When I drive my daughter to dance class every day, I pull into a parking lot packed with cars. But they don’t belong to other “dance moms” bringing their children to tap, ballet and jazz lessons. They belong to patrons—men and women of all different sizes, shapes and ages—of a yoga studio next door. I always wonder what’s going on in there, to draw such a huge crowd of smiling, mat-carrying people, rain or shine, morning or night.
People love yoga and here’s why. Yoga is considered a mind-body exercise. It combines physical and mental disciplines to achieve a sense of peacefulness, promoting relaxation and reduced stress and anxiety. While there are many different styles of yoga, with some being more intense and physically challenging than others, regularly participating in any form of this age-old activity offers real health benefits. Some of these benefits include:
• Less stress. A number of studies have linked yoga to reduced stress. In a yoga class, you’ll learn to quiet the constant “chatter” that occupies the mind, focusing instead on your breathing and the movements your body is making. You may feel more relaxed after just one class! Practicing regularly may lead to an increased sense of overall calmness and well-being.
• Improved concentration. In addition to calming your mind, yoga may help improve your ability to concentrate. It forces you to slow down and to give your full attention to your body and your breathing. With all the multi-tasking and fast-paced activities we’re used to, yoga can be a great reminder for how to “center” and be fully present in a moment.
• Improved flexibility. Technically a series of poses, sometimes done is a very particular order, yoga encourages you to bend, stretch and move your body in ways you might not have thought possible. Flexibility is important for many aspects of physical health, from improving fitness performance to helping to prevent injury during exercise.
• Improved strength. While yoga alone won’t give you a bodybuilder’s physique, it does improve strength and tone your muscles. Many of the poses require extended holds, forcing you to support the weight of your own body for a time. You may also use a strap or a band in some classes, creating resistance that works your muscles.
• Increased endurance. The combination of training your brain and body with regular yoga practice is said to help with endurance. Both your attitude and your body’s ability to push through tough workouts may be improved.
If you’re ready to give yoga a try, be sure to dress comfortably. Wear form-fitting clothing for greater ease of movement and so sleeves or pant legs don’t get twisted or caught underfoot. Moisture-wicking fabrics won’t stick when bending and offer quick-drying comfort, which is a nice feature especially for hot yoga enthusiasts.
Coming to class with your own mat is also important. Towels are slippery and offer no grip. Gymnastic cushions or rugs are usually too thick and can lead to chronic wrist pain. They’re also difficult to balance on. I recommend purchasing a mat such as the Valeo Yoga and Pilates Mat, which is cushioned with a non-slip surface.
Yoga studios are easy to find these days, but check community centers or even your local library for classes. You may even find some free of charge. If you’d rather not do yoga with a group, get a DVD such as Gaiam A.M. Yoga for Your Week or P.M. Yoga for Your Week and try it at home.
NPC National Figure competitor Melissa Transou, a fitness expert, wife and mother, blogs about the unique sports and nutrition needs of women and female athletes exclusively for Vitacost.com. Learn more about Melissa in this recent RXMuscle.com spotlight article, connect with her on Facebook or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.