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10 surprising benefits of yoga that you should know about

Rolling out that yoga mat can improve your heart health, reduce stress – and even help you sleep.

FOR THOSE WHO have never stepped foot on a mat, yoga can seem like a lot to take in – contorting into eye-boggling poses, maintaining steady control of your breathing and even enduring up to 34 degrees Celsius of heat.

Anyone who practices regularly, however, will tell you that yoga can be life changing, regardless of your fitness levels, previous injuries and flexibility (or lack thereof).

“I really believe that any person can benefit from yoga,” says Dublin-based yoga teacher and qualified life coach Laura Linehan of Natural Balance Coaching.

“There are so many different styles out there. In a community class you’ll meet people of all ages looking to increase their health and fitness, while in a hot yoga class there might be experienced students looking to push themselves a bit more.”

Here are just some of the many surprising benefits of rolling out the yoga mat, in Laura’s view…

1. You’ll learn how to protect your body from injury

While other sports or fitness practices involve focusing on teammates, goalposts, balls or squat racks, with yoga your aim is to become focused on your own body, your movement and your breathing.

“The mindfulness element and focus on the breath make a big difference,” says Laura. “As well as becoming stronger, you’ll learn to listen to your body and identify areas of weakness, which you can then work on strengthening or protecting.”

2. … and you’re less likely to make an old injury worse

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Don’t panic if you have an old injury or strain that you suspect might not benefit from an hour of twists and headstands. “The wonderful thing about yoga is that each pose can be modified to suit your body and your abilities,” explains Laura.

Working with a good yoga teacher means you’ll learn how to use those modifications, as well as props like blocks, to strengthen your body and to protect any weak areas.

3. It teaches you skills you can take into work or school

If you’re regularly faced with a massive to-do list at work or college, an hour or two on the yoga mat could give your head exactly the downtime it needs to get back on track.

“During a yoga session, your whole system is taking things as they come rather than looking three steps ahead,” explains Laura.

Learning to calm your body and breath is a skill you can use anywhere: before a big presentation or meeting, or when things get busy at work.

4. Practicing at home can bring its own benefits

As a long-time advocate of home yoga practice, Laura says you don’t always need to hit up a class to reap the benefits of yoga.

“Pick up an inexpensive mat and a loose, comfortable top and leggings, and you’ll have more than enough to get started at home,” she says.

“Other accessories like blocks are good for beginners too. I love home practices because you’re not comparing yourself to others, which is a big thing when you’re starting off. I’d recommend using at-home sessions to keep momentum going between classes.”

5. It can help you to tackle anxiety

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“In many ways, yoga helps you to understand your own triggers a bit more, what sets you off and what sends your stress levels skyrocketing,” says Laura.

You’ll soon learn which poses tend to get you firey and which ones calm you down. Often people with anxiety or mental health issues will say they don’t feel connected to their bodies, and yoga can help build that connection back up.

6. It can minimise back issues

Laura discovered yoga when she was searching for a solution to her own back issues, and learned skills she now passes on to her own students:

Anyone who drives a lot or sits at a desk every day is putting their back under a lot of pressure, especially if they are hunching forward.

The solution? “Yoga helps to strengthen your abdomen muscles, build a stronger core and open up your shoulders, all of which aid posture and help to protect your lower back,” she explains.

7. It can be good for cardiovascular health (in a few ways)

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Vigorous yoga styles like Vinyasa or hot yoga are winners for improving heart and lung health, as Laura explains:

You’re taking in more oxygen, moving faster, and raising your heart rate. All that works to reduce blood pressure and help you to maintain a healthier weight.

However even gentler forms of yoga have cardiovascular benefits, she adds. “That slow, mindful breath control is one you can use to manage stress and slow down your heart rate.”

8. It benefits your immune system

When our body is at rest and we’re not looking out for impending dangers, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) fires up. The PNS is responsible for our body’s rest and digest functions, working to relax the body, calm nerves and enhance digestion.

“Moving from our sympathetic system  – that’s our fight-or-flight mode – to our parasympathetic system gives the body a chance to rest and repair,” says Laura. “This can have massive benefits for our immune systems as a whole.”

9. It can be brilliant for pregnant women

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Pelvic floor strength is a topic any pregnant woman will be sick of hearing about, and while yoga of course helps with that, it has a range of other essential advantages for expectant mums, as Laura explains:

First up, a lot of women experience back problems and balance problems during pregnancy, and you can practice pre-natal yoga right up until you give birth to assist with those issues.

“Learning to breathe and becoming more aware of changes and signals in your body really helps when you’re preparing for labour. And finally, that calmer mindset can help to reduce anxiety before the birth.”

10. It has a positive impact on your sleep

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It’ll come as no surprise that a tired, clear mind takes less time to switch off than an overworked, wound up one.

As well as the obvious benefits of yoga – reduced muscle tension and a more physically relaxed body – regular practice can shorten the journey from wakefulness to sleep in other ways.

“Learning to think in the present makes it so much easier to clear your mind of worries before bed,” says Laura. “You can stop thinking about tomorrow, you can stop worrying that you’re not in bed early enough, and you can simply relax.”

Think yoga’s many benefits could bring a little zen into your life? Check out Lidl this week, where you’ll find everything you need to kickstart your yoga practice, from exercise mats and yoga accessories to drinks bottles and capri trousers - and even ambient lights for at-home practice.

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