Updated: Oct 24, 2021
I'm sure in your life you've had endless people preach the benefits of the latest trends and fads, especially when it comes to health and fitness. Be it a juice cleanse or newest version of the paleo diet, there's always something you're not doing, or something you are doing that you’ve been told you shouldn't be doing that was supposedly fine to be doing yesterday.
I feel like yoga is susceptible to being lumped in with these fads. I empathise with the skeptical; you're not alone being put off by the mention of "opening chakras" and "energy signs". Anything steeped heavily in mysticism can peak my interest but not in terms of practical applications. I don't focus much on the religious side of yoga in my practice. I'm not convinced of people who claim to have opened their third eye or unlocked the full power of their pineal gland. I simply consider these aspects of yoga practice as visualisations that can help connect your mind and intentions to your body and its movements. Imagining a third eye (one of the chakras) can help create a sense of centre to your thoughts when taking a more meditative practice/class, like a mental geographical marker for your thoughts to wander away from and back towards. The other chakras are useful visualisations too as they span the entire head and torso meaning they can help you focus on a specific area of the body (such as the heart chakra for the chest/upper back).
I was introduced to yoga in a much more utilitarian fashion as a supplement to American football training. This meant diving straight in without any association to “new age spirituality”. Soon after I started I noticed a difference; the mind-body connection it promoted increased my agility and spatial awareness within weeks. It improved my cardiovascular conditioning and obviously my flexibility.
You get out what you put in! Yoga is a very versatile form of exercise (and if so inclined, an art). In many of my classes I often start by talking about setting intention for your practice. Regardless of the flow intended for the class (whether it's a relaxing heart opener or a power yoga session full of vinyasa sequences) what you want from it is most important. Do you want to push yourself? Do you want to take it relatively easy? Are focusing on strength or flexibility? Or some of both? Will you add some of your own movements to increase the calorie burn? Will you take easier variations because you're recovering from some other exercise? There are endless questions I could use to prompt your thinking but to start just ask yourself what you want. This is not only helpful in picking a style of yoga to practice on any given day but also helpful within the bounds of a style. Just because it’s a power yoga class doesn't mean you have to be endlessly moving and working if you don't want to, maybe you'll just be doing 1 or 2 reps of whatever strength moves are in the sequence even if the instructor is doing 10. Your practice. Your intention. Your reward.
Despite my aversion to the religious or other worldly notions involved in yoga, through using them as visualisations I have reaped the benefit of the infamous 'MINDFULNESS'. Having become a bit of a catch all term I'll confirm that the definition I'm using is "a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, sometimes used as a therapeutic technique." I do think this needs a disclaimer though; a popular vision of someone who practices mindfulness is guru-esque, exuding a stoic, peaceful feeling of serenity at all times. Well, that's not anyone I know. Most of the people I know who practice mindfulness still experience the the full range of emotions and they are just as prone to a meltdown as everybody else. Mindfulness is about reflection and observation, it's not that you stop yourself feeling sad or angry but that you observe the experience. You can then reflect on those feelings.
Yoga is a nice introduction to reflection as its starts this process with the body. Like many forms of exercise it forces you out of any thoughts that have been taking up mental space by concentrating on body position. But where yoga has a bit more of a mindfulness edge is once you're set in a pose. Your mind having been shaken out of its previous thoughts are now a hodgepodge of random ones, from the inane to the profound. As you're going nowhere (you're holding a pose remember) you're almost forced to stay there and observe those random thoughts. Without knowing it you've started to practice some mindfulness, not fighting your thoughts but observing them.
I can't promise you all the possible benefits of yoga, this is just my experience. These are the reasons I love yoga so damn much.