Many women have heard of the health benefits of yoga.
Hardly surprising, because yoga classes seem to have spouted up all over the place in recent years.
Benefits of real yoga are much more than side effects of a good stretching routine and all depend on mind body connection.
So what does yoga offer for midlife women?
Yoga practice offers many health benefits for women at midlife, including help with menopause hot flashes help with menopause hot flashes (1).
These health benefits derive mainly from the mind body connection that yoga offers.
The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit word which means "yoke". This is a basic underlying fact about yoga which it is essential to remember. A yoke was used in the past to join two animals together to pull a plough. Yoga practice is about joining your body and mind together - about creating mind body connection.
The health benefits of yoga stem from this important underlying principle, of joining or union of body and mind.
If you study yoga in depth, you will find out about the 8 paths or limbs of yoga(2). But for most women in the West who are mainly interested in the health benefits of yoga, it's usually enough to focus on 3 of these paths:
When all three of these branches are developed together, the health benefits of yoga become integrated and may include:
Physical benefits or body changes such as:
Mental, emotional and sensory benefits such as:
Yoga is inclusive and integrative
Many of the classes taught in non-specialised centres in the West, focus primarily - if not exclusively - on the first of these three branches: the practice of physical yoga asanas.
But don't think that yoga is all about being super-flexible and tying yourself in knots.
This popular idea of yoga as the sole domain of the young and fit is unfortunate, because yoga can and should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their age or physical fitness. It doesn't matter whether you can do two hundred yoga poses perfectly, stand on your head for an hour, or clasp your ears with your feet while standing on your hands. These physical feats, impressive though they are, are not the essence of yoga.
Yoga is about developing mental and physical balance, finding inner peace through awareness of the present moment, and taking control of your own thoughts and emotions rather than letting them rule you.
The health benefits of yoga derive from our progress along this path. The greater control we gain of our minds and bodies through a practice of breathing, movement in yoga poses, and mindful meditation, the more benefits we get.
In other words, we can see the yoga asanas, the pranayama techniques (yoga breathing) and mindful meditation as tools or methods to help us achieve a more balanced, calm and gentle state of being.
Yoga benefits for healthy living
With regular yoga practice comes other benefits. Many people find that as they develop in their yoga practice, their awareness of how they are living increases. They become more focused, better able to concentrate and more careful about their eating and drinking habits.
Strictly speaking, a yoga diet is vegetarian or even vegan, but if you do not want to completely give up animal products, you can still practise yoga. A healthy yoga diet encourages us to think about where our food comes from, to seek out wholesome, natural products, which have preferably been produced locally using organic methods.
If you want to advance your yoga practice then it's time to reject fast-foods, highly processed package meals and high fat, greasy food. But then, let's face it, this isn't just about being a yoga practitioner and enjoying the health benefits of yoga.
This is plain common sense about what is a healthy diet that discourages midlife weight gain, promotes a sense of wellbeing and reduces our risk of disease.
From a health point of view there is still lots of debate about the pros and cons of small amounts of alcohol and personally I think there's nothing wrong with a glass of good wine from time to time. But yoga practice helps us to curb extremes of behaviour and certainly too much alcohol is bad for our health and our relationships - not to mention our wallets!
A good teacher to help you on the path of integrated practice and the best health benefits of yoga
To really gain the health benefits of yoga you should try and find a teacher who brings breathing and meditation practice into the class as well as yoga asana practice. It's a good idea to find out how the teacher was trained and what methods she or he uses. Yoga poses are generally a safe form of exercise but nevertheless if you are older, have underlying injuries or a pre-existing health condition, you need to be guided by an experienced teacher to avoid the risk of injury.
There are many different schools of yoga, such as Iyengar (strong focus on alignment in yoga poses), Ashtanga Vinyasa (physically demanding practice that focuses on flow between poses in a particular order) or Sivananda (focus on pranayama as well as asana). These schools derive their yoga pose practice from the root of asana practice, known as Hatha yoga - Ha (sun) and Tha (moon) - the joining of sun and moon.
Although some teachers use music in the yoga classroom, this is not really conducive to achieving focused concentration in your asana practice. Don't forget, that the practice of asanas is to help us to gain meditation benefits as we move... it is not a gymnastic practice. When music is played in a yoga class, the danger is that the music dominates and the class becomes more of an aerobics or a stretch class. If there is music, then this should be carefully chosen by the teacher to reflect the atmosphere of the yoga being practised in the class.
Persistence and diligence reap rewards
Not all teachers suit everyone and not everyone suits all styles of yoga. Each of us has specific needs, both physical and psychological. Sometimes we may benefit from a smaller class or even a private lesson. This more individual attention can enable the teacher to work with you to understand your body, its strengths and weaknesses and to identify a practice style that suits your individual needs.
Finding the right yoga teacher can be a journey in itself. If you don’t succeed with the first one, don’t give up, keep on searching, exploring and experimenting.
A comprehensive and integrated yoga practice can be hugely beneficial at all stages of life.
For the woman at midlife it can be a precious, invaluable and all-round life enhancer.
Stay with it and rewarding health benefits of yoga can be yours.