How Does Yoga Enhance Your Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual Self?

The Physical

Although I originally started to do yoga for research purposes, I was totally hooked when I saw the way it was sculpting my body, and as a woman in her late 40’s it also healed me of my fears about aging “ungracefully”.  I can remember vividly having bad days in my 20’s, waking up, looking in the bathroom mirror and saying to myself, “I had a rough night.  I’ll look better tomorrow.”   Then in my 30’s, the “ugh, what happened here” look was blamed on diet and lack of exercise, but still I believed I would look better the next morning.  In my early 40’s, however, I woke up, looked in the mirror and the realization came, “It isn’t gonna get any better is it?”  Since the onset of my Yoga practice, however, I have never felt better.  I wake up every morning with such alacrity; go to the mirror to check out what new body changes have taken place and smile.  Yoga reverses the aging process to such a degree, you actually can’t wait to see what more yoga and more time doing yoga can do for you.

In my experience, the physical aspects were entirely noticeable within just a couple of months.  Muscles I didn’t even know I had started to appear.  (One day I thought I found a hard lump in my arm until I noticed it was also on the other side.  Turns out it was my triceps!)  Weight came off easily and I noticed no more lower back pain, less and less stomach issues, greater endurance thanks to the breathing techniques, my complexion got clearer, and the list goes on. 

Another incredible facet is that it teaches you to go beyond your level of discomfort in order to reach a goal.  While you are in a yoga position you are made to hold it for an average of five breaths.  During that time an instructor will remind you to breathe deeply by inhaling and lifting different body parts to create space.  Then on an exhale you are reaching, stretching twisting or extending further into your position.  At each breathe juncture you are helping or enabling your body to go further even though it may be uncomfortable at first.  By easing into it, you are giving your limbs and muscles time to adjust to the position you have put it in.  As your body releases,  you relax and breathe into the pose,  helping it to go to the next level, past any discomfort or stretching sensation to go further and further, deeper and deeper.

After a while in my yoga practice, I noticed that pain didn’t hold me back anymore.  If I would have felt severe pain, trust me, I wouldn’t have moved forward, but I began to recognize hurting that was associated with danger to my body  vs. hurting that was really just old habit or fear based.  A sore or tight muscle, a Charlie horse, or maybe a mental block or belief that I could not do a pose, all held me back in the beginning.  The best part of my physical yoga experience was in the constant “surprise” when I was able to do a pose I formerly could not even get close to doing before. Of course the breaking of habits and old belief systems was synonymous with my mental, emotional and spiritual growth.  How could it not be?  But it was the challenge to my physical self that triggered all this growth.   

The Emotional

Obviously, the positive physical changes in one’s frame will elevate self-esteem and help promote better body image in all age groups, but because of the breathing techniques taught during the yoga practice, there are even more profound occurrences:

A serenity is produced between your body and mind.  This tranquil state relieves tension, which takes away anxiety.

It helps you go beyond any perceived physical limitation which enables you to conquer fear.

It releases endorphins, changing your mood and your outlook helping you to release anger, vengeance, guilt and other negative emotions.

Even frustration that usually accompanies a difficult sport or form of exercise is alleviated by Yoga because there is always one pose that you can excel at that will keep you coming back for more challenges.  And unlike many sports, ANYONE can excel in Yoga.  The more you do it, the more limber and strong you become so there is never a time when you are not emotionally satisfied with your progress.  Even when you can’t accomplish a pose right away, or you see the person next to you as being so much more advanced, it doesn’t affect your feelings about yourself.  It is called a practice because you are supposed to always be able to go further and further and do more and more for the rest of your life.  After a while, there is this wonderful acceptance of “Relax.  I am exactly where I am supposed to be, which is better than the day before!”

The Mental

“A clean body produces a clear mind.”  It’s my mantra and I live by it.  Yoga helps produce a clean body by enabling you to eliminate blocks caused by physical or emotional traumas.  It also helps the digestive, immune, vascular and lymphatic systems.  Deep breathing rejuvenates and oxygenates your cells faster and helps to distribute them throughout your body, which is especially important for young growing bodies.  Additionally, these physical aspects facilitate a more positive mental outlook.  It’s hard to be depressed when you feel so rejuvenated and filled with endorphins.  It is almost impossible not to stop that tape recorder playing in your head when you are standing on it!  The mental benefits are always different for everyone, but no matter who you are, you can’t walk away from a yoga class without a clearer picture in your mind of what positive attitude you want to continue with for the rest of the day.

The Yoga philosophy forces you to envision yourself in a pose.  For example, a seated forward bend is done while sitting on the mat, legs stretched in front of you, feet together and flexed while pointing to the ceiling, back straight, body bending at the crease of the hip, arms outstretched and hands wrapped around your feet.  After this description, can you envision yourself in the pose?  Most likely your answer is “Yes” .  But if you were to get on a mat right now and do it, you may not be able to even touch your toes, let alone  get your hands wrapped around your feet. 

In practice though, you are taught to envision yourself in the absolute perfect position even if you can’t achieve it yet.  That way, your mind talks to your body and your body responds by releasing further into the bend every time you do it, creating this profound mental/physical synergy.    I saw in my own practice that almost every time I envisioned myself in the full position, I was able to go further and further until one day, I was just there, physically doing the full posture. On the contrary, though, there were poses that I couldn’t help but think, “It will never happen!”  Those poses didn’t come for me until I changed my mind.  Once I did, there came the pose.  Essentially, when your mind starts believing, “I’m going to let my body go further today” and you know  what?  It does.

As time passed and I saw myself constantly reach another “yoga milestone” my way of thinking about myself started to change.  I no longer believed I had any limitations.  Instead it was just a “matter of time” before I would be able to do what I wanted to do.  My body finally convinced my mind that I was invincible.

The Spiritual

Spirituality  is such a catch all word.  Perhaps though we can all agree on one aspect:  it is the practice of bringing oneself to a higher form of consciousness or otherwise put, the belief that we can connect with a higher power within ourselves and/or the Universe.

I can tell you with all honesty that yoga has not brought me closer to “a God” or to “the God”.   My specific beliefs were always there and they have not changed.  What has changed however is my ability to bring more spirituality into my life at any given time.  I have a great desire for peace and serenity and less desire to hold onto negative thoughts, feelings, or emotions. 

If yoga was the language my body used to talk to my mind, it was then that my mind changed and decided there was a better way of life, filled with goodness and love for myself and others.   Perhaps I could have gotten this with another form of exercise, but if it exists, I don’t know what it is.  Instead I thank the Hindus for creating this practice and for all the entities over the centuries that have kept it alive.  After all, something that is over 5,000 years old and still going strong must be admired and deemed extraordinary.  Like I tell my students:

"Yoga is the only form of exercise that gives your body the flexibility of a 9 year old kid, and at the same time, gives your mind the wisdom of a 99 year old prophet" D