When I began practicing yoga, I already had pretty good body awareness through my background in physical therapy and my love of running and exercising in general. But it was only through yoga that I was able to develop a deeper understanding of anatomy, body mechanics and greater awareness of the unhealthy habits in my own body when it came to how I stood, walked, sat, lifted things and moved in general.
In my work with people in yoga classes and private sessions, I am able to see how stress, the effects of sitting, hard work, raising kids and just overall sensory overwhelm has affected people’s bodies. There are several things I usually see: tight shoulders, lack of overall strength, tightness in the legs and an overall lack of coordination. In most cases, this isn’t because of a physical problem but more a result of spending too much time thinking and not enough time noticing the body.
The good news is that all of this can be shifted through a regular yoga practice. For those that insist yoga is not for them because “they can’t do one thing that long, can’t meditate, can’t concentrate, are not spiritual or can’t touch their toes," I have news for you. Most people struggle with the same things but somehow gather up the requisite energy to get to a class. After one, they make another and pretty soon, as the body starts to feel better and more alive, they’re well on their way. If you’re looking for some practical benefits from yoga, here’s a good list of things I’ve personally seen shift in people after only a few sessions:
1. Standing more evenly on the feet. Yoga is the practice of working from the “ground up.” If you’re in a pose and unsteady, you make changes to your foundation to connect to greater steadiness. When you stand more evenly on the feet, you naturally create better posture. When you have better posture, you have less back pain, less pain in the hamstrings and breathe better. Working in bare feet stretches the bottoms of the feet, which, if you’ve ever had plantar fasciitis (a painful inflammation of the thick band of muscle in the bottom of the foot), you know how horrible this can be. Standing evenly on the feet and stretching the soles of your feet is a great way to build your arches, improve your posture, decrease your chances of foot problems and improve your steadiness while walking or running.
2. Relaxed shoulders. For most of us, stress in our life shows up in our bodies. One of the most common places is the shoulders. As we hold that stress in our bodies, coupled with sitting over a computer, we literally shorten the muscles in the front of the upper body, like the pectoral muscles. When we stretch in various yoga poses designed to open the shoulders, including the deltoids and muscles around the shoulder blades, we create a more upright position. This not only relieves the physical stress in the body but also improves our breathing abilities, also a great stress reliever.
3. More neutral pelvis. Along with tight shoulders, many people have tight hips. The muscle group that is most often very tight is the hip flexors. These muscles, including the psoas, shorten due to prolonged sitting, driving and exercising that involves constant hip flexion (running, cycling). When your hip flexors are tight, they pull on the pelvis and create a “swayback." This tips the pelvis forward and takes it out of its natural, “level” position. This is compounded when you start yoga and try to reach your arms overhead while lunging forward in a pose such as Warrior 1. Tight hip flexors will prevent you from reaching overhead while maintaining a straight spine. This “swayback” posture puts increased pressure on the lower back.
As you work with a teacher who can show you modifications to stretch overhead while maintaining a straight(er) spine, you will improve the flexibility of your hip flexors. This will relieve the pressure on your lower back and you’ll experience a taller, more relaxed standing position, without straining the low back.
4. Better body mechanics when lifting. Remember your mother always saying, “Bend your knees when you pick up something heavy! You’ll save your back!” This is very true. Now, you need strong quadriceps (the muscles in the thighs) in order to use your legs for lifting but this kind of strengthening happens naturally in yoga. You also will improve your upper body strength by literally using your body weight as resistance in various poses. Moving on the yoga mat increases the awareness you have of your whole body and improves your ability to move in an integrated way (like a dancer). When this skill develops and you call on your body to lift something, you will naturally use better posture and body mechanics. The lift will be smooth and steady and you will decrease the chance of injury.
5. Increased core awareness and strength. In order to stand up tall, you need a strong core as part of the entire framework of the body. It’s not the only thing you need, but it’s an important piece. Yoga poses that involve balancing, twisting and specific poses that focus on the abdominal muscles all strengthen the core (including the abdominal muscles that are on the sides of the body). When you have a strong core, you rely less on your back for lifting (as we discussed above) and can naturally stand tall and sit tall comfortably.
You may remember a trend that began a few years ago where people would sit on exercise balls instead of desk chairs. The idea is that you need to use your core in order to sit steady on the ball. After practicing yoga regularly for a few months, you won’t need a ball or any gimmick to sit tall. It will happen naturally.
6. Better posture when sitting. Much of what I’ve shared thus far has focused on better posture when sitting and techniques to improve your seated posture. The reality is cars, planes, conference room chairs, movie seats and sitting on the floor all present challenges to proper posture when seated. It’s not that these challenges will disappear; it’s that you will have such a greater awareness of when you’re “out of alignment” when seated, you’ll make the necessary adjustments to come into that position. Furthermore, you’ll have the requisite strength and flexibility in order to move your body into that position.
7. Stronger arches in the feet. Many people come to yoga and tell me they have flat feet or dropped arches. This can be a result of wearing flat shoes, lacking awareness of the feet, lacking strength in the muscles of the feet (there are many!) or having injuries to the ankles. People also can have sensitivity around the feet and many people start a yoga practice wearing socks. Over time, they remove them and experience a greater connection to the entire foot and build greater strength and a more defined arch. There are specific poses that can help build your arches and improve your ability to regenerate that natural arch you used to have. With better arches, you’ll naturally stand more tall.
8. Head evenly balanced over the body/less neck strain. One of the things I see more now than ever before is the head jutting out over the body when standing upright. Remember that kid in the movie, “Jerry McGuire,” that talked about how heavy the human head was? He was right! The constant position we have of looking down at our phones and computers drags our chin out over our chest. The weight of the head in this position puts enormous strain on the muscles in the back of the neck. Over time, these muscles weaken and the head is in front of the chest all the time.
It takes awareness, strengthening the muscles in the upper back and adjustments to your desk and position when holding your phone to remedy this. But once you do, you will feel less upper body tightness, because you can imagine all the excess energy your upper back and neck are using just to hold up your head!
Unhealthy body habits and positioning happens over time. It’s the result of the culture we’re in, the common tendencies and actions we all have and the lack of general awareness we tend to have about the body as we’re many times, consumed with what is happening outside of us. But, with a regular yoga practice, you can and will reverse these changes. I’ve even had people tell me they are taller!
You’ll experience greater ease in the body, less pain and you’ll decrease the chances of developing problems related to your bones and joints. With all those possible benefits, what could possibly be stopping you?