If you currently ‘do yoga’, why is it exactly? Is it that you want to master handstands (or other fancy inversions)? Is it that you want to become stronger in mind as well as body? Did your physician suggest that yoga might be good for your mental and physical well-being? Did a friend insist you try it and drag you to class with her? Do you do it to escape from aspects of your life that are challenging or overwhelming? Or perhaps to manage the stresses in your day-to-day?
And if you do not practice yoga, why is that (out of curiosity)? Is it that you prefer other forms of exercise? That yoga is “not for you?” That you haven’t found a class that speaks to you specifically? Or that it simply isn’t your ‘cup of tea’? All equally valid, by the way.
According to the 2016 Yoga In America Study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance (the main certifying body for yoga instructors around the world), it turns out there are more than 36.7 million Americans doing yoga (up from 20.4 million in 2012), women represent 72% of practitioners and men 28%; 30-49 year olds make up 43% of the practicing public, followed closely by those ages 50+ (38%) and then 18-29 year olds (19 percent). It turns out yoga practitioners are significantly more involved in many other forms of exercise such as cycling, weightlifting and running than non-practitioners; and the top five reasons for starting yoga are:
- Increasing flexibility (61%)
- Stress relief (56%)
- General fitness (49%)
- Improving overall health (49%)
- Physical fitness (44%)
So while most of us yoga practitioners come to yoga to increase or gain flexibility, stress relief, health, and enhance physical fitness, the reasons for which we stick with the yoga shift from the physical and mental benefits to noticing the emotional stabilization and positive behaviors that unfold because of the practice and its ramifications on one’s life.
Yes, the health benefits to doing yoga are very real. Yes, yoga can increase your flexibility and improve your balance and decrease your cholesterol. An increasingly vast body of research shows that yoga helps to improve chronic health problems that include persistent pain, fatigue, obesity, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and other inflammatory conditions, notably autoimmune disorders. Not to mention the whole field of research in human neuroscience and neuroplasticity—this ability of the human brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections with repetition and frequency throughout life—that affirms yoga’s capacity to change the brain’s structure and chemistry. The science shows that neurons (nerve cells) in the brain can compensate for injury and disease as well as adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment to change ways of perceiving and thinking.
Many people intuitively get that certain breathing and relaxation practices in yoga reduce depression and anxiety (by activating our parasympathetic nervous system, notably the vagus nerve); but when you understand that brain physiology changes with yoga (including but not limited to meditation and mindfulness practices) this is an incentive to commit to a practice that, quite literally, could change your life (if it hasn’t already) or at the very least shift the way you engage with your life to living more joyfully.
Over time, two-thirds of yoga students and 85 percent of yoga teachers have a change of heart regarding why they do yoga–shifting from the more accessible physical and mental benefits towards the idea of spirituality or, in the language of yoga, self-realization. I call it self-mastery—a willingness to engage in the yogic process in order to get to know one’s Self better. And why would we do that? You might ask. While living in ignorance is sometimes bliss, does our world not sufficiently reflect back to us the very ways in which we find ourselves in conflict, not just with each other but with ourselves as well?
It might be easier to go looking “over there” for the solution to all our problems; but the answer to most of our questions is right “here” inside of us if we are willing to be present enough and to show up to do the work of self-inquiry. While yoga practice offers space for self-reflection (assuming the practice itself isn’t too replete with distractions like busy music or movement that gives no room for pause or stillness) this practice is not unique to yoga. You can do interval training, be prepping for a marathon (or other event), dead-lifting or taking that 45-minutes or 60-minutes or 90-minutes out of your day to tend to YOU and you would be walking the path of yoga—as long as you practice being present, with kindness and self-compassion, and continued self-growth and awareness.
And if you aren’t in the practice of practicing yoga—do you think you might give it a(nother) try? There’s always the possibility it will stick and become a part of your sanity!