If you have experienced everyday aches and pains or felt overwhelmed by stress and anxiety then I can fairly confidently say that you have been recommended yoga. And, I have no doubt that yoga can improve your flexibility, as well as your strength (let’s not forget that yoga isn’t just about flexibility), and that yoga can provide you with tools to help you approach whatever life throws at you.
What is yoga ultimately? In the Yoga Sutras, an ancient yogic text written 2000 years ago, Patanjali lays out the definition and purpose of yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” (Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah). Yoga uses movement, breathwork and meditation as well as guidelines for living to help the practitioner still the mind, experience inner peace and contentment. So, yes, yoga will help you to strengthen and stretch your body and improve your mental well-being. However, there are many other possible benefits of yoga that might be unexpected for you.
Before we dive in, I should highlight that throughout this article, I will use the term yoga, which not only refers to the physical yoga class that you might attend but also encompasses the philosophical way of living your live as detailed in Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga, which are written about in the Yoga Sutras. The 8 limbs of yoga include physical yoga, breathwork, meditation as well as many other practices that lead you on the journey of yoga. I have written an entire article about the 8 Limbs of Yoga if you want to learn more.
Let’s dive in!
1. Yoga helps to build self-discipline
Yoga calls for a commitment to practice. It doesn’t need to be everyday but over time, you might find yourself practising physical yoga, or meditation more and more. Yoga does not guarantee positive outcomes straight away and the physical and mental benefits of yoga can only be realised by practising on a consistent basis. If you do not continue to work the muscles of the body, you lose muscle tone over time and the same can be said of mental well-being. Self-discipline is key for your yoga practice. Passion, courage and drive as well as self-trust, discipline and self-compassion are key for maintaining a yoga practice. Once you begin to build self-discipline, your inner drive and motivation will permeate beyond your yoga practice and into the rest of your life. It takes a huge amount of effort to be self-disciplined but within this practice mental resilience increases, you feel more in control of your life and, leading onto our next unexpected benefit, you build self-trust.
2. Yoga helps to build self-trust
Setting yourself a goal with detailed actions, following through with those desired actions, regardless of the outcome of the goal is an incredibly empowering process. By committing to doing yoga and therefore, committing to your overall health and well-being, you cultivate a trusting relationship with yourself. Think of the guilt and shame you have experienced when you set yourself the goal of getting up early, and then you snoozed the alarm and went back to sleep, or you intended to only have two drinks and ended up imbibing an entire bottle of wine, or you committed to an exercise class several times a week, started with all guns blazing and cancelled on the second class. I use these examples not to highlight that these are more virtuous actions than others, they aren’t, but rather, because they are common examples of letting our past selves down. I am not suggesting that we should all be getting up at 5am, become teetotal and exercise at the gym three times a week, but rather, I am suggesting that it is powerful for your self-confidence and the relationship with yourself when you set yourself some actions to follow and you complete them, in a compassionate way. You trust yourself to move around the world that feels authentic for you.
3. Yoga nurtures an intimate relationship with your body
There are few other forms of exercise which emphasis such an intimate relationship with your body. Yoga as a physical movement of the body emphasises a complete presence with your entire body, your breath and the thoughts and feelings arising your mind. Embodied presence is at the heart of a physical yoga practice, which can be an alien experience in our modern lifestyles. We are often confined to desks because our working hours contract us to or we are told to “push through” during exercise classes because it is all about “no pain, no gain” or addictive and blue-light emitting screens disrupt the signals telling us that it is time for rest. Yoga teaches us to listen to the cues of our body via physical yoga classes or meditation that emphasis being completely aware of our body and our breath. Within that listening, we sense that there might be some niggles and pain that mean the muscles need to be strengthened or stretched, or we noticed that we need to rest more or perhaps move more in order to let go of any sluggishness, or that our breath is quickening and we need to pause and slow down or we simply notice something deeper going on that needs the attention of medical care. In a world ruled by the mind, embracing the signals of our body is a revolutionary mindset that helps you to take better care of yourself.
4. Yoga helps to improve your focus and concentration
Not only does yoga and meditation encourage the essence of embodied presence so that you can embrace the present moment, our ultimate goal on the journey of ceasing the fluctuations of the mind, yoga and meditation also teach concentration techniques to help cultivate the state of meditation. We live in a distracting world. It can feel like everyone and everything is vying for our attention. Social media platforms are built on the attention economy; we receive free entertainment in return for attention so that we might allow our eyes to fall on an advertisement and our mind to discern whether we want to make a purchase with our hard-earned cash. It is hard to focus and concentrate when there is so much noise. Attending an hour-long yoga class or meditating for twenty minutes is time spent practising the art of concentration. Within that concentration, wonderful things can happen; we can focus on creating a beautiful work of art or we can focus on teaching our children some life skills or listening to the problems of friends, wholeheartedly, or we can simply enjoy reading a book or watching a film without the constant urge to reach for our phone because our mind wonders how old that actor or that author is. The need to practise concentrating is needed more than ever, especially with the deep threats that our world and our society face. In my opinion, I feel like more needs to be done at a societal level with regards to the impact that our current way of living our lives affects our nervous systems, our physical health and our capacity for deep creative thought but by practising concentration we can become more focused on what truly matters to us.
5. Yoga encourages a compassionate approach to life; both to yourself and others
The first limb of the eight limbs of yoga, which is the path of yoga detailed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is the Yamas which are how you take action in the world. The first Yama is Ahimsa, translated as non-harming. This is the first step on your yoga journey and rightly so, because Ahimsa forms the foundation of your practice. The foundation of a non-harming approach to your life; for both yourself and others. Self-compassion and compassion are the first step on the path of yoga and when we live our lives guided by the compass of compassion we feel more content, we can be a better friend, loved one or family member, a better citizen in the world, we feel more at peace and there is research that indicates that a compassion practice benefits our physical well-being too.
6. Yoga can help you to awaken your inner artist and unlock your creative potential
I am sure you have experienced the feeling of an idea apparently appearing to you from the ether. Where do those ideas come from and when do you feel most creative? As Albert Einstein said;
“I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”
It is often when we stop trying so hard that we find that creative energy flows. The practice of yoga creates a relaxed and easeful but awaken and aware state; a state that helps to facilitate the creative process. Yogic practices have been shown in scientific studies to increase Alpha brain waves, which are associated with lower levels of stress and greater levels of creativity. Not only does yoga cultivate a focused, yet open and expansive consciousness, yoga also teaches non-attachment, self-compassion and letting go of control. Silence and stillness are at the heart of yoga and again, in the space, creativity can flow. These meaningful lessons help to facilitate creative expression that is without expectation, without limitation, without a harsh inner critic that stifles creativity and alive with playfulness and vibrant freedom.
Yoga offers a symphony of unexpected benefits. Beyond the physical prowess it imparts, yoga becomes a vessel for cultivating self-discipline, nurturing self-trust, deepening body awareness, honing concentration, embracing compassion, and unlocking boundless creativity. As you step off the mat and into the world, carry with you the transformative power of these hidden treasures. Let the lessons learned through yoga's journey infuse every aspect of your existence, guiding you towards a more harmonious, resilient, and enriched way of being. In embracing the unexpected, you embrace the full spectrum of what yoga has to offer—a path not just to wellness, but to a truly awakened life.