A Few Benefits of Yoga

Originally published on LiveJournal, 2.11.08

I’ve just celebrated a year of yoga, and it’s nice to stop and look back on my astounding progress.

The stereotype about yoga is that it’s all about getting bendy. People who believe that prefer to go the gym to “burn calories” and tone muscle. Welcome to Being-Wrong-Land! The point of getting bendy in yoga is that the extra flexibility allows you to get into some deep, strengthening poses. Being able to touch your toes is one thing; being able to touch your toes while balanced on your shoulders and breathing fully is another. Yoga turns your body into its own gym machine — you are able to bend yourself such that you can properly hold your muscles against gravity working on your body. You’ll tone all those regular muscles you care about so much — abdomen, pectorals, back — while also working on hundreds of smaller muscles you never thought you’d care about. My upper body is vastly more powerful than it was a year ago. Everyone’s been noticing and commenting about it. I even have the beginning of a wee six-pack going on, FTW.

But that’s just the surface.

One deeper benefit is that I can slow my regular breathing cycle to twice the length it was before. The ability to do this at any time is a mental sea change. Deep breathing is really a self-deep-tissue massage, stimulating the organs and glands, generating that exact same euphoria you get after a deep-tissue massage. Imagine being able to get a deep-tissue massage at any stressful, tired moment in your life. I think that when most people point out yoga’s “spiritual” benefits, they really mean this essential chemical-mental power.

Another benefit is that I stand more sturdily, rooted more firmly to the floor. My old chronic back pain is gone, and I dare say I feel a bit taller. This is mostly due to training in “axial extension,” a spinal motion unique to human anatomy, which involves simultaneous extension of both primary and secondary curves of the spine. It’s also due to training in “organic force” (also called “internal/external rotation”), which firmly wraps limb muscles around the bones, like a vice. Once you know how to do it, you can plant legs in the ground like tree trunks. And just think what you can do with trunk-like arms. Look at me, I’m an ent! The third, most advanced method involves the bandhas, or “locks,” which are organic force exercised on internal muscles. By tucking your upper diaphragm into the ribcage, while at the same time locking its bottom into the pelvic floor (“an inch above your rectum,” as one of my teachers likes to say), you are stretching it like a vice all around your lower spine. Your whole torso then becomes fixed. An even more advanced lock works the upper spine, too. These three muscular techniques are subtle to learn, but just by practicing yoga regularly it will have to happen. All yoga poses incorporate elements of all three. By just doing them, you get better at them, and at everything else they support.