Over the last ten years or so, yoga has grown substantially in popularity in the United States, and there are a few reasons for that. For one thing, it’s seen as a great way to work out. The “yoga body” is viewed as some sort of elusive ideal, and many exercise enthusiasts like that yoga makes them feel longer, leaner, and stronger.
But beyond the body shaping benefits that yoga can have, many people have found that yoga has great mental benefits. Whether you’re a regular at intense hot yoga classes in your eco-friendly yoga cloths or occasionally attend a class focused primarily on gentle stretching, you’ve probably felt the immediate mental benefits of yoga – the release of stress, clearer thinking, and a more positive attitude can all come from a single practice.
But those yoga mental benefits, as it turns out, can be much longer lasting than a temporary post-class endorphin rush.
One recent study looked at women over the age of sixty who have practiced hatha yoga for at least eight years. Compared to women in the same age group who don’t practice yoga, the women in the study had significantly greater cortical thickness in parts of the brain associated with cognitive function.
The study didn’t go as far as to test the cognitive function of the women, but the findings suggest that people who practice yoga may have better mental acuity as they age. This finding lines up with a number of other studies done on meditation that have found that the regular practice of meditation can have positive physical impacts upon the brain and also help reduce anxiety and depression.
What does all of this mean for your yoga practice?
First, it means that simply by practicing yoga – however you choose to practice – you’re quite possibly reducing your stress levels and helping your body naturally fight depression.
Second, it means that the more mindful you are with your yoga practice, the more benefits you are likely to see. If you see yoga as simply a way to get or stay fit, that’s fine. But if you approach yoga in that way, you may be missing out on some of its best holistic health benefits.
By definition, yoga should be a meditative activity. The postures and breathing are the tools through which we draw awareness to our mental state and observe the connection between our bodies and minds. Exercise benefits are a side effect of yoga, not its purpose.
So the next time you come to the mat, take an extra moment to sit still and tall, breathing in and out with one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Let all your worries and stresses fade out of your mind, and focus on the here and now – just you and your mat.
You may be surprised just how much more you get out of your practice when you come to the mat in this mindful way.