We have all heard of the many benefits of yoga including, physical, emotional and spiritual. The physical practice of yoga is extremely beneficial to the human body. The more we practice, the stronger and more flexible we become, leading to better posture, a stronger spine and easier breathing. Below are 5 physical benefits of a yoga practice.
The physical practice of yoga is only one of the 8 limbs. Through asana practice, we gain better control of the body by practicing different postures that strengthen and tone our muscles and organs. Most yoga poses that are practiced focus on engaging the bandhas, or energy centers in the body. Engaging uddiyana bandha, (pulling the belly in and up), tones and strengthens the abdominal muscles and organs. By practicing and repeating yoga poses, the body learns to hold these postures more comfortably and creates muscle memory. The more we practice, the stronger the physical body becomes.
Most yoga poses can be standing, balancing, forward fold, backbends, and hip opening postures. Each one of these categories focuses on lengthening different areas of the body and increasing flexibility of the muscles around those areas. Backbends help to improve the flexibility of the front body (quads, abdomen, front of the neck). Forward folds (either standing or seated) lengthen the back body (hamstrings, spinal erectors, calf muscles). Similar to how the body becomes stronger and better at performing a movement the more we repeat it, the same applies to the flexibility of a muscle group. The more our bodies are in these types of poses that stretches a particular muscle group; allowing us to feel comfortable in those poses and go deeper.
In addition to having a strong and flexible body, yoga is wonderful for our spine! The spine is comprised of 33 vertebrae. These bones are steadied by muscles that help keep our body upright. After sitting for long periods of time or when our muscles are tired, these spinal stabilizers don’t do a very good job at securing the spine and we either slouch or rely on the strength of the neck muscles to hold us up. Overtime, bad posture can cause chronic pain, so it's important for the spinal stabilizers to be strong and healthy to stay pain free!
Proper body posture throughout the practice of yoga is important to maintaining a strong spine. In yoga practice, the body learns how to shift its center of gravity to hold different poses. For each pose, the spine is lifting, flexing, extending or rotating. Each of these movements strengthen the different muscles that support the spine helping prevent compressed discs and maintaining the necessary space between each vertebra. A strong spine is key to preventing many types of injuries, particularly spinal injuries. However, ankle, wrist, knee and hip injuries can also be prevented by maintaining a strong and flexible spine, naturally developed with a regular yoga practice.
One of the main physical benefits of practicing yoga is better breath control. It’s one of the things that connects the body to the mind. This connection allows us to access a parasympathetic state, which is the opposite of fight or flight. Practicing yoga helps us control our breath by putting us in a position where we must hold poses, some rather uncomfortable at times, and simply breathe. In Ashtanga yoga, for example, each posture is held for five slow breaths. Not only does each exhale allow us to better access a posture, but the awareness of the breath also brings us to the present moment, which can be difficult to achieve throughout the rest of our day-to-day. By mastering better command of the breath, we achieve a better control of our bodies and minds.
The physical practice of yoga is incredibly beneficial to the human body. The more we practice, the stronger and more flexible we become, contributing to healthy body posture, a stronger spine and better breathing mechanics. These physical benefits allow us to keep up with our daily activities pain free.
Uddiyana can be translated as “upward flying” and bandha as “lock”. This lock is located in the lower abdomen about three fingers below your navel; it is a band of muscle between your two hipbones. This space can be engaged in a full range of ways, from slightly firm, or intensely engaged, drawing the belly into such an extreme that it is visibly pulled up and under the rib-cage. For asana, we work towards something in the middle, as a start. For pranayama, we reach towards the more extremely engaged end of the spectrum.
How to practice Uddiyana Bandha:
1. Pull the low belly in and up towards your spine. For most yogis, this may take some time to recognize that it’s there.
2. Lay on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Take your hands to your belly at your hip bones and begin to press the arch of your lower back towards the floor. While you will not actually lose that space between the back and the floor, you likely will feel your belly begin to engage.
3. If the previous option doesn’t work, stay on your back and stretch your legs out on the floor in front of you. Try to lift your heels an inch off the ground. This is an optimal way to notice your lower abdominal lock.
A strong and engaged core is what you want in most of your yoga postures. This lock stabilizes the body by aligning the hips and spine, drawing strength from the center rather than the extremities. This will create a stronger core for the body to draw from, while also decreasing the potential for injury in the hip and shoulder girdles, as well as in the outer limbs. Once the core becomes strong and a part of practice, it makes other poses easier and more accessible.
There are other internal benefits to this lock, such as keeping the digestive organs clear and moving, helping the flow of energy sealed inside the body, building prana (life force) and heat while assisting in the removal of impurities. According to ancient yogis, the solar plexus (Manipura Chakra), is the seat of fire within our physical and psychic systems. The lower chakras are the energy centers of many vital functions and health issues within the physical body. Keeping this part of the body active and working prevents lower back problems and promotes healthy adrenal glands while improving kidney, bladder, and liver function.
By engaging Uddiyana lock the breath above the belly fills the lungs and rib-cage, thus, initiating ujjayi breathing. In addition to building focus and concentration on the breath’s sound, ujjayi is a powerful pranayama that heats the body and stimulates the flow of blood, increasing your circulation as well as your metabolism. Taking in more air also oxygenates the blood, which keeps the blood healthy and more resistant to disease.
While nurturing and providing an outlet for stress, relaxation and stretching, yoga is not easy. If we ignore our core muscles, we will likely have a higher risk of injury. When feel the intensity of our body getting stronger, the heat we’re creating and the sweat forming across the brow; acknowledge that your effort will not go unnoticed or be in vain, but will rather build towards a safer and stronger practice. Keep your energy centered, protect yourself from injury and celebrate your strength, awareness, and diligence.
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