by Joseph Carney
The human mind is an amazing thing. On the surface, it is a complex series of electrical connections in the brain that form when we learn or experience something new, and becoming stronger whenever we employ it—whether it be a skill, a bit of trivia, or material for a test. The mind can recall distant memories, predict outcomes of future events, and generate ideas and concepts the world has never seen before.
However, like any muscle in the body, our minds can become dull and lax when not exercised. On the other hand, our minds can also become overburdened and overstressed when exercised too much. In either case, lack of proper mental exercise can limit the mind’s effectiveness, and ability to think critically and solve problems.
While yoga has long been an effective means of physical flexibility, strength, and relaxation, it can also have the same effects on your mental stamina:
One primary focus of yoga is to increase flexibility among the muscles and joints. This in turn increases blood flow to vital parts of the body (including the brain), and defends against chronic injury such as muscle and ligament strain, lower back pain, and range of motion problems.
Cognitive or mental flexibility is the ability to adapt your mind to different situations, switch between mental concepts, and even consider multiple concepts simultaneously. This translates to improved self-awareness and the ability to multitask. Yoga requires your mind to focus on several different things at once:
- Breathing: Proper breathing is crucial to effective yoga; deep, steady breaths through the nose, opening the chest and shoulders, and proper use of the diaphragm all require your constant attention.
- Form: In addition to proper breathing techniques, it’s important to pay attention to your form, especially if the pose is unfamiliar. Does the pose call for a straight back, pointed toes, bent elbows? Be aware of your technique, and concentrate on improving it with each additional session.
Yoga is not for sissies. Yoga builds strength in the arms, legs, shoulders, and core muscles. Physical strength is a prerequisite to good balance. It also increases muscular endurance as you are sometimes required to hold certain poses for extended periods.
Yoga also builds mental toughness or the ability to stay calm and collected under pressure (aka, “mind over matter” mentality). The mental strength you gain from yoga can help you in other areas: sports, studies, work, the bedroom, art, anywhere that requires you to overcome anxiety and perform your best work:
- Pushing through Pain: Yoga can be painful at first, especially if your body isn’t used to it. Stretching and placing weight on different areas of the body requires just as much mental effort as it does physical effort—sometimes more!
- Overcoming Low Self-Esteem: Sometimes, we avoid trying yoga because we’re afraid we won’t be good at it or look good doing it. But the great thing about yoga is that you can go at your own pace, in the privacy of your own home if you like.
Everyday life poses so many distractions, stimulations, and burdens that increase stress and anxiety. These can translate to high blood pressure, tight muscles, and even a lowered immune system. Meditation in yoga increases blood flow, oxygen intake and allows your body to achieve true relaxation (without falling asleep).
It should come as no surprise, then, that yoga also is a great way to relax the mind, and give it a break from all the stimulation. Yoga invites the participant to check his burdens at the door, and focus his mind on something positive and uplifting. It teaches you to be in control of your stress and anxiety, and clear your head of negative thoughts.
While yoga has numerous benefits both physical and mental, the tricky part is finding the time to do it. Thankfully, the practice of yoga itself is very flexible, and can adapt to any lifestyle:
- Five-Minute Yoga: One yoga method that is rapidly gaining popularity is Five-Minute Yoga, which focuses on very short sessions that include either meditation or a stretch. This is particularly useful for those of us with a loaded schedule, who may only have time during lunch break, or early in the morning. You can find several such exercises on YouTube.
- Yoga Classes/DVDs: If you have more time to spare and want to take a more traditional route, you might consider investing in yoga classes or DVDs. The Gaiam Yoga with Rodney Yee DVD series comes as a personal recommendation.
- Yoga Retreats: While not the most frequently-used channel, yoga retreats are an effective way to fully immerse yourself in the yoga lifestyle. A yoga retreat is essentially a travel destination designed to eliminate distraction and bring your life into balance. Seek Retreat, for example, features yoga retreats located all over the world.
As the old saying goes, the mind is a terrible thing to waste. Keep yours sharp and functioning by doing a little yoga every day!