Yoga is, fundamentally, a therapeutic tool. That doesn’t mean that every class is easy or even that our only goal is relaxation but if you’re doing it right, your yoga session should always be rejuvenating.
Many practices that are vital to good health require you to push yourself to your limits. If you want to improve your cardiovascular health, you need to raise your heart rate to a level that is uncomfortable. And to stay mentally sharp, you should continuously look for ways to stimulate yourself intellectually. In yoga, however, even though there are many aspects that are challenging, the impact should always be therapeutic.
A lethal combination of good and bad stress
Intense exercise, cold baths, fasting, travel and a busy schedule are all examples of positive stress but unfortunately, we also have to deal with way too much unwanted stress—parts of our job that we don’t like, people who are unpleasant, illness and injury, loneliness, sleep disruption, over-scheduling, a poor diet and overwhelm in all its various forms.
We can grow both from positive and negative stress but only if it doesn’t take us under. And to mitigate against that eventuality, we need to incorporate anti-stress practices into our lives. One of the most effective of these is yoga. A practice that is designed to be restorative and therapeutic. As long as you’re doing it right, whether it is a challenging or an easy session, yoga should always make your body feel good and your mind feel calm.
Some key therapeutic benefits of yoga
- Alleviation of aches and pains. Yoga is a powerful tool for healing pain caused by muscular imbalances and poor posture. If you hurt yourself lifting too heavy at the gym or on an unusually long and gruelling bike ride, you know which poses to practice to get yourself out of pain quickly and effectively.
- Nervous system training. In modern life, we spend far too much time in the sympathetic “fight or flight” branch of the autonomic nervous system, ramped up to 11. The conscious, diaphragmatic breathing techniques and gentle stretches that we practice in yoga are highly effective for triggering the parasympathetic “rest and digest” response.
- Enhanced body awareness. In yoga, we have the time and attention we need to pay close attention to physical sensations. Off the mat, this allows us to tune in early to feelings of pain or illness so that we can adjust our behaviour before damage occurs and live more closely with our body’s natural rhythm.
- Increased flexibility. In yoga, we release tension in tight muscles and restore normal ranges of motion. This allows us to feel supple and comfortable in our skins. We can safely move into the positions that we want to and do so without encountering pain or restriction. Improvements in flexibility can also reduce our risk of injury.
- Healthy breathing patterns. Yoga teaches us deep, rhythmic breathing which is vital for achieving our best athletic performance and also for stress management. We hold our breath when we are scared, anxious, angry or experiencing panic and yoga teaches us techniques to deepen our breath and experience relaxation.
- Better balance and core control. As with conscious breathing, these skills have both athletic and healing utility. Good balance and a strong core are vital for participation in all sports but they are also essential for mitigating against lower back and hip pain caused by muscular imbalances and poor joint mobility.
- Ability to focus. Yoga is a discipline we practice without allowing ourselves to be distracted. This allows us to focus on our breathing and physical sensations so that we can effectively achieve our goals of healing the body and calming the mind. Practicing this skill on the mat makes it easier to drop into this focused state in other areas of our life.
- Improved mental health. Almost as often as I hear the feedback that yoga has healed previously intractable pain I am told about the positive long-lasting effect on students’ mental health. Taking the time for yourself to calm your nervous system is a tremendous act of self-care that helps you to feel less reactive and more in control.
How to practice yoga for the best therapeutic results
As I mentioned, it’s crucial that you practice yoga “right” in order to achieve a therapeutic experience. Here are some pointers to make sure that you are not approaching it as you might any other aspect of your exercise regime.
- Don’t do anything that hurts and be especially careful not to over-stretch.
- Relax into the poses, aiming to make your practice look easy and effortless.
- Remain free from tension and strain, relaxing your jaw and shoulders throughout.
- Go as slowly as you need to in order to breathe comfortably.
- Modify the pose if you are not able to practice the full version safely.
- Pay close attention to internal sensations, both mental and physical.
- Try not to let your mind wander.
- Keep challenging yourself instead of repeating the same sequences day in day out.
- A little soreness is ok but it should be sporadic.
- Practice enough to experience the benefits but not so much that it becomes a stress.
- Aim to feel energised and not depleted after your session.
Yoga is a powerful healer
No matter how hard or easy your session, the goal of yoga is always to heal some part of the body or mind. It is fundamentally therapeutic. You have plenty of opportunities to push yourself in other areas—in sports, work and perhaps even in your relationships. But yoga shouldn’t fall into the bucket of activities that take energy out of you. Yoga is about filling up your tanks, about revitalising and repairing you. If you have that thought always in your mind, you know you’re doing it right.