Exercise certainly will positively affect every body system. Many well-designed studies have removed doubt that the higher intensity the exercise the more one will benefit (up to a point that is not likely to be sustained by anyone but a few elite athletes). Unfortunately, few articles that claim health benefits of yoga compare asana practice (poses linked with breathing) to traditional exercise so no one can say for certain if yoga is as good as or more or less effective than a workout that includes cardiovascular exercise and resistance training. There also are many styles of yoga practice, some more likely than others to benefit all body systems. Of all the classes available on any one day in any city, most will not be as beneficial as a gym workout for any body system because of the difference in workload intensity.
I personally look to the gym where I maintain an elevated heart rate during cardio exercise and lift my maximum weight during resistance training (see previous blog posts) for physiologic benefits of physical activity. It is the mindfulness part of yoga practice that keeps me coming back to my mat. Turning inward to time by breath with body movement keeps me present the entire time I practice. Anytime my mind wanders off to the huge list of things I need to do or issues I need to resolve, I come back to my breath and alignment to maintain my mindful yoga practice. My poses are deeper when I’m aware and my experience is more awake and alive. I finish my practice feeling like I’ve been to a spa or had a nap in a way that other physical activity doesn’t offer. My mind is still after a yoga practice and I feel ready to tackle the to-do list and unresolved issues with new clarity and vigor.
My awareness practice on the mat also helps me to return to the present moment during my experiences off the mat. I have learned to tune into the present by being aware of each breath and of the sensations of each moment. I have come to appreciate the difference between gulping tea without awareness and presence and drinking with attention to the aroma, taste, and sight of the drink. I stay with each sensation to take advantage of each moment, particularly when I am enjoying an experience. Why get a fabulous massage when I’m busy mentally running down my to-do list?! Why indulge in a decadent dessert unless I’m enjoying each bite with all my senses?!
I’ll rely on my gym workout to benefit me physiologically. It is the awareness and mindfulness I learn from my yoga practice that I see as the valuable benefit of yoga.