The Benefits of Yoga
Written by Mary Martin PT, DPT
When I ask people if they’ve ever tried yoga, most people have responded “no, why would I try that specifically?” As a physical therapist and someone who also enjoys exercise, I have tried A LOT of different ways to exercise and keep myself in shape. This has exposed me to various philosophies and ways to address injury in a clinical setting as well. I’m able to connect to a variety of patients including Crossfit athletes, hikers, skiers, yogis, and (most near and dear to my heart) the older patient who just wants to keep living at home with as little help as long as possible.
I have an extensive background in dance, and once I stopped consistently dancing and getting in daily stretching, I noticed more aches and pains and I became much less flexible. Some of this is normal (my family leans on the stiffer side), but I noticed I was more injury prone if I wasn’t as flexible. While I’ve gone to yoga classes off and on for the past decade, recently I decided to try a local yoga studio for a year straight. Somehow, I ended up really liking heated yoga. Not hot yoga, mind you, because these particular classes are heated to more of a moderate temperature of 90-95 degrees F (more on different types of yoga later). This made me feel like I could get deeper into stretches sooner, with much less discomfort. Bonus: I actually broke a sweat and felt like it was a comparable workout to weight lifting or a high intensity workout by the end of it. I notice improved balance, much better core strength, minimal hip and back pain, and an improvement in attention span and sleep quality. As it turns out, I am not alone! Exercise has been found to have a myriad of health benefits and is often described as the “magic pill” for overall health. For a nice review of the research on the benefits of exercise, check out this following blog from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/upshot/why-you-should-exercise-no-not-to-lose-weight.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1.
To get back to yoga….
Yoga is actually the study of breathing and inner connection. You might see those fancy poses posted on social media and think that’s yoga, but that is not everything it is. What is more important are the connections you make with your body, the energy levels within, and the world around you. My goal for every time I hit my mat is to breathe. It sounds silly, but if you’ve ever done something that required concentration you know that means you often hold your breath during the task. Yoga challenges me. It makes me move in ways I might avoid during the day (looking at you, office workers) and works on my balance a ton! There are a lot of single leg poses, reaching poses, lateral motions, and of course, inversions (handstands!). What is important to know is that you don’t actually have to be good at any of that to do yoga. There are many different types of yoga (8 in fact) but my experience has been mostly in hot yoga, vinyasa, restorative, and bikram. As a physical therapist, I often borrow poses and modify them for my patients to work on motor control and core strength. I also teach my patients how to properly perform diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. Please reference part three yoga blog to learn more about how to start breathing using your diaphragm!
To look at the different types of yoga, I headed over to Gaiam’s website, which is a popular lifestyle brand that specializes in yoga and fitness education, apparel and accessories. I thought they had a wonderful article here: https://www.gaiam.com/blogs/discover/a-beginners-guide-to-8-major-styles-of-yoga
To sum up the types I’ve experienced the most, I’d like to go through them and how they feel when you’re in a class:
1) Hot yoga: this type of class is generally heated above 100 degrees F and has added humidity going the entire time, which translates to a lot of sweat. There is usually a specific sequence of poses every time, and while that might sound easy or boring after a while, trust me, it is not. Every day we as humans wake up performing differently, whether it is from different sleep, hydration, mental fatigue, the list goes on.. So, you can imagine if you put yourself in a room like that you will figure out really quickly how well it is going to go for you that day. Nothing feels better than a shower after that class! I’ve also achieved the most stretch in these classes, and if you’re looking for something you have to concentrate your attention on 110%, this type of class is for you! If you really get into it, there are usually specific types of clothing and mats you’ll need to be more successful.
2) Bikram: This is a specific 26 poses developed by Bikram Choudhury, again in a heated room. It is similar to the hot yoga mentioned above, and most studios should be certified to specifically brand themselves “bikram.” There are a lot of classes similar to this you can find, and usually the studio will tell you if it is heated or true Bikram. Again, lots of concentration and hydration required!
3) Vinyasa: These are probably one of my favorites and my most often practiced types of classes. The sequences vary all the time, and at the studio I had gone to for my year of yoga had specifically themed classes throughout the week sometimes, breaking down difficult poses like Eagle (think: my whole body is twisted up like a pretzel) or developing hip flexibility in a hip opener theme for the whole hour. These are a lot of fun because often there is music and specific cardio sections or core sections. These classes remind me of HIIT (high intensity interval training) classes. Occasionally, these are heated as well but usually around 90 degrees F (and they’ll warn you!).
4) Restorative: aka yin yoga. This is the exact opposite type of class that I have described so far. They might use soothing music, but they are also known for using props to help get you into a stretch for a really long time (bolsters, blankets, specific pillows) to make these poses as comfortable as possible to stay in. They are very soothing and relaxing, but not meant to be a nap. My favorite classes tend to use candlelight to set the ambiance.
Overall, I hope this series of blog posts gets you interested in yoga as a form of exercise and a way to reap the many health benefits of regular movement!
Check out part two of my yoga blog where I show how I use yoga in my PT practice. I’ve included a few exercises you can try at home for core strengthening and low back pain I use often with my patients. As always, feel free to connect with a physical therapist at our clinic by contacting us, and I’d be interested to connect with you more on this subject so send me an email!