Many people think that yoga is just stretching. But while stretching is certainly involved, yoga is really about creating balance in the body through developing both strength and flexibility. This is done through the performance of poses or postures, each of which has specific physical benefits. The poses can be done quickly in succession, creating heat in the body through movement or more slowly to increase stamina and perfect the alignment the pose. The poses are a constant, but the approach to them varies depending on the tradition in which the teacher has trained.
Yoga teachers will often refer to "your practice", which means your individual experience with yoga as it develops over time. The amazing thing about yoga is that your practice is always evolving and changing, so it never gets boring. Although the poses themselves do not change, your relationship to them will. Anyone can start a yoga practice, even if you don't feel like you are very flexible or very strong. These things will develop over time. Another great thing about thinking about "your practice" is that it encourages the non-competitive spirit of yoga. One of the most difficult, but ultimately most liberating things about yoga is letting go of the ego and accepting that no one is better than anyone else. Everyone is just doing their best on any given day.
Flexibility: Stretching your tight body in new ways will help it to become more flexible, bringing greater range of motion to muscles and joints over time.
Strength: Many yoga poses require you to support the weight of your own body in new ways, including balancing , supporting yourself with your arms and some exercises require you to move slowly in and out of poses, which also increases strength.
Muscle tone: As a by-product of getting stronger, you can expect to see increased muscle tone. Yoga helps shape long, lean muscles.
Pain Prevention: Increased flexibility and strength can help prevent the causes of some types of back pain. Many people who suffer from back pain spend a lot of time sitting at a computer or driving a car which can cause tightness and spinal compression. Yoga also improves your awareness of posture both in and out of class, which may help prevent many other types of pain.
Better Breathing: Most of us breathe very shallowly into the lungs and don't give much thought to how we breathe. Yoga breathing exercises, called Pranayama, focus the attention on the breath and teach us how to better use our lungs. Yoga breathing practice help calm the central nervous system, which has both physical and mental benefits.
Mental Calmness: Yoga practice is physical and requires concentration on what your body is doing resulting in the effect of bringing a calmness to the mind. Yoga also introduces you to meditation techniques, such as watching how you breathe and disengagement from your thoughts, which help calm the mind.
Stress Reduction: Physical activity is good for relieving stress, and this is particularly true of yoga. Because of the concentration required, your daily troubles, both large and small, seem to disappear during the time you are doing yoga. This provides a much-needed break from your stressors, as well as helping put things into perspective. The emphasis yoga places on being in the moment can also help relieve stress, as you learn not to dwell on past events or anticipate the future. You will leave a yoga class feeling less stressed than when you started.
Body Awareness: Doing yoga will give you an increased awareness of your own body. You are often called upon to make small, subtle movements to improve your alignment. Over time, this will increase your level of comfort in your own body. This can lead to improved posture and greater self-confidence.