Traditionally, yoga as we know it in the west (the asana and pranayama elements) were designed to help people prepare to sit for hours in meditation. After all, it’s pretty tough to meditate when your leg is cramping, or you haven’t been practicing breathing techniques to help you energize, relax, and stretch your lungs to their full capacity. However, “yoga” in itself is loosely translated from the Sanskrit word meaning “to yoke” or “union.” Union certainly provides a solid foundation for accomplishing any goals, particularly when you’re talking about the union of all parts of your body—physical, spiritual (no religion required), emotional, and mental.
Yoga was largely introduced to the west around sixty years ago and has spread rapidly. However, “yoga” as most people understand it is a far cry from its original intention. Holistic yoga in Hindu tradition is required in one of three paths to “transcendence.” Ultimately, it was designed as one of a trio of paths to culminate in union with a higher power (Krishna) after what usually required millions of lives.
How does such a powerful and long-standing tradition apply to something a seemingly mainstream as New Year’s resolutions? In many ways! Regardless of a person’s religion (or lack thereof) or spiritual practice, in every culture throughout history, humans have strived towards bettering themselves. We grow more compassionate and empathetic with age, and a new year provides a very clear and strategic springboard to tackling goals that accomplish betterment. “Real” yoga might have been one path to escaping the cycle of reincarnation, but anyone can use the western-beloved asana (posture) and pranayama (breath control) aspects of yoga to help achieve their resolutions.
One of the most popular New Year’s resolutions is to stop smoking, drinking, or using drugs. Both the asanas and pranayamas of yoga have shown in countless studies to help with cessation of such vices. These practices make us more self-aware of our entire body. Combining physical fitness (some asana practices, such as vinyasa and hatha) with emotional and mental wellness (achieved during the savasana or final pose, as well as with pranayama) is a strong tool to help combat addiction and cravings. For example, some addicts can calm that “itch” with a relaxing breathing practice such as alternate-nostril breathing. It lights up both sides of the brain, offering instant balance and a calming effect. As adults, we naturally inhale through just one nostril at a time, then switch nostrils after a few minutes. It’s so innate that we don’t even notice it. However, newborns naturally practice alternate-nostril breathing. Whatever side of the nostril you’re inhaling from “lights up” the opposite side of the brain. When we overuse one nostril (as we tend to do more and more as we age), we’re simultaneously neglecting that same side of the brain.
Another wildly popular resolution is to “lose weight.” However, that’s not a very good goal. If you believe you have excess fat that’s hurting you physically, emotionally, or mentally, you may benefit from reducing the size of your fat cells while simultaneously strengthening or enlarging your muscles. It’s impossible to “lose fat” without surgery. We’re all born with a certain number of fat cells that collect in various parts of our body at various degrees. That’s why targeting fat loss is impossible. However, we can certainly target the muscles we want to strengthen and/or enlarge. The asana part of yoga is a fantastic complement to any fat-decreasing and muscle-strengthening regimen, and some types of yoga can be the primary workout in itself.
Yoga tackles every aspect of a good fitness regimen including cardio (particularly in vinyasa or bootcamp-style classes), strength training using your body weight, balance, flexibility, and agility training (depending on the type of asana practice). However, most people combine yoga with other forms of exercise in order to avoid boredom or burnout. A gentler yoga class can be taken on a traditional “rest day” or when you’ve had an exceptionally tough workout in another class or on your own. Unlike some other exercises, such as running, you can modify and customize an asana practice to suit your needs, abilities, and goals as they vary day to day. You can even practice yoga on your own, or as a break in between filing reports or writing up documents at the office. Just because most yoga classes are 60-90 minutes and a lot of attendees have on tight pants and lug around sticky mats, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to practice yoga. If you want to get physically healthier in the new year, yoga can be done by anyone of any age for life.
The third most popular New Years resolution is to save more money or do better with money management and frugality. If you’ve stumbled into a common western yoga studio before, you might still be traumatized by sticker shock. Hot classes are especially expensive because it costs a lot to keep those rooms heated to 103-105 degrees. However, yoga doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be free, and there aren’t any rules that you have to sport a certain brand of clothing when practicing. Many westerners wear tight clothes when practicing so they (and, if in a guided class, their teacher) can easily see the lines of their body. This helps to ensure safe and correct postures. However, you can practice in anything that makes you comfortable. Practicing barefoot, without socks, can help you grip the floor or mat. It also encourages you to incorporate some “foot fitness” into your asana practice, such as lifting and spreading the toes or attempting to lower one toe at a time.
No matter what your New Years goals may be, you can count on yoga to complement and magnify them. It’s been practiced for thousands of years, and the health benefits are well documented. In fact, adding a regular yoga practice itself makes for a fantastic resolution. Remember: The toughest part of all is simply getting to the mat.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Lindsay Olsen. Lindsay is a freelance content writer and an avid fitness and yoga enthusiast.
Photo credit: Yogi Haven on Instagram