Yoga has become a somewhat commonplace activity in American gyms, corporate fitness facilities and even in grade schools. There are a host of scientifically-supported physiological and psychological benefits to be gained from participating in yoga on a regular basis; however, the hidden benefits—those that are less often publicized--might be the most impactful of all. A yoga practice essentially is comprised of physical movements, often referred to as postures, and some measure of mental focus training such as mindfulness meditation, breath awareness, visualization or something called body scanning (bringing your attention/awareness to parts of your body). Engaging the mind and the body simultaneously is a gateway experience that includes a measure of brain-training that uniquely informs the moment-to-moment activity of yoga, but also provides a training ground for improvements in health behavior management.
The physical postures of yoga are simply positions or movement patterns that engage the muscular skeletal system and can improve muscular strength and endurance, balance, and flexibility. Many of these postures are unilateral, meaning they primarily activate one side or segment of the body at a time. Physiologically, requiring strength or balance or flexibility on one side at a time allows for improvements in the lessor side—for example the left side if you are stronger on your right. Our patterns of movement through normal life are not necessarily balanced or bilateral; yoga allows for movements that engage full range of motion, front to back and side to side, promoting muscular ability and joint stability.
The second critical point is that as we are moving our bodies through these positions, we connect with or notice the different responses and abilities of our body segments and muscle groups. The awareness component of yoga through focus and attention, uniquely allows the exerciser to connect with the sensations and current condition of their body. Who knew that your lower back is tight, that you have muscular tension in your upper back, or that your left shoulder feels weaker than your right—who has time to pay attention as we drive ourselves through life, and workouts for that matter, without connecting with how we feel? Research demonstrates that becoming aware of our physical body leads to improvements in health behavior management, leading to more movement, improved self-care, and even elevated feeding patterns. Partnering with your physical body by paying attention, appreciating, and graciously moving towards wellness is a beautiful hidden benefit of yoga.
Finally, yoga promotes the seminal connection that innately exists between the mind and the body. We are built with a host of hormones and neurotransmitters and their associated signals intended to guide our actions and behaviors towards optimal functioning to keep us alive. The miraculous human body was meant to inform the mind on how to best operate; likewise, our powerful ability to think and understand was designed to contribute to our longevity. Yoga at its best is an activity that fosters the connection between the mind and the body and enables the participant to improve self-care. Albert Bandura, a foundational researcher in Social Cognitive Theory suggests, what we feel, affects what we think, and what we think, affects what we do—yoga can help with that.