One of my most memorable patient moments happened when I was still training. I was in an initial consultation with an 87 year old lady. To assess how well her muscles and joints were working, I asked her to do some simple movements. The first of these was to bend forwards as if she was going to touch her toes. I wasn’t expecting her to get too far, in my previous experience most people in their 80s couldn’t get much further than their knees. To my surprise, and that of my observer, this tiny lady folded herself in half and placed her hands flat on the ground! It turned out she had been doing yoga for over 40 years, and you could clearly see the benefits! She came to the clinic for a twinge of back pain, the first time she had experienced this in her life, and she recovered in 3 weeks. If that isn’t a fantastic advert for yoga, I don’t know what is!
What is yoga?
Yoga has been around for thousands of years, originating from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ which means to ‘yoke’ the spirit and physical body together. There are many different styles of yoga and the beauty of it is that there’s a style for everyone, from children to high end athletes and everyone in between! The aim of yoga is to energize your body and calm your mind.
What are the benefits?
Improved flexibility. Probably the most obvious benefit of doing yoga. People often think of yoga as an easy exercise but don’t be fooled by the gentle movement, it’s tougher than you think! If you stick with it you’ll notice that your muscles begin to loosen and your posture improves, you’ll even be able to bend forward and touch your toes!
Healthier joints are found in yogis (the official terms for those who practice yoga), as the poses take your joints through their full range of movement. Doing this can prevent osteoarthritis, or wear and tear, of the joints by soaking areas of cartilage that aren’t normally used. This delivers the nutrients required to keep your cartilage healthy and stop it from wearing out. When it comes to joints, use it or lose it really does apply!
Better sleep. Research has found that practicing yoga at least twice a week helps us to sleep better and feel less fatigued. This is thought to be related to yoga’s ability to reduce stress and anxiety.
Fewer food cravings. Regular yoga practice has been found to be associated with mindful eating and an increased awareness of physical and emotional sensations when eating. Practicing yoga strengthens the mind-body connection, helping you tune into emotions related to your cravings and helping you make better food choices.
Better immunity. Yoga practice has been found to actually change your genes and boost your immunity (your body’s ability to fight disease). This, along with all the other benefits, means that you will not only feel fitter and more alert, but will also get ill less often.
What type should you choose?
There are many types of yoga, which often makes it difficult for those unfamiliar with yoga to choose which one is best for them. Many studios have a beginner’s class, which is usually the best place to start as you can learn the basic poses and breathing techniques before moving onto a more specialised class.
Hatha: Perfect for beginners, traditional Hatha yoga forms the basis of all other types of yoga. It combines breathing, yoga poses and some meditation. Having attended a few Hatha classes I highly recommend it, especially as my yoga studio hands out blankets during the final relaxation pose!
Ashtanga: This type is very athletic and involves 6 vigorous sequences of postures. It’s one of the oldest forms of yoga, and is one to try once you’ve experienced some of the gentler versions, especially if you have any aches and pains.
Bikram: Bikram yoga classes usually last for 90 minutes and go through a sequence of 26 postures and breathing exercises. Bikram is performed in a room heated up to 40 degrees centigrade with 40% humidity, so approach with caution if you are like me and don’t do well in the heat!
Iyengar: The focus of Iyengar is on healing the body and mind through supported postures. Like Hatha, it is one of the oldest forms of yoga which makes it great for beginners or anyone with health problems, such as insomnia or stress.
Vinyasa: Developed from Ashtanga yoga, Vinyasa classes combine a rhythmical flow of poses with music. If you’re into dancing this is probably a good choice, as classes tend to focus on the natural movement of the body.
How to Find a Yoga Class
- British Wheel of Yoga (BWY), the Sport England-recognised governing body for yoga
- Yoga Alliance UK
- Yoga Class Near You
- Local Yoga Classes
If you can’t find a class near you or you have previous experience and want to continue your practice at home, try having a look at some books or online videos. Some good ones I’ve found are: