By Kara-Leah Grant,
The short answer is… YES.
The more interesting answer is that as you practice yoga, your perception and understanding of what a “great body” is will change.
And even more interesting… the concept that happiness is reliant upon creating specific circumstances (i.e. when I lose weight I’ll be happy, when I win the lotto I’ll be happy, when I find my perfect partner I’ll be happy…)… is revealed to be an illusion. What this means is that whether or not your body is “good” ceases to matter, because you’re happy and content anyway.
But right now, those of you who are looking to begin an exercise practice that will improve the condition of your body don’t care about that.
Nope – you just want to know, is it worth investing time and money into yoga to get what I want?
I’m here to tell you, yes it is. Absolutely. In fact, despite the fact that I do no other serious exercise and eat whatever I want… at 33 years of age I am in better shape than I have ever been. And it’s all down to yoga.
Yoga will give you the very best body you could possibly have for your body type if you practice regularly.
Can’t put it any simpler than that.
Here’s how it works.
The practice of physical yoga, or asana, works far more than just your muscles. It doesn’t just lengthen and strengthen – although it does that super well. Yoga, because of it’s mindful attention to the breath amongst other things, works every single system in your body – it works your body from the inside out.
I don’t want to list off all the ways that yoga can improve your body based on what I’ve read, or even what other people have told me. No, I’m only going to tell what I have experienced myself, as I know these improvements to be 100% true and possible.
And I’m sure other readers will use the comments to share how yoga has changed their body.
Here’s what’s happened to my body since I began to practice yoga regularly:
1. Yoga means I maintain my ideal body weight with ease and no thought necessary – no dieting, no restrictions on food. I eat what I want when I want. In practice, because my system is more sensitive and I am more tuned in to what things really feel like, I don’t WANT to eat crap because it makes me feel like crap. It’s not about discipline – I just don’t enjoy processed icky food anymore.
Oh, I still love chocolate – in small doses. I love cheese. I enjoy a glass or two of wine. There is nothing I won’t taste or sample – but I can feel when I have had enough and I stop there. When I do crave food, it’s the good things in life – like asparagus, or courgettes, or salad. (Yes, a salad craving has become normal for me!)
However, remember that we all have different body types and being bigger is ideal for many of us. There’s nothing unhealthy per se about carrying extra weight, when we’re fit and eating great food. Having a healthy body is the ideal – whatever that healthy body looks like, and yoga will help you attain this.
2. Yoga has improved my lung capacity – yoga is not thought of as a cardio workout, but because you are mindfully breathing, taking long deep breaths, your lung capacity will improve. Plus, if you practice pranayama, it will definitely improve. I notice it when I’m walking up hills, or climbing stairs.
I can always breathe with ease, and it just feels like my body is able to extract oxygen from the air and get it to every cell in my body far more efficiently than it could when I was in my early twenties and working out on the treadmill. I would love to have my lung capacity tested, just to see the numbers on paper, but you know it in yourself when you’re breathing easy and damn if it doesn’t feel good.
3. Yoga has improved my flexibility enormously – this is the obvious improvement from yoga. When you practice regularly, your body will open up, enormously. When I first started, I couldn’t sit on the floor with my legs out straight in front of me.
In real life, this meant that I was unable to bend over to tie up my shoelaces. I had to find somewhere to sit and awkwardly hoist my foot up close enough to my body to reach. Not a good look when you’re only 25! Now even small actions, like turning around to look behind me when I reverse the car, are graceful and easy.
4. Yoga has improved my balance. Balance ties in with strength and flexibility, and it’s improved just as much. In practice, it’s hard to quantify what improved balance means in my day to day life. But I know it means I am far less likely to fall over and hurt myself – something that matters a lot as we age and our bones get more brittle. Plus if I feel like jumping up on to low walls and walking along them just for fun because I can, I have no qualms about it. And that’s a cool thing.
5. Yoga has improved my concentration. This is something I’ve noticed at work – when I’m given a task to do, no matter how long and onerous it might be, I can just switch my attention on to that task and stick with it until it’s done. This is a huge advantage when doing things such as proofreading long documents such as briefings to incoming ministers (BIMs).
My concentrated attention means I notice things too – I’m just more aware of everything that is going on in my immediate environment. If I had to rely on my brain or concentration for work, I’d definitely want to be practising yoga.
6. Yoga supports my health – it’s fantastic. Number of sick days I’ve had in the last five years? Can’t remember – maybe less than a handful. It’s a standing joke in my household – when a bug comes through my partner will be hit for three or maybe five days. I’ll get the condensed version and feel a bit off colour for maybe 6 to 12 hours. Health is one of those intangible assets that we don’t really notice or appreciate until we don’t have it, but it’s definitely worth practising yoga and building it up.
