is really good news. It lowers your metabolism by reducing stress and aiding relaxation, which addresses two of the major issues that cause weight gain and poor health.
In a bad mood?
Being unfit or unwell is stressful. It can exacerbate depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. One of many benefits of yoga is that it works quickly to help alleviate mood disorders. A study of psychiatric patients showed that people suffering severe mental illness such as clinical depression, bipolar-disorder and schizophrenia showed immediate improvements in a broad range of clinical symptoms such as anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue and confusion.
You don’t need to wait until you are in serious emotional trouble though. Practicing yoga builds mental and physical resiliance to cope with the stress and strain of daily life, before you get depressed or overwhelmed. Yoga breathing techniques help calm the “fight or flight” response caused by stress, while the physical discipline of the postures teaches patience and mental flexibility. Young or old, men or women, everyone can benefit from the calming, mood-enhancing effect of yoga.
Regardless of who you are, or where you are in your life, yoga can change your body and mind. You don’t need any special equipment or training to get started. Contrary to the competitive attitude of exercise regimes where success is measured in how many calories you burn or kilos you lift, all yoga asks is that you do your best. The benefits of the practice come with the practice, not beforehand. Don’t worry about where you are. Take a deep breath and focus on where you’re going.