Some people think it's not really exercise unless you're out of breath or feeling pain. But talk to anyone who does yoga and you'll hear differently: For them, getting in shape doesn't have to be grueling, fast, or even sweaty all the time. That's because when you get on the mat, you're not just strengthening your muscles, but also your mind.
(And depending on the type of yoga class you take, don't worry. There can be LOTS of sweat.) Here, 10 of the best health lessons we can all learn from yoga.
1. More flexibility = less aches and pains. Your body's connected, ladies. That means when one part hurts, you carry yourself differently to spare the discomfort -- and another area ends up achy, too. Not to mention that when you're inflexible, your posture kinda sucks, too. Stretching like you do in yoga keeps your joints open and muscles loose.
2. Strength-building keeps your bones happy. You can start losing bone density as early as your 30s. Luckily, strength-building exercises like you do on the mat can help shore up the areas (like hips, spine, and wrist) most likely to be affected by osteoporosis.
3. Working out improves your mood even after you stop. There's good evidence that yoga can ease anxiety and depression and can even lessen symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder in conjunction with prescription meds. "Yoga teaches me how to move through daily challenges such as power struggles, relationship difficulties, and stress," notes Sherianna B. of Barnstable, Massachusetts. "It has taught me about the power of inattention and attention, and that what you place your energy into expands."
4. Scheduling stress relief has extra perks. Practicing yoga while pregnant can improve mood and lower postpartum depression. The reason? It reduces the amount of cortisol, your body's "stress" hormone. In one study, women anticipated the effect of yoga to such a degree that they woke up the day of class already feeling chillaxed.
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5. Movement gives you a way "in" to meditation. Joy Rains, author of Meditation Illuminated: Simple Ways to Manage your Busy Mind, struggled to quiet her mind enough to meditate -- until she tried yoga. "It's easier to control the body than to control the mind, since your body responds to instructions more readily than your mind does," she says.
6. Learning to relax makes everything better. We're not just saying that, BTW. Amanda B., who travels the world doing yoga, says she's learned that the more she tries to force a certain outcome, the more elusive it gets. "If I start beating myself up on the mat for wobbling during a balance pose, the worse my balance becomes," she explains. "Learning that I can't control everything -- and accepting that I'm just not going to master a certain pose that day -- has reverberated into other aspects of my life as well."
7. Mindfulness can ease addiction. Your body and mind are connected; that's a core belief of yoga. (And why it's a lifestyle, not an activity.) So when you're trying to break a bad habit, be it smoking or alcohol, getting your mind steady and focused can help you deal with withdrawal.
8. Respect the body you have. When Ysmay W. of Chicago, Illinois, first started yoga, she had a nervous system disorder so intense that she couldn't walk up a flight of stairs. Practicing regularly helped her get her muscular strength back. Plus, "it's taught me to be understanding about my body and limitations," she says. "[Now] I have a deeper respect for my body. I've dramatically changed my diet, quit drinking coffee and alcohol, and I'm healthier than I've ever been."
9. Your intuition needs a workout, too. A good yoga instructor encourages you to modify poses as you need to. Listening to what your body's asking for is far more important than mastering a certain pose. "Supta baddha konasana [a reclining pose that stretches the inner thighs and groin area] was so appealing to me during my pregnancy, I could barely go a few hours without finding myself in it," says Cheri F. of Atlanta, Georgia. "I ultimately ended up needing this pose, as it was the only way I could birth my son. Listening to my body and practicing this pose incessantly saved his life."
10. Breathing is underrated. When your body gets stuck in "flight or fight" mode, your immune system takes a dive while your BP can rise. Remembering to breathe (and deeply!) can remedy that. "If you're not smiling and breathing, why are you doing yoga? And whatever is it you are doing?" Alina Z. of Boca Raton, Florida, remembers a yoga instructor asking once. The simple words have become a rule to live by. "Life," she says, "is too short not to smile and breathe."
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