3 Reasons to practice yoga: fitness, serenity and self

Sep 24, 2015 at 10:04 a.m. ET
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I started practicing yoga two years ago after 12 years of serious weight training, often working with personal trainers. I thought that yoga practice would be relaxing, but not much of a workout. I was wrong! Yoga hits everything, including the brain.

Yoga is a full-body workout

Yoga increased my strength in ways weights didn't. My back was stronger and less prone to pain. I could do more pushups. I had much better posture. My body worked better as a whole when I was lifting heavy objects or doing things around the house. I still can't get into most yoga arm balances, but I can feel myself getting stronger each time I try.

Also, yoga is the only workout that’s taken care of my muffin top. After all those crunches and hip lifts in my weights classes, I still had love handles sticking out over the top of my skinny jeans. (I could have just tossed the jeans, but that’s another post!)

Surprisingly, after a few months of yoga, my midsection was slimmer. I don’t know whether to credit the actual yoga positions or the increased body awareness from the meditative aspects of the practice. It's hard to overstuff your core when you've been focusing on it for the past hour! For the first time since I was 15, I had a flat stomach — for most days of the month.

Yoga increases body awareness and acceptance

I became more aware of how I moved and how I used space. I became aware of smaller muscles I had never used before in my workouts. With practice, I was able to move new groups of muscles together to get into different poses.

One day, as I was trying to move into a difficult — for me — standing pose and falling, I had a moment. My body was doing things it had never done before, albeit not gracefully. It was learning new things, and it was trying to move in different ways.

How could I be mad at my body? It was trying so hard — and it was showing improvement. Yoga is a practice, and I was practicing to the best of my ability. I decided to give myself an “A” and stop putting myself down.

The mental component of yoga can save your sanity

It saved mine. Yoga stopped the mental chatter at a time I needed it most. I wandered into a yoga studio about a month after my husband had died. He was all I thought about, but during that one-hour yoga class, I concentrated on moving through the poses and breathing along with each movement as instructed.

By the end of class, I was calmer. I’d spent almost the whole hour focusing on breath and motion, not on the pain of loss. For months, yoga was the only thing that got me out of my head and into a different mental space. After a class, I really was in a better mood.

Choose the right yoga class for you

There are so many types of yoga, from sweaty, athletic classes to gentle yoga. I like vinyasa flow yoga, where you keep moving between all the poses. Vinyasa covers flexibility, strength and balance. A restorative class can make muscles feel better, and a more meditative class can help with stress. Yoga is my main workout now, and it hits everything I need.