In recent years, the popularity of yoga has skyrocketed, leading many to embark on a new, more enlightened method of exercise. For many, yoga is more than just a passing trend. The sport opens up a variety of health benefits for the mind and body, which have proved to be unmatched by any other form of exercise.
A 2013 study at the University of Illinois has shown that a short yoga session can drastically improve your learning. When compared with the effects of aerobic exercise, yoga came up trumps, revealing a significant improvement in memory, faster reaction times and an increase in accuracy on cognitive tasks.
But what makes yoga so mentally stimulating? Professor Neha Gothe, who led the study, told Diana Yates of the Illinois News Bureau that:
‘The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities’.
Another study undertaken by scientists from the Boston University School of Medicine, found that regular yogis had higher levels of GABA in their bodies than those who did the same amount of strenuous, aerobic exercise such as running or walking. Low levels of GABA are frequently associated with depression and anxiety disorders, something yoga has been shown to reduce.
Okay, so yoga can improve productivity and reduce the likelihood of becoming depressed. But what about fitness? Is an hour of standing on your head and controlling your breathing really any better than an hour-long run?
As a form of exercise that aims to improve your strength, flexibility and breathing, more often than not, you’re guaranteed a good workout at a yoga class. Often undermined as a sport, many fail to see how it’s possible for yoga to get your heartrate up without cardio. At least two sessions of yoga per week meet the government’s NHS guidelines on muscle-strengthening activity, rivalling those tedious, lengthy weight-training sessions at the gym.
The World Yoga Sports Championship, an event that has run annually for eleven years, was held in London for the first time in 2014. 2011’s winner Joseph Encinia tells The Telegraph that the ‘mental zone’ you need for yoga and meditation is very similar to that of professional sport stars.
‘People always ask how you can have a yoga competition, but there are huge similarities between top athletes and top yogi’.
Encinia explains that he is used to people criticising yoga, questioning its ability to even be considered a sport:
‘Sometimes other guys will be disrespectful. They’ll say, “You think you’re a champion just because you won a yoga competition,” but then I’ll show them a posture and ask them to try it. The conversation’s usually over pretty fast.’
As well as increasing your strength, NHS guidelines have shown the sport to be extremely valuable to those suffering from high blood pressure, heart disease and aches and pains. Yoga is also great for improving balance, and is therefore recommended to older adults who may be at risk of falling.
With over 10,000 yoga teachers in the UK alone, joining a yoga class has never been easier. If you’re a student on a budget, you may be surprised to know that a lot of universities offer professional classes at a fraction of their original price. BSU’s yoga society meet every Monday at Bath Yoga Studio, allowing members to stretch out their pent-up stress from the previous week. The classes are small, so instructor Jo is always on hand to make sure you’re getting the most out of every move.
As someone who has frequented numerous fitness classes, rugby practice sessions and more overpriced gyms than I can count, the physical benefits of yoga have outweighed those of any other sport I’ve taken part in. It’s not just about gaining strength, it’s about having a break from the stresses of home, work or university, even if it’s just for an hour a week.
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