How yoga changes your body
I remember the first yoga class I went to. When trying to do tree pose, I couldn't balance on one leg and kept falling over. I could move into some of the postures but couldn't hold them for more than two seconds. But in the relaxation part at the end of the class, my body just felt so heavy. And relaxed. More relaxed than I'd felt in a long time, even after a good night's sleep.
Yoga isn't a physical exercise. It's a philosophy that helps connect your body and mind to the present moment. The postures, or asanas, are designed to strengthen, mobilise and massage different parts of your body. For example, downward dog is great for opening up the shoulders and strengthening the wrists. It also strengthens the upper legs and ankles. More importantly, it stretches and elongates the spine. We spend so much time in seated positions that the spine can become compressed and this can lead to injuries and tension. Some teachers recommend practising downward dog a few times each morning for a whole body stretch and warm-up.
This is a first practise at downward dog from someone who has never done yoga before. You can see that the legs are slightly bent, hands wider than shoulders and the spine is slightly rounded at the shoulders.
After only one private session, look at how the body has changed. The spine is much longer, there is more weight towards the legs rather than the shoulders and therefore less pressure on the wrists. Downward dog is classed as a resting pose (I know!) but many people feel their wrists hurt as they bear the weight of their body. By opening up the angle at the wrists and moving the shoulders away from the hands, this helps with the wrists. You also can see that the head is in more of a relaxed position in the second photo, lengthening the spine into the neck and releasing tension from the upper shoulders. Getting this pose to the point when you can hold it for a few minutes takes time and practice but small changes are a good start.
I've just started doing Iyengar yoga with a great teacher. I've never done it before and it's more an exact form of yoga that aims to strengthen your body through traditional postures. It's really hard work on a Sunday morning but the difference I've noticed in just my ankles is amazing. I've sprained my ankles lots of times over the years through sport and they have become very tight and stiff. I find it hard to sit cross-legged for a long time because of this. But practising Iyengar yoga has helped with their flexibility in a way I never thought possible before. I can now comfortably hold that tree asana that I struggled with all those years ago.