If any of your friends or family are enamored of what some call “new-age” practices, they are probably into yoga. But, does yoga have health benefits? We know it’s important to eat a balanced diet, drink lots of water, get aerobic exercise, and probably do a little weightlifting to reach our peak fitness levels. The question is do we need to learn and practice posing like a tree, like a chair, and doing the “downward facing dog” to reach the peak of health? I would say, no, but the answer to the question “does yoga have health benefits” is a resounding “yes”.
History of Yoga
Yoga and yoga practices date to the very beginning of civilization. Yoga has many scientific aspects and its origin predates the major religions and belief systems we know today.
The Yoga story is that Shiva was the first Yogi or Adiyogi. Shiva is also considered to be the first Guru or Adiguru. Shiva documented the important knowledge of yoga into the Saptarishis or the “seven sages”. The knowledge of yoga was spread to different parts of the world including the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and even South America.
Yoga can be thought of as a discipline with many spiritual aspects. It’s spiritual but also based on science. It seeks to bring the mind and body into synchronicity. The very word “yoga” is based on the Sanskrit “yuj” meaning “to yoke” or “to unite” or “to join”. Yogic scriptures preach that practicing yoga leads to uniting the “universal consciousness” with that of the individual. In the most basic sense, yoga is a journey of self-realization which can help overcome personal issues and lead to a state of liberation.
When considering yoga types and benefits, it’s important to recognize that the most common type of yoga practiced today in the West is Hatha Yoga and Asanas or postures. But, Asanas and Hatha Yoga are only a small part of “actual” yoga and considered necessary for the body to sustain energy levels that are much higher. This all starts with training the body, then working on breathing, preparing the mind, and finally addressing the inner self. Do you understand, Grasshopper?
While most people understand yoga to be an exercise system or therapy for fitness and health, it’s really much more than that. It’s about establishing a connection to the universe and is the technology to achieve harmony and perception of the cosmos. Pretty heady stuff.
Does Yoga Have Health Benefits
We foreshadowed our answer to the question “does yoga have health benefits” in an earlier paragraph. That answer was that yes, it does have benefits. But, what kind of benefits are possible and how do you attain them? The truth is that there are yoga benefits for men, there are yoga benefits for women, there are yoga benefits for children, and there are even yoga benefits for cancer patients. Almost anyone can derive health benefits through doing yoga.
As mentioned earlier, the type of yoga popularized in the West is called Hatha yoga and Asanas or postures. Since they are the most familiar to many, we will concentrate on the health benefits associated with Asanas. Each Asana has a name and specific health benefits associated with it. The number of Asanas is too large to cover in a simple blog post. Instead of trying to describe all of them (or even most of them) and their associated health benefits, we’ll try to highlight some of the most foundational, beneficial, and challenging.
Yoga Poses – Basic
- Mountain Pose (In Sanskrit it’s called Tadasana) –
Accomplish this pose by standing with your feet about as wide as your hips. Remain firmly planted down into the four corners of your feet.
While drawing your shoulder blades down and through your back, roll your shoulders and lift the crown of your head. Activate your thighs while drawing in your abdomen. Try to stretch through the length of your spine. Keep your jaw relaxed and your brow unfurrowed. Turn your palms so they face the room in the front. Most importantly, breathe easy.
BENEFITS: It might seem like you aren’t doing much; but, the Mountain Pose is foundational. It helps focus your attention on the current moment as well as promote balance.
- Downward-Facing-Dog (In Sanskrit it’s called Adho Mukha Svanasana) –
To accomplish this pose, start from a position on all fours. Then, walk your hands about 6 inches in front of you. While tucking your toes, lift your hips back and up so that your spine lengthens. You can keep your knees bent if your hamstrings feel tight. This should serve to bring your weight back and into your legs.
While spreading your fingers as wide as possible, rotate your arms to make your biceps face one another and press into your hands. Simultaneously, try and press your thighs toward a wall behind you.
BENEFITS: This pose lengthens your spine, stretches the hamstrings, and helps to open your shoulders. As it places your head below your heart, it has the effect of making one feel calm.
- Warrior II (In Sanskrit it’s called Virabhadrasana II) –
To accomplish this pose, stand up so your feet are pretty wide. Make them about 3-4 feet apart. Point the toes on your right foot inward by shifting your right heel out after which you should turn your left foot so it’s out 90°. Line up the arch of your right foot with your left heel. Take your left knee and bend it to a 90° angle. Be sure to keep the knee and your second toe in line. This helps protect your knee joint from damage.
While grounding down into the back foot, stretch your leg in back which should remain straight. Inhale and bring your arms up forming a “T” at your shoulder’s height. Your shoulder blades should be drawn down your back. Keeping your palms face down, spread your fingers. Now, while gazing over the fingers in front of you, stretch further as you exhale.
If you have problems drawing your shoulder blades down, try rotating your palms face up. This should put your shoulder blades in the correct position and you can rotate your palms face down when your shoulder blades are settled.
BENEFITS: This pose improves stamina and strengthens your ankles and legs.
Yoga Poses – Intermediate
- Plank Pose (In Sanskrit it’s Kumbhakasana):
To accomplish this pose, begin in the Downward-Facing-Dog position. You need to move forward so that your shoulders become “stacked” over your wrists. Concentrate on keeping your hips from dropping and suck your navel in toward your spinal cord.
Move the crown of your head forward and, at the same time, stretch your heels back. Push down into your hands like you are trying to force the floor even farther beneath you. Broaden your chest as you try to lengthen through your arms.
