Why Yoga is More Than a Fitness Class

By: Cambrey Knapp + Save to a List

A guide to why hopping on the yogi bandwagon might actually be a great idea

The minute I opened the door to the yoga studio, I knew I was in trouble. I was greeted with a wall of hot, humid air that was so thick, I was almost hesitant to step through the doorway, for fear of it knocking me over. I panicked a little inside; I had no idea this was going to be a heated class, and I had come with no towel to absorb what I knew was going to be a puddle of sweat beneath me. I wanted to leave, but I had already biked all that way to the studio, so I reluctantly rolled out my mat in one of the only spaces left (ironically right under the heater) and joined the class. 

Most all of us have been exposed to yoga at one point or another. Whether it was an invitation to your friend's vinyasa class, trolling trendy, inspirational pictures on Instagram or somewhere in between, our first experiences of yoga may have led to our current conceptions of the practice. Maybe it inspired you to take up your own practice. Maybe it even inspired you to teach. Maybe it intimidated you so much so that you haven't come back. Maybe you're still trying to figure it out. Whatever your opinions are of yoga, I encourage you to scrap them. All of them. If you've been turned away from it, give the practice another chance. If you've been practicing for a while, start from the beginning. There is such beauty in trying something new, and there is such humility and strength in starting over with the intention of gaining a different perspective. 

For those of you out there who took time out of your day to read this, I want to say thank you, and to clarify that I am not an expert on yoga. I'm not even a yoga teacher. I have been practicing for about four years now, and even though my practice may not be as consistent as I would like it to be, I have learned so much physically, mentally and spiritually through my time on the mat. I believe that experiences and lessons that involve growth are meant to be shared, and I just felt drawn to write about something that I hold so dearly.

When I first started practicing yoga, I was simply looking for a way to get more flexible. I wanted to be able to do the "cool" poses I saw in pictures on Instagram and fitness magazines. However, apprehensively rolling out my mat in the middle of a humid classroom full of pretentious yogis and trying bend myself into seemingly inhuman positions seemed like the last thing I wanted to do. Also, how was I supposed to remember the name of all of these poses, some of which were in Sanscrit and six syllables long?? It was all too intimidating to me, but I wanted to try it out, so I started practicing at home, using online classes and even a P90X video. By my second week of yoga, I was hooked, let me tell you. Sore, but hooked. Looking back, I think practicing on my own was one of the best things I could have done to kickstart my practice, and it gave me the confidence to actually go to public classes at gyms and studios, including that excruciatingly hot class I mentioned earlier. 

However, the first year of my practice was solely focused on the physical aspect of yoga. The external benefits were easily noticeable; I was without a doubt stronger and more flexible than I was a year prior. But I was overlooking all the work happening internally as a result of my practice. That, I believe, is the greatest misconception of yoga, so I wanted to share some things I have learned from various yoga teachers and through my own research. 

Yoga boosts the brain. Ever come out of a yoga class feeling "lighter," like a weight was lifted off your shoulders? After stepping off the mat, do you ever have the certain urge to be kind to everyone you meet? Turns out, yoga stimulates the reward-processing section of the brain through the release of GABA, serotonin and dopamine, three important neurotransmitters that cause us to feel relaxed and happy. This new contentedness within ourselves often translates to peaceful extensions to our family, friends and even to strangers. Could yoga be part of the solution for world peace? I'd say it's worth a shot. 

Yoga suppresses stress. Our neurological responses are generally categorized into two systems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body's "fight or flight" stress response. In nature, this mechanism is critically important to determine whether an animal should stay and fight off a predator, a challenging male, or defend its territory, or whether it should flee from impending danger. In our modern society, we don't exactly have the same concerns. However business meetings, deadlines, workloads, exams, arguments and negativity can all elicit the same stress response. This is because both human and non-human animal bodies release a hormone called cortisol, which propels our reactions to stressful situations. In many ways, cortisol is a very handy mechanism for protecting the body and allowing heightened focus. However, prolonged stimulation of cortisol release can wreak havoc on the body and mind. The practice of yoga and the incorporated breathing techniques have actually been shown to dampen the release of cortisol and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for calming us down. 

Yoga increases immunity. This benefit was by far the most surprising to me. I was previously aware of the general immunological benefits of exercise, however when a teacher told me about certain methods of practice that help stimulate the immune system, I was intrigued. One way in which this happens is through the aforementioned suppression of cortisol which also tends to inhibit certain white blood cells (the messengers of the immune system). There are also various poses that are particularly helpful in mobilizing your body's defense squad. "Heart opening" poses like cobra, bow, bridge and fish pose stimulate the thymus, a lymphoid organ situated at the base of the neck that functions primarily in the production and release of T-cells, one of the body's main defenders. Yoga "inversions," where the body is positioned so the heart is higher than the head, help stimulate the thyroid gland (located in the throat) and help lymph (a fluid that flows throughout the body, picking up viruses and bacteria) travel throughout the head, nose and throat. 

Before you begin your yoga practice, whether its just for the day, a month or a lifetime, it's important to realize and reflect on what your motivation is behind stepping on the mat. Is this practice intended to build your strength? Your confidence? Your ego? It's also important to remember that yoga reaches beyond the mat; it extends into the way you treat people and in the way you react to circumstance. Yoga is so much more than a fitness class; it is a lifestyle. So grab your mat and head to a studio or even an open space on the floor of your home. Or better yet, take your practice outside and spend sometime breathing and reveling in nature. Your mind and body will thank you in countless ways.

Have I convinced you yet?

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