7. Yoga means my stress levels are zero. Yep – not much bothers me anymore. Stuff happens still, but all the worry and anxiety and freaking out that I used to experience in my twenties has gone, gone, gone. Regular practice of yoga, pranayama and meditation has brought me to a place of surrender.
This is one of the niyamas – isvara pranidhana. It’s a place where you are no longer concerned about trying to control life and make happen what you think needs to happen in order for you to feel good. Instead, even though you may experience struggle or discomfort, you know that whatever happens is perfect. So you go with it.
I could lose my job tomorrow and I wouldn’t stress out about it. I might still experience some fearful thoughts or feelings, but I wouldn’t allow those thoughts and feelings to take me over. No matter what happens, I know I am supported and I am loved. And that is a very cool thing to know!
8. Yoga has made me strong – very, very strong. The beauty of yoga is that it works every single muscle in the body. Bicep curls may give you a large bicep… but what about all the other little muscles in the arm? Yoga strength is being able to hold yourself up in inversions and in arm balances. It’s sitting deep in Warrior II for a long period of time and finding a place of grace and lift. It’s coming into Warrior III and feeling like you’re superman. It’s not just strength of body either, it’s strength of mind. Yoga teaches us to stay with the discomfort, to sit with the awful feelings.
When you do this enough times, you begin to realise that discomfort and even pain do not touch the core of who you are. It’s possible to go to a place of peace within even while your feelings, thoughts or physical sensations are uncomfortable. I’ve been fortunate in my life not to ever experience any physical violence, or torture, or even prolonged pain (beyond that of my spine) but I imagine that if I ever needed to… yoga will have given me the strength to endure. And that’s a big thing.
9. Yoga means I can now hold a tune.
At least, I can sing and feel good about doing it and I think I’m in tune 🙂 Yoga encompasses chanting, and if you’re doing Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), it also encompasses Kirtan. Kirtan is a call and response jam session with instruments and Sanskrit chants and it absolutely rocks.
I’ve only recently started adding Bhakti Yoga to my practice, attending monthly sessions with Satyananda Yoga here in Wellington, but I never thought I’d feel so damn good about opening my mouth and singing. I look forward to it every month and have started getting together with a few yogi friends on the weekend to do kirtan just for fun. I think Kirtan might be the next big thing.
10. Yoga means I love my body, inside and out. As a hyper-critical, perfectionist teenager and young adult, I wanted the perfect body. And I worked damn hard to get it. In doing so, I was completely missing the fundamental truth that my body was already perfect. In fact, my body was an amazing feat of biology that was housing my soul and doing a great job in moving me from A to B. There was little appreciation for it at all! Instead, if I looked in the mirror, my gaze would go to those bits I “hated”, and I would obsess over what I could do to “fix” them. I mean, give me a break! Talk about self-absorbed and narcissistic.
Now, however, I have a new appreciation and wonder for my body – I feel so blessed. I can run, and walk, and jump, and leap, and twirl, and twist, and sometimes I even feel like I could almost fly, if I could just sort out a superhero costume that worked 🙂
But seriously, my mindset has shifted, and when I look in the mirror at myself now I grin. I appreciate what is there because it won’t be there forever. I will age, and my body will change, and there may come a day when I struggle to make it to the bathroom. So today, when my body is 100% fit and fighting, damn it if I won’t appreciate it and love it for the miracle that it is.
Of course, in shifting to this mind space where I love my body, (yes – yoga WILL give you a body you will love!) I realise that it’s not actually having a great body that we want. We just think it is.
What we truly want is to look in the mirror and feel AWESOME about ourselves. We want to be able to walk down the street with a bounce in our step and a glow on our faces. In our upside down way of seeing the world, we believe that we have to control our external circumstances in order to create this feeling and these thoughts inside of us.
But that’s not true – and practicing yoga will help you to understand this. Practicing yoga will give you a good body, not JUST because it changes and reshapes your body, although it does do this.
No, practicing yoga will give you a good body because it pierces your illusions and pulls back the veil of Maya to reveal that you already HAVE a good body. In fact, you already have an excellent body. It’s just waiting for you to see it, appreciate it, and celebrate it.
And if you don’t believe me, then get thee to a yoga class and see how your perception of your body shifts after regular practice. Let me know in a year or two if I was right.
Enjoy the yoga!
A version of this article is one of the chapters in my book The No-More-Excuses Guide to Yoga. Check out the book here, or watch the video down below to find out more.