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Yoga is an ancient practice that can trace its roots back 5,000 years. Beginning in India, it is a form of exercise that aims to unite mind, body and soul. In fact, the word yoga itself comes from the Sanskrit word 'yuj' meaning to integrate. If you have images in your head of people sitting in obscure positions, then you have a basic understanding of the practice! Yoga poses stretch and align the body, with far reaching physical and mental health benefits. It is practiced by everyone from professional athletes to young children, and is fast becoming an essential part of life for many people.
The physical benefits of yoga are almost too numerous to name. By gently stretching and strengthening the body, yoga improves everything from your muscle tone to your blood circulation.
Yoga poses often require you to carry your own weight, and these low impact weight bearing exercises help improve your bone density and reduce the onset of osteoporosis.
Even basic poses create movement in your spine, bringing nutrients to your spinal discs and helping keep your spine healthy and protected from degradation.
One of the most immediate benefits of yoga is an improvement in flexibility and sense of balance. This can improve everything from back pain to poor posture, preventing joint strain, back issues and chronic illnesses like arthritis.
Yoga is known to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol - the various poses help move blood around the body, providing your organs and brain with a fresh supply of oxygenated blood. This also stimulates the lymphatic system, removing toxins from your body much quicker and helping your body to remove damaged cells and fight infection.
High blood pressure, diabetes, depression and osteoporosis can all be linked to high cortisol levels in the blood. Yoga regulates the glands that are responsible for producing this chemical, helping balance its release and improving our immune system in the process.
It may be a physical practice, but there is much more to yoga than meets the eye. As well as encouraging patience and focus, qualities that help us in our daily lives, yoga also supplies our brains with oxygenated blood and helps in balancing our hormones.
Practicing yoga is known to help alleviate depression and increases levels of serotonin in the brain. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced, and brain studies have shown an increase in areas of the brain associated with contentment and happiness.
The gentle nature of yoga practice activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for lowering our heart rate, breathing rate and returning our body to a state of calm and relaxation.
Practising yoga regularly allows our bodies to fall more naturally into a relaxed state, helping us sleep better, for longer. Yoga is a great way to help beat insomnia and just generally help us feel more alert and focused throughout the day.
The inward focus that yoga cultivates in us reduces stress and has been shown to boost our self esteem and willpower. Stress can cause all manner of illnesses, from migraines and diabetes to heart disease and strokes. Boosting our self esteem keeps us mentally resilient and more able to deal with the challenges that life throws at us.
When you practice yoga regularly, you naturally become more aware of your body, developing a deeper respect for it over time. We become less inclined to binge on alcohol, cigarettes and junk food, and instead begin to practice self care much more easily.