While it is a low impact form of exercise, yoga also offers challenges that are suitable for exercise newbies and professional athletes alike. It helps to calm the mind and body, stretch the muscles, and enhance flexibility. The three yoga styles below can help to make you strong as well as helping you to relax…
Hatha Yoga encourages the mind-body connection and is a traditional practice focused on controlling the breath and calming the mind through meditation. It’s great for slow, controlled and focused movements and is my favourite for a full mental workout. This style is ideal for anyone new to exercise as a lot of emphasis is placed on your alignment.
Ashtanga Yoga is a dynamic style that comes in many variations, but is traditionally based on a set of flowing movements. Each movement is connected to your breath; one movement on your inhale and the next movement on your exhale. No matter which studio you go to, the flow will be the same. Once you have mastered the basic movements, the focus of your practice will be breathing. Ashtanga is calming and helps to relieve stress, and is also a physical challenge that will strengthen your muscles and help keep you focused.
Bikram or Hot Yoga is a physical mind-body challenge based closely on the traditional ashtanga flow yoga with an added element of difficulty, as the room maintains a temperature of 100-105 degrees. The heat makes you sweat and helps improve flexibility. The flowing movements performed in the heat challenge your entire body, which helps to sculpt strong toned arms, flat abs and leg definition. For me, it also helps with mental strength and willpower as simply staying in the room is a challenge for me. Many studios use music to help keep you motivated too.
(Please note, this practice is intense and not recommended for those new to exercise. Always consult a doctor before attending.)
Yoga for strength and serenity
Whichever yoga style you choose, I believe everyone can benefit from developing mental strength while also improving physical strength. The relaxing yoga stretch sequence outlined below will calm your mind, and strengthen and stretch your muscles. These yoga inspired moves can be used to help you relax and unwind from a stressful day, and are also a great way to start the day; clearing your mind and setting a positive tone for the day.
• Start with a few cleansing breaths while stretching your arms up overhead. Take arms up overhead as you breathe in, and bring them back to heart centre (hands in front of chest, palms together) as you breathe out. Take five breaths; breathing out all the tension and stress from the day.
• Hinge at the hips as you slowly fold your body forward, taking hold of your elbows with the opposite hand. Hang your head down and sway gently from side to side, releasing the pressure in your neck, head and joints.
• When you’re ready, take your hands to the floor and walk your hands out forwards until your body is in a comfortable plank position. Hold this pose, take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out, slowly lower down into a tricep press (bending your elbows and keeping the rest of your body still). Straighten your arms, push your hips forward and down towards the floor, lift the head up to the sky and feel the stretch in your hips. This yoga pose is known as ‘upward dog’.
• After a few breaths, ease into ‘downward facing dog’ pose: tuck the toes, push back with your arms, lift the hips up and push the heels down to the floor. Your body should make an upside down ‘v’ shape. Eyes should be looking behind your feet. Get comfortable in this position. If you want to take the stretch a little further, lift one leg up to the sky, pause, then lower your body back to plank pose and bring the knee to the opposite elbow. Pause and repeat on the other side.
• Lower into plank pose, then position yourself for side plank. Twist your body to the left-hand side, balancing on your right hand (arm straight) with your feet and heels stacked – left on top of the right. Your entire body should be facing the left side with your left arm straight up in the air. Lift your hips and enjoy the stretch. Stay here for three breaths then switch sides. Next, walk your feet in towards hands and rise up slowly to standing position – stacking each vertebrate.
• Once you've come to standing, lower down into mid-squat position with your palms together in front of your chest. Keeping your knees bent and palms together, twist your body to the right, moving your left elbow over your right knee. Stay here, breathe, and enjoy the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Repeat this sequence as many times as you need to wind down. I find this quick yoga routine clears my mind and helps me relax after a hard day.
Written by Samantha Clayton, AFAA, ISSA. Samantha is Director of Fitness Education at Herbalife.