This is a difficult exercise. If needed, take a short rest on your knees before resuming the pose.
BENEFITS: This pose rocks your core. It strengthens your abdominal muscles while promoting stability.
- Upward-Facing Dog (in Sanskrit it’s Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).
To accomplish this pose, you start by lying on the floor, face down. In line with your lower ribs, place your hands on the mat and bend your elbows. Keep your elbows next to your torso. Inhale while tucking your toes.
While you exhale, make a move like a push-up and push the floor away. At the same time, you hover your hips 3-6 inches above the floor, straighten your arms. You should also try to broaden yourself across the chest.
MODIFICATIONS FOR SPINAL INJURY OR LOW BACK PAIN: With your feet on the mat and toes pointed, press the tops of your feet down as if trying to force them through the mat. Don’t let your hips come off the mat when bending your elbows and pushing up. Roll your shoulders, as before, down your back. Keep your focus on elongating your spine as you straighten your arms as much as possible. Immediately, but slowly, lower yourself down onto your stomach if you feel any pain or compression.
BENEFITS: This pose stretches hip flexors and your abdominal muscles while strengthening your core.
- Warrior I (in Sanskrit it’s Virabhadrasana I) –
To accomplish this pose, start in the Downward-Facing-Dog position. Moving it between your hands, take one foot and step between your hands. Grounding down into your back foot, turn it out approximately 45°.
Line your feet up so that they are heel to heel. If it’s uncomfortable, you can line them up slightly wider. While straightening your back leg, you need to bend your front knee so it’s directly over your front ankle. Press your back heel down into the floor. While inhaling, lift both arms up and stretch your spine. If you need to, just put your hands on your hips. But, if possible, raise them up in a “V” pointed at the ceiling. Be sure to rotate your torso so it’s facing the front of the room.
If you find this pose difficult or challenging to maintain your balance, you may widen your stance. Pretend like you are standing on railroad tracks.
BENEFITS: This pose is energizing and serves to strengthen your back, arms, and leg muscles. At the same time, it stretches your ankles, thighs, chest, neck, and shoulders.
Yoga Poses – Advanced
- Wheel Pose (in Sanskrit it’s Urdhva Dhanurasana) –
To accomplish this pose, with knees bent, lie face up with your feet flat on the floor. Your feet should be hip-distance apart and your feet parallel to one another with heels under your knees.
Inhale and bring your hands to the floor so they frame your ears. Face your fingers toward your heels.
Exhale and press down into your feet and hands. Lift your chest and hips off the floor. While straining your arms, lift through your shoulders.
To come out of the pose, bend your arms and slowly lower your upper back down to the floor.
BENEFITS: This pose serves to open up the body’s entire front. It also strengthens muscles in your hamstrings, shoulder, and back.
- Wall-Assisted Handstand (in Sanskrit it’s Adho Mukha Vrksasana) –
To accomplish this pose, begin in the Downward-Facing-Dog position and faced the wall. Put your hands 6 inches from the wall. While bending your knee, bring that foot in toward the wall. Then, with the opposite leg into the air.
Raise your other leg and bring your feet together up on the wall.
To recover from the pose, using your core, bend your knees and lower your legs down to the floor. Be sure to recover your senses after an inversion before returning to exercise.
BENEFITS: This inversion is both energizing and serves to strengthen your arms, wrists, and shoulders. It also promotes a sense of balance, calm, and confidence.
- Headstand (in Sanskrit it’s Sirsasana) –
To accomplish this pose, begin on all fours facing the wall. Take your hands and interlace your fingers. Your knuckles should face the wall. Put your elbows on the floor. Make them about shoulder-width apart. Gently put the crown of your head in the cradle made by your interlaced fingers.
Lift your knees off the floor as you touch your toes under. Move your hips back and up. Lift up through your shoulders while pressing down into your forearms.
As you make your chest as broad across as possible, walk your feet in closer. Concentrate your weight on your forearms.
While placing your feet on the wall, in a controlled manner, bring your knees into your chest. At the same time, slide your heels up the wall.
When it’s time to exit the pose, you want to do so with control. Make sure you maintain the lift of your shoulders.
BENEFITS: While it is advanced, this inversion strengthens your arms, shoulders, and upper back. It is also beneficial for your lymphatic, endocrine, and circulatory systems.
Is Yoga Something You Should Consider
I’m a big proponent of yoga, especially for older individuals. Does yoga have health benefits for older individuals? In just the nine poses included in this article, we’ve shown that yoga is a low-impact way to maintain flexibility, increase limb range-of-motion, and provide benefits for important bodily systems. These are all important considerations for the elderly.
Making the decision to include yoga as part of your fitness and health routine is something each of us has to do individually. But, if you are looking for a low-impact fitness and health routine which can have far-reaching benefits, yoga just might be something for you to consider.
Yoga is Recommended for Everyone
As noted previously, there are many yoga types and benefits. But, just the yoga poses health benefits identified in this article apply to a broad spectrum of individuals. There are yoga benefits for children. There are yoga benefits for men. There are yoga health benefits for women. There are even yoga health benefits for cancer patients.
You gain health benefits doing yoga, that much is clear. Everything in his article answers the question “does yoga have health benefits”, clearly and affirmatively. I recommend everyone make some aspect of yoga part of their health and fitness routine.
Feel free to send me a picture of you doing your best upward-facing-dog named “Mountain” doing a headstand pose. I will post the best submissions in a future article.