I took my first yoga class on 2/7/2013, with the intention to improve flexibility to my martial art training. Soon I realized that the benefits are more than that. For example, it helps to

  • correct body postures
  • ease bloating/expel gas
  • increase breathing capacity
  • overcome fear

First of all, yoga poses test for the asymmetries and one can strengthen the weaker side accordingly. Take myself for example, it’s easier to twist my torso to the left than to the right. Also, it’s easier to bend forward than bend backward. I suppose these asymmetries are not good as one grows older.

The modern sedentary life style makes our bodies into shrimp like shape. There are studies showing that in primitive tribes, people’s spines take J or C shape, instead of the well-known S shape. The twisting yoga poses help straighten the spine and open the chest. It’s like a chiropractic performed by oneself.

Secondly, yoga helps to release muscle tension. Tight muscles tend to snap, just like tight cords. I suspect that muscle tensions are emotion-aroused and are result of the fight-or-flight response. For example, people often find it hard to breath when anxious. Also the muscles in the back and neck tighten when one gets angry.

Some of these muscle tensions and reflexes are controlled by our reptilian brain stem and lie outside of conscious control.

Even if you don’t feel the existence of muscle tensions, you may find your flexibility increase dramatically by doing yoga, especially in the chest and hip regions. For example, you probably have seen pictures of yogis sitting in lotus position or doing intense back bends. These flexibilities are beneficial. With a relaxed and open chest, the breathing capacity increases and one feels more energetic.

I also think everyone has the capacity to be supple. The author of the following book says that one should be able to do side split as long as he/she can raise each leg parallel to the floor while the other is vertical, since there is no muscle or tendon running from left leg to right leg.

In reality very few of us can do side split, due to lack of strength and/or fear. You may also notice that infants and kids are incredibly flexible. I suspect that we gradually lose our flexibility over the years by building up unnecessary muscle tensions due to repressed emotions. I also think that when repressed emotion is let go, one regains the corresponding flexibility.

This brings to my third point, which is more psychological. Many yoga poses trigger fear, e.g., back bends and inversions. I think the fear partly originates from revisiting the repressed past and partly originates from lack of oxygen. These two aspects could also be the two sides of the same coin. By holding an uneasy pose for prolonged time, the body gradually adapts and eventually releases the tension. These moments are distinct, like ice on the lake starts to break in early spring.

Maybe partly due to the released muscle tensions, partly due to the gain in muscle strength, gas inside the gut or intestine finds its way out. For this reason, I usually stay away from the beginners.

Finally, I would like to emphasize the importance of a good teacher. Without proper guidance, it can be harmful to do yoga. Particularly, one should not rush to the advanced poses before the basics are solid.

Yoga is the restriction of the movements of the mind. — Yoga Sutras of Patanjali