When you first start out with yoga you’re likely to experience some of the positive effects straight away. Your body feels more at ease, maybe a bit stronger, and you feel generally happier and more relaxed after class.
It is, however, after you’ve been practicing over a longer period of time that you realise your yoga practice has really started to influence your everyday life off the mat too. You notice your mind feels steadier, you feel more connected to your spirit, and a feeling of love for life just happens.
These longer-term benefits of yoga generally come much more gradually, so you may not immediately attribute them to your yoga practice. But when you stop practicing, which most of us do at some point, you realise it was yoga that helped improve your experience of life so much. It’s exactly why most of us tend to come back to the practice sooner or later – because we know it works!
You don’t have to get on the mat every day. I’ve been doing yoga for over 25 years and have found that you don’t have to practice every day to enjoy these benefits. It’s more about consistency. Usually I try to go no longer than 3 days without practicing but see what works for you.
So let’s look a bit more at the four main benefits of practicing yoga for a longer time, and how they extend into your daily life
1. The benefits on your physical body
It’s easy to take the physical benefits of yoga for granted. They are perhaps not so ‘interesting’ as the more subtle benefits, but they’re such an important reason to keep it up as we get older.
Most general yoga classes make you physically stronger which translates into feeling generally stronger in your daily life. And since your body and mind are connected you will notice you also start to feel emotionally more stable and more resilient as a result of the physical strength.
Another main benefit for the body is improved mobility and flexibility. It was the main reason people reported taking up yoga according to research by Yoga Alliance. For me, the physical practice of yoga, is not about becoming as flexible as I can, or having the exact same pose as someone else – we all have different bodies – it’s about keeping my joints and muscles healthy, increasing or maintaining my personal range of movement, and allowing energy or chi to flow freely. As a result day to day tasks simply feel easier!
Some other health benefits include lower blood pressure, improved energy, vitality and endurance, and better balance and coordination. All of which contribute to healthier aging.
2. The benefits on your mind
Yoga also makes you feel happier generally and a big part of this is because yoga teaches you how to stay focused. Through yoga, you learn techniques to down-regulate your nervous system, basically to relax more. This combination of relaxation and improved attention helps you to access a calm and focused state.
In your daily life this means being able to focus your attention for longer on what is in front of you. You become less easily distracted. For example, you’ll notice studying may become easier. This ability to concentrate and stay focused is no small feat. It allows us to be in the present moment, to be present with our reality, with what we are actually doing.
Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University studied people’s levels of happiness when they were focused on their task versus carrying out an activity while thinking about something else – having a “wandering mind”. Their study concluded that “wandering minds are unhappy ones”. “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
This is what yoga points to ultimately: to be here, now, in the present moment. Being present with the truth, with reality – whether you experience the reality as positive, negative or neutral – makes no difference. Being fully present for it, undistracted, calm and focused is what makes us happy.
3. The benefits on your spirit
When we learn to focus and we begin to show up for our experience of life, on and beyond the mat, our hearts usually begin to soften and open. We start to realize there is more to this life then the story of I, me and mine, my body, my thoughts, my goals, my dreams etc. We can often feel part of something bigger than us, a connection to the world, each other, the life that runs through all of us. Yoga gives us access to the source of creation. This allows us to take life’s challenges less personally and to feel supported during the hardest of times.
As Eckhart Tolle likes to say it
“You are not separate from the whole. You are one with the sun, the earth, the air. You don’t have a life. You are life.”
4. The benefits on your daily mindfulness
As yoga improves your overall health, concentration, your happiness and your capacity to be present, this in turn improves your ability to practice mindfulness in your day to day reality.
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention moment-to-moment to what’s happening within and around us with curiosity, kindness and without judgment.
We can use mindfulness in those areas where we want to bring some change. When we are feeling generally happier already, this usually leads to more positive change. It becomes natural to start paying more attention to what supports you in your daily life and what doesn’t. This often happens as a result of the ability to sense better what is right for you and what isn’t. For example, what food supports your energy and vitality, which connections (friends) help you to stay positive and grow? Is there any change to be made in your work life balance to live a more fulfilling life?