Updated: Sep 29, 2022
To celebrate September as National Yoga Awareness Month, I thought it was only fitting to write a post on how yoga has changed my life over the last few years.
In 2018 after a panic attack at work forced me to re-evaluate the pace of my life, a co-worker suggested I try taking a yoga class. She too was struggling with the demands of motherhood and working a full time job in a high pressure culture. We commiserated daily about how hard it was being a woman in a male dominated industry and how we were both openly struggling with our identities....how are you supposed to be a high achieving successful "career" focused woman (without being an anxious mess), while still being present for your kids/husband, but also not feel guilty when work takes you away from your family? None of it really made sense to either of us at the time. And in hindsight the panic attack was at least part of these open ended questions that I had yet to unpackage. We were both also struggling to find help (and the right help) even though we were working at a large company that supposedly had great benefits. I had never tried yoga at that point in time but after experimenting with lots of different alternative therapies I figured why not?
I had always used other forms of exercise as my stress relief. Mostly through running, and lots of it. I could run 10 miles before I even felt a twinge of muscle soreness in my body or even remembered where I was. I would zone out during my runs, let my mind wander, and anything that was bothering me before my run was usually solved after an hour of pounding the pavement. But as my stress, overwhelm, and anxiety began to increase (along with my cortisol levels), my runs started to hurt. To the point I could barely run 2 or 3 miles without my joints and muscles screaming at me in pain. To say I needed to find a gentler form of exercise that worked better for my body was an understatement.
The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ which means unite. It is said that once a person practices yoga, the person is united with the universe and the supreme consciousness. The origins of yoga can be traced back to 2700 B.C. during the period of the Indus Saraswati Valley Civilization. Today there are many different types of yoga that are popular and this Women's Health article does a good job of laying out the differences and pros/cons of each. Yoga has become increasingly popular in today's busy "hustle culture." For many people, yoga provides a retreat from the need to always be connected and teaches us to slow down. This is true no matter where you are practicing- on a mat in your house, in an ashram in India or even in New York City's Times Square.
So as you can guess, I took my friends advice and did find a yoga studio close to my office, and made it a priority to fit this in during my day. I took the time to talk with the instructors about the different ailments I was experiencing and the solutions I was looking for. And to my surprise over time I started to feel relief from almost all of them which I outline below, (along with some research backed studies that support my experience).
So if you've been wavering on trying it out, I highly encourage you to sign up for a class. Many studios (around 1600 nationwide) are offering one week of free yoga during the month of September to bring awareness to the benefits. I'm a big fan of CorePower Yoga which has a national presence with over 200 studios across the U.S, but there are so many out there.
1. Reduced symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression Don't expect it to happen overnight, but after a few months of a consistent yoga practice (ie 2-3 times a week), my anxiety levels were significantly reduced. I found myself in a calmer state, able to think more clearly, more productive, and able to execute on tasks more efficiently (vs letting the overwhelm paralyze me). This 2018 study titled, "The Effect of Yoga on Stress Anxiety and Depression in Women" followed 52 women over 4 weeks who had agreed to participate in three 60 minute classes per week. After just 12 weeks, their mental health symptoms were found to be significantly reduced. Many doctors also recommend yoga as a complementary medicine to other therapies and/or medication.
2. Better Sleep Sleep can also be impacted when cortisol levels and chronic stress symptoms are high. According to this John's Hopkins study, adding in breathing techniques and participating in 2 yoga classes per week improved sleep efficacy for men and women older than 60. And in my own experience, my sleep improved dramatically after a few months of consistent practice. My nervous system had calmed down enough to be able to relax/fall asleep vs my brain working on overdrive thinking through everything I was expected to accomplish the next day.
3. Living More In Present
I think learning to live in the present was one of the biggest benefits for me personally. For a long time I found myself in a constant "hurry state," barely taking time to even think through what I was doing or feeling in the moment. Barreling through everything like a robot all with the goal of crossing things off my never ending to do list and moving on to the next. This obviously effected everyone around me including my husband and kids. When you move through life that fast, the "hurry sickness," can add to an already stressful morning/evening routine and that anxiety can spread like wildfire in your household. Learning to live more in the present, slow down, and actually enjoy life, has 100% changed my outlook on everything (not to mention everyone in my house), and adding in a mindfulness and yoga practice has helped me get there.
4. Better Balance, Flexibility, Mobility & Strength.
The physical benefits of yoga are really undisputed. Using your own body weight to hold yourself in the different positions increases lean muscle mass and builds strength. The stretching can help achy muscles and joints that are holding stress, especially if you are sitting throughout most of the day and have a high pressure job. And being a college athlete myself, I especially appreciate this study on the impact of 10 week yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes. I sure wish I was cross training with yoga during my college swimming days!
5. Reduced chronic pain
According to research from the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health, yoga has been found to be one of the most effective treatments for chronic pain, especially lower back pain. In hindsight the chronic back pain I was experiencing was a symptom of my chronic stress and once I started a consistent yoga practice my back pain began to dissipate. I've met so many women who have similar stories of major chronic pain and bounce from doctor to doctor trying to figure out what's wrong, sometimes even leading to pain killers and unnecessary surgeries. And with our current opioid epidemic, it's even more important to experiment with alternative solutions before we turn to pharmaceuticals.
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