Let me tell you about yoga. Forgive me if I sound like an insufferable hippy. (I'm really not. I wear socks with sandals really rather infrequently. And I dislike reggae intensely.)
Four years ago I thought yoga was for girls. I play football, end of story. Despite this, for various reasons not worth sharing now, I started to go along to yoga classes to support my partner. Six months later I was still going, and really enjoying it. Nonetheless my practice at this stage was a little sporadic, and yoga was languishing a long way behind football in my set of priorities.
Then a year ago I attended an ashtanga yoga class. It was 1 1/2 hours of serious work-out and I left shattered and very very intrigued. Over the last six months I've started to do ashtanga yoga regularly and now, it's fair to say, I LOVE IT. There are times (and I don't say this lightly) when I'd rather do yoga than play football.
Let me explain the attraction. Firstly the physical side of things. Football is great because it clears my mind, gives me an outlet for my physical energies, and leaves me mellow yet somewhat elated. Yoga also has that effect on me. Particularly ashtanga yoga which is more strenuous than other forms of yoga, and so appeals to my desire to be physically stretched. It gives me the high.
I also have a sense of progress. I am no natural yogi; I am bony and angular and not naturally flexible. When I started I had trouble sitting cross-legged. Yet now I can sit with cross legs, I can touch my toes with ease (even put my palms on the ground), I can stay in a head stand for a couple of minutes... in short, there are a multitude of postures that were once beyond me and now are quite achievable.
It has benefited my health. I used to suffer from chronic lower back pain but yoga has now got that under control. (As it happens I have had back troubles again recently, of a different sort, but this seems unrelated.) I have noticed a dramatic increase in lung capacity (all the positions in yoga are coordinated with the breath, so one learns to regulate one's breathing and to breath more deeply). The other day I swam a kilometre for the first time in my life (I'm shit at swimming); this was with almost no swimming practice, but lots of yoga.
I have much more control over different parts of my body. Whereas playing football benefits only a subset of the muscles in the body, yoga does the lot. Before I did yoga there were whole areas of my body that were weak and unutilised - that I didn't know were there. Now I have awareness of these areas, and can use them (for instance when lifting heavy things, instead of busting my back like I used to).
Yoga isn't just physical though. It also challenges and benefits my mental/ spiritual side. Firstly this takes place through regulating the breath. I have learned to breath deeply and slowly, thereby lowering the heart rate, and naturally calming the mind. This aids concentration and eases stress: when we're stressed our breathing tends towards shallowness and hyperventilation; by dealing with the physical symptoms of stress, some of the mental symptoms are also relieved.
Yoga also builds awareness of the present moment - what the Buddhists would call "mindfulness". Yoga requires awareness of one's whole body and full involvement in the here and now. Just as when I play football I am entirely focussed on the game without thought or worry of the past or future, so too in yoga I am freed of these distractions. Yoga seems somehow more beneficial though, because my mental state remains calm. (I'm not calm when I play football!)
I used to meditate regularly, but since having a child have found this very difficult. My yoga practice is a pretty good substitute. I find that the physicality of it allows me to maintain concentration in circumstances when I find sitting meditation impossible (e.g. with the child charging about the place). Many of the benefits of meditation - a calming and clearing of the mind, an awareness of the present, etc - can also be achieved through yoga.
Let me end by saying that I'm still shit at yoga. Or, to be more precise, I still can't do the vast majority of the poses in the ashtanga "full flow". Of course, that doesn't really mean I'm shit. Yoga is refreshingly non-competitive. While I admire very talented yoga practitioners (see video for an extreme example), a good session of yoga for me can be much more modest yet still push my physical and mental boundaries, and bring just as much benefit. With this in mind I'd recommend yoga to anyone, no matter what their state of physical health, for they will surely benefit.