Returning to the Mat
Several months ago, I wrote about the importance of taking rest days from working out. This could be a passive rest day, where you take the entire day off, or an active rest day, where you engage in a less strenuous activity, like walking or yoga.
I’m not great at taking my own advice.
While I certainly had days where I did not work out for various reasons, usually due to a jam-packed weekend schedule, for several months I had not been allowing myself many active rest days.
At my last check in with my dietician, we talked about my workout routine. I admitted that I had not taken a yoga class in months. She recommended that I try to take a yoga class at least once every other week.
My calves in particular had been very tight lately. At home, I worked on stretching them out, but lacked the time and motivation to do more than that. Finally, my body had had enough. I was craving the stretching that comes with a yoga class.
Since it had been so long since my last yoga practice, I decided to try a very gentle class. The teacher moved us through the poses slowly over the hour class. I was able to keep up with the class and by the end, felt that my muscles had finally started to unwind.
After that class, I felt wonderful. There are few classes that leave me feeling as drained and limp in a very healthy way than a yoga class. Slowly, the pain in my calves receded and the muscles all over my body relaxed in ways they had not in months.
I realized that by focusing on intense classes like spin and boot camp, I was neglecting a vital piece of my workout routine. There are reasons why professional athletes ensure that yoga is part of their fitness regime.
From stretching the muscles to improving balance to helping to clear the mind, there are so many benefits to regular yoga practice.
Yoga is one of the oldest exercise rituals in the world, although when it was first developed over 5,000 years ago, the purpose was not for working out. Yoga itself traditionally is defined as “union,” referring to the union of the mind, body and soul. It was developed as a spiritual practice, rather than a physical one.
Indians believed that there is a universal soul, Brahman, and that every person has an individual soul, called an atman. One of the purposes behind yoga was to allow that individual soul to connect with the divine universal soul.
Even though yoga was developed in early religions that would eventually become Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the practice is not restricted to any one religion. Anyone—regardless of their religious beliefs—can practice yoga.
When yoga hit the Western World, the spiritual practice took off as a new fitness craze. While some practitioners probably take classes to focus on breath, meditation and spiritual connections, others constantly push themselves to take on more and more challenging poses, treating the practice as any other form of exercise.
In the 1980s, yoga studios sprang up around America and everyone wanted to practice. As time went on, yoga remained popular, but different, hybrid versions popped up, like yogalates or aqua yoga. Yoga has come a long way since its roots in the ancient world.
Studies show that yoga has amazing health benefits.
Yoga helps to improve flexibility and strength. It can relieve muscle pain and lowers the risk of arthritis. It also helps improve balance, especially helpful to older practitioners since it lessens the risk of falls.
Poor posture can cause all sorts of physical problems. We spend so much time sitting down at desks or on couches that our shoulders are often slumped, leading to discomfort in our necks and backs. Yoga helps to straighten out the body and improve posture.
Professional athletes often turn to yoga to stretch overworked muscles, but also to help improve blood flow and relax their minds. With more flexible muscles, there is less concern of injuries, which of course is important to athletes.
Yoga is also beneficial to mental health. The practice has been proven to help reduce stress and improve mindfulness, mood and behavior. It has also greatly helped patients suffering from dementia.
From nursing homes to the NBA, yoga has clearly helped improve the quality of life for the millions of people across the world who practice.
As for me, returning to yoga over the last few weeks has done me a world of good. Physically, I not only feel less physical pain and tension, but I also feel calmer and more centered.
I have been practicing on and off for years. Over that time, my flexibility has improved, but I haven’t pushed myself to incredibly challenging poses like headstands. For me, stretching and moving through basic vinyasas is what my body craves. The relaxation portion at the start and end of each class has helped me to let go of my daily stress as well.
There is one particular class that I enjoy taking. The teacher is in her 60s. The class is filled with senior citizens. I’m usually one of the youngest in the class. She speaks often about the various benefits of yoga, but reminds the class that she isn’t about working herself into a pretzel.
She believes that yoga is individual. It isn’t about competing with the person next to you or even about pushing yourself. At the end of each class, she thanks everyone for taking care of themselves by taking yoga.
I’ve realized that I cannot stop practicing again. I still have a hard time giving up a serious workout, so I’ll go into the gym early and hop on the elliptical for 15 or 20 minutes before yoga starts. That way, I feel like I still broke a sweat and got my relaxation in.
As I get older, balance and flexibility will become even more important. It’s harder to recover from injuries than it was when I was younger, so if yoga can help to avoid muscle strain, I’m all for it. The mental component is so important as well. Life is stressful these days and I need a place where I can let that all go, even just for an hour once a week.
The yoga studio is a place of calm and contentment. It’s somewhere I now look forward to going into once a week or every other week to help my body rest and recover. Just like working on better eating and fitness habits, allowing myself that time of relaxation is a vital part of my overall health and well-being.