The mental and psychological benefits of yoga have been expounded at length — the American Psychological Association is even compiling research and noting how many practitioners are blending it into their treatment practices. But, physically, yoga can increase strength and flexibility over a short period of time, and “may be as effective or better than exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcomes,” according to a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
1. BUILDS STRENGTH
Yoga instructor Laurel Van Matre, who has been teaching yoga for more than 18 years is acutely aware of how yoga manifests changes and improvements in our physical bodies and stresses that yoga is more than just stretching. “It’s possible to be strong, but not flexible at all,” Van Matre explains. “Stretching isn’t just passive. You can actually get injured in yoga if you’re just making shapes and hanging out there. It’s about learning to both stretch and engage muscles at the same time — that’s how strength and flexibility work together to improve and reinforce each other.”
Van Matre points to one of her regular students who is a marathon runner who reports that yoga has helped him with his breathing and has elongated his stride over time, which has resulted in him becoming a faster runner.
2. TRIGGERS THE PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
The human nervous system can be divided into the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The former is the system we operate in when we’re relaxed and the cortisol drops; the latter is where our fight-or-flight response is housed. “We spend most of our lives in our sympathetic nervous system — when we’re constantly dealing with stress from work or family, we get suck in the reactive sympathetic nervous system and are constantly releasing cortisol into our systems,” Van Matre says. “But there’s another way of being in the world, and that’s through the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s through a focus on breath that the parasympathetic system can be activated, and we can get into a more relaxed state.” The breathwork that happens in yoga helps to trigger this state.
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3. RELAXES THE PSOAS MUSCLE
The psoas muscle, which runs from “the top of the femur to the little knob at the upper inner thigh — is the only muscle that connects your legs to your spine,” Van Matre says. It’s a muscle that can cause a series of problems that yoga can address, including a stimulation of cortisol production through its constant contraction. Through activities — or lack thereof — “this muscle stays contracted all the time and creates tightness in the hips and lower back” which research has shown can lead to chronic back pain. Further, Van Matre explains, “this compression can even lead to sciatica, a painful condition that results from a pinched nerve. But through proper alignment through yoga, you can get [the psoas muscle] to relax.” Yoga provides a way to relax the psoas muscle, and the ailments that its contractions produce.
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