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The health benefits of yoga

Yoga exercise aims to improve strength, flexibility and breathing, while at the same time helping with physical health and mental wellbeing.

This ancient system of postures, called asanas, and breathing exercises has been around for more than 5,000 years.

Some meditation techniques may also be involved.

There are different types of yoga to suit different needs and abilities for relaxation, flexibility, strength and balance.

Yoga benefits: Flexibility

When some people think of yoga, they imagine having to stretch like a gymnast. That makes them worry that they're too old, unfit, or "tight" to do yoga. The truth is you're never too old to improve flexibility.

The series of yoga poses called asanas work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use and that causes stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. In addition, yoga increases the range of motion in joints. It may also increase lubrication in the joints. The outcome is a sense of ease and fluidity throughout your body.

Yoga stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. And no matter what your level of yoga, you are likely to see benefits in a very short period of time. In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga. The greatest gains were in shoulder and trunk flexibility.

Yoga benefits: Strength

Some styles of yoga, such as ashtanga and power yoga, are more vigorous than others. Practising one of these styles can help you improve muscle tone.

An even less vigorous style of yoga, such as Iyengar yoga, which focuses on less movement and more precise alignment in poses, can provide strength and endurance benefits.

Many of the poses, such as downward dog, upward dog, and plank pose, build upper-body strength. This becomes crucial as people age. The standing poses, especially if you hold them for several long breaths, build strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominal muscles. Poses that strengthen the lower back include upward dog and chair pose. When practised correctly, nearly all poses build core strength in the deep abdominal muscles.

Yoga benefits: Posture

With increased flexibility and strength comes better posture. Most standing and sitting poses develop core strength. That's because you're counting on your deep abdominals to support and maintain each pose. With a stronger core, you're more likely to sit and stand tall. Another benefit of yoga is the increased body awareness. This heightened awareness tells you more quickly when you're slouching or slumping so you can adjust your posture.

Yoga benefits: Breathing

Because of the deep, mindful breathing that yoga involves, lung capacity often improves. This in turn can improve sports performance and endurance. But yoga typically isn't focused on aerobic fitness the way running or cycling are. Taking an intense power yoga class that gets you breathing hard in a heated room, however, can provide an aerobic benefit.

Most forms of yoga emphasise deepening and lengthening your breath. This stimulates the relaxation response: the opposite of the fight-or-flight adrenaline boost of the stress response.

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