Does yoga have more physical than mental benefits? From being an ancient spiritual practice, Yoga has been diluted to a focus on physical wellbeing. Much research on yoga has been done since it made inroads into Western and modern societies. The physical benefits of yoga include better sleep, weight loss, and having better body awareness according to Harvard Health Publishing. The other Yogic practices such as kriya (cleansing techniques) with asanas and ayurvedic knowledge can also help one manage chronic ailments such as asthma. Is that why most yoga practitioners are obsessed with Yoga’s physical aspects?
However, Yoga has also been found to have mental benefits. Yoga practice helps ease depression, combat stress as well as improve the immune system. We can eat healthily and exercise regularly but if we do not take care of our minds, we allow stress to affect us. When our mind perceives dangers, it produces stress hormones. These stress hormones prepare our bodies for the fight or flight response.
Unlike facing real physical dangers, our mind has been wired in today’s society to look at life events as dangers. Events such as rushing for work deadlines, taking care of a sick family member to worrying about one’s finances. These perceptions cause our bodies to become tense, thus overworking our immune system.
As you can see, our minds are inter-related to our bodies. Our bodies are not separate from our minds. In fact, the bodies’ signals can inform the mind of blockages in our system. If we can pay attention to how our thoughts affect feelings, and how feelings create tensions in certain parts of our bodies, we can learn better to take care of ourselves by consciously releasing those tensions before any ailments can arise.
Yoga has been seen mostly as a physical workout to stretch out tight muscles and ligaments. How then can Yoga provide mental and physical benefits? Is Yoga’s reputation as a spiritual practice causing people to only focus on its physical aspects? To understand spirituality, one has to know the meaning of the root word ‘spiritual‘. The root meaning of spirit is breath. Breath or pranayama in Yoga is the life force that keeps us alive in this present body.
If we are able to practise Yoga with a mind in the present moment, that would provide both physical and mental benefits. Why do we want to keep our minds to the present moment? It is because the present moment is real, happening right now. Having a present mind is unlike having a mind thinking of the past and future. Our minds are also habitually making comments of past and future events that have already gone or not yet occurred. To keep the mind to the present moment is to keep our mind to our breath. We are always breathing as long as we are alive. Each in and out-breath is a moment on its own. Anchoring our minds to our breath, the breathing in and breathing out, we live in the present.
Another way to keep one’s mind to the present is to watch our physical alignment in asanas. Each Yoga asana or pose requires attention to alignment, and this temporarily keeps the practitioner focused on his/her body. By keeping our mind to the present with the body, we can understand the energies or life force running in our bodies. We can know if energies are blocked in the body. This helps keep our minds in the present, and awareness of the body’s conditions and postures. Our bodies exist in the present moment with the breath. But our minds live in stories of the past and the future.
Yoga, as you can see, does not have more physical than mental benefits. Mental benefits equal physical benefits and vice-versa. However, if one needs to measure which is better, it would be better to practice Yoga for the mental benefits it brings. A calm mind can calm an agitated body. Although a calm body can also calm an agitated mind, the body cannot be continuously trained to maintain a calm mind. A mind that is at ease, on the other hand, can consciously relax the body in every moment. Last but not least, the mind can be trained in our everyday activities. As for the body, we can only do so many Yoga asanas in a week.