Stretching and Relaxing Your Way to a Fitter 2012

As most Americans wrap up the year and the holiday eating frenzy that began with Thanksgiving and stretches until New Years, it’s typical to think about losing weight, exercising, and a return to more sensible, healthy habits. Exercise benefits everyone in a variety of ways, from weight loss and toning to stress reduction, but depending on your age, weight and physical condition, certain types of exercise are more difficult to practice or sustain. Maybe it’s time to consider a popular alternative to traditional workouts.

Yoga has been practiced for more than 5,000 years, with more than 11 million Americans enjoying its health benefits. Most Westernized yoga classes focus on learning physical poses. They also usually include some form of breathing technique and possibly a meditation technique as well. Some yoga classes are designed purely for relaxation. But there are styles of yoga that teach you how to move your body in new ways. Choosing one of these styles offers the greatest health benefits by enabling you to develop your flexibility, strength, and balance.

Yoga and flexibility

Many people think of yoga as having to stretch like a gymnast. That makes them worry that they’re too old or unfit to do yoga. The truth is you’re never too old to improve flexibility. Yoga poses (called asanas) work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use and causes stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. In addition, yoga increases the range of motion in joints. It may also increase lubrication in the joints, increasing ease and fluidity.

Yoga stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. And no matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time.

Some styles of yoga are more vigorous than others. Practicing one of these styles will help you improve muscle tone. But even less vigorous styles of yoga, which focus on less movement and more precise alignment in poses, can provide strength and endurance benefits. This becomes crucial as people age. The standing poses, especially if you hold them for several long breaths, build strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominal muscles. When practiced correctly, nearly all poses build core strength in the deep abdominal muscles.

Yoga helps posture and breathing

With increased flexibility and strength comes better posture. Most standing and sitting poses develop core strength. That’s because you’re counting on your deep abdominals to support and maintain each pose. With a stronger core, you’re more likely to sit and stand “tall.” Another benefit of yoga is the increased body awareness. This heightened awareness tells you more quickly when you’re slouching or slumping so you can adjust your posture.

Additionally, because of the deep, mindful breathing that yoga involves, lung capacity often improves. This in turn can improve work and sports performance and endurance. But yoga typically isn’t focused on aerobic fitness the way running or cycling are. Most forms of yoga emphasize deepening and lengthening your breath. This stimulates the relaxation response — the opposite of the fight-or-flight adrenaline boost of the stress response.

Even beginners tend to feel less stressed and more relaxed. Some yoga styles use specific meditation techniques to quiet the constant “mind chatter” that often underlies stress. Other yoga styles depend on deep breathing techniques to focus the mind on the breath, in turn calming the mind. 

The chemistry of yoga

Among yoga’s anti-stress benefits are a host of biochemical responses. For example, there is a decrease in catecholamines, the hormones produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Lowering levels of hormone neurotransmitters — dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine — creates a feeling of calm. Some research points to a boost in the hormone oxytocin. This is the so-called “trust” and “bonding” hormone that’s associated with feeling relaxed and connected to others.

The same is true with mood. Nearly every yoga student will tell you they feel happier and more contented after class. Recently, researchers have begun exploring the effects of yoga on depression, a benefit that may result from yoga’s boosting oxygen levels to the brain.

In addition, one of the most studied areas of the health benefits of yoga is its effect on heart disease. Yoga has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. A slower heart rate can benefit people with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. On a biochemical level, studies point to a possible anti-oxidant effect of yoga. And yoga has been associated with decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as a boost in immune system function.

So as you weigh your body — and your resolutions for the coming year — consider yoga as a health alternative or supplement to traditional exercise, and have a healthy new year!

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!