About the author: Alice Rawsthorne, hero Client Success Manager, helps support wellbeing strategies across the companies hero work with.
No doubt you’ll have come across yoga, either via doing it yourself, knowing a dedicated yogi or just by its sheer stratospheric rise in popularity over the last couple of years. But yoga isn’t some new-age fad, it’s been around for thousands of years and there are many good reasons why it’s here to stay.
Yoga is an ancient practice that began in India around 3000 B.C, it was originally developed to achieve harmony between the heart and soul on the path to divine enlightenment. Along the way, it’s been discovered that yoga has many practical benefits such as reducing blood pressure, positively impacting fibromyalgia, reducing the intensity of migraines, reducing lower back pain, and impacting many other types of chronic pain conditions.
Benefits on the body
Yoga has been proven as a safe way to help increase physical activity, strength, flexibility and balance. Almost anyone can benefit from yoga, with different positions catering to different capabilities but all improving physical strength and balance within the body. As yoga improves balance, it can also reduce risks of falls by strengthening the lower body – especially the ankles and knees and the benefits from increased strength and flexibility helps arthritis sufferers too.
Benefits on the mind
You’ve probably heard people saying that yoga relaxes their mind and allows them to switch off from the busyness of life. There is a lot of scientific evidence to back this up; research from Teker et al found that consistent yoga practice reduced symptoms of depression and led to a significant increase in serotonin levels and a decrease in the levels of cortisol. At the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson, Ph.D., also found that the left prefrontal cortex showed heightened activity in meditators, a finding that has been correlated with greater levels of happiness and better immune function. More dramatic left-sided activation was found in dedicated, long-term yoga practitioners. According to the British Psychological Society, the breathing techniques involved in yoga are a great way to relieve stress and soothe the mind, providing headspace, clarity and a way to calm down from hectic moments in life.
Five of the best yoga positions for beginners and their benefits
- Downward Dog
This pose stretches out your hamstrings, calves, and foot arches, as well as strengthening your shoulders.
Start on all fours, with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Spread your fingers and press your weight into your palms. Next, tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor. Keeping your back straight, gently start to straighten your legs and raise your hips into an inverted V. Breathe deeply for 10 breaths. Don’t worry if your legs aren’t completely straight or if your heels aren’t touching the mat – the more you practice this pose and the more your muscles loosen, and the straighter you’ll be able to get your legs.
- Warrior II
Virabhadra, the Sanskrit term for this pose shares its name with a fierce warrior, described as having a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, and a thousand feet, wielding a thousand clubs, and wearing a tiger’s skin. Release your inner warrior with this pose, whilst also developing balance, improving circulation and energising your entire body.
Begin standing up tall with your feet together. Take a big step back with your left foot, and turn your foot out so that your toes are pointing out to the left. The heel of your right foot should be in line with the heel of your left foot. On an inhale, extend your arms out alongside your body, raising them parallel to the floor with your palms facing down. Send your gaze just over the middle finger of your right hand and relax your shoulders down and away from your ears. Bend deeply into your right knee, stacking it directly over your right ankle and bringing your right shin perpendicular to the floor.
Stay in the pose for 5 to 10 breaths, then return to standing and repeat on the other side.
- Low Lunge
The low lunge pose is a great pose for runners as it helps to stretch your hip flexors, and strengthens hamstrings and quads.
Starting in Downward Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands. Lower your left knee to the mat, and (keeping the right knee in place) slide the left knee back to get more of a stretch. Turn the top of your left foot to the floor and lift your torso upright. Then sweep your arms up overhead. Drop your tailbone towards the floor and look up. Hold for 10 breaths, release, and repeat on the other side.
- Toe Squat Pose
If you’ve been on your feet all day, wearing heels or just generally want a little wake up for your feet and ankles, this pose gives a lovely stretch. It’s also known as ‘Screaming Toe Pose’ (but don’t let this put you off!).
Starting on all fours, tuck your toes and sit back onto your heels. Sit up tall and look straight ahead. Hold the pose for 5 deep breaths, breathing in and out through your nose. Release the pose and come down onto the tops of your feet. Lean back, bring your hands behind you and lift your knees to stretch the tops of your feet too.
- Child’s Pose
Child’s Pose is a true resting pose, so it can be held for long periods of time (or a couple of minutes – whatever you have time for!) and has a wealth of benefits. This pose elongates the lower back, so if you’ve been sitting at a desk all day then taking Child’s Pose to can reduce lower back pain by reversing the splaying of the tailbone. It also opens up the hips which can tighten when spending long periods of time sitting, and (perhaps most importantly) it’s super calming on the mind so it’s a perfect pose to treat yourself to some ‘me time’.
Start on all fours, with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Widen your knees and bring your feet together so that your toes are touching. As you exhale, pull your hips towards your heels and bring your forehead down towards the floor. You can keep your arms stretched out in front of you, or bring them along the side of the body with your palms facing up – whichever variation you prefer. Breathe slowly and deeply, enjoying this relaxing pose.
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