I’m inflexible. I’m also a lifelong athlete, at one time a nationally ranked swimmer and then an adult who developed an addiction to half marathons. But despite the medals I’ve won, records I’ve set and finish lines I’ve crossed, I can’t touch my toes.

That level of inflexibility created an aversion to any kind of stretching, despite the fact that I knew stretching my muscles was an essential part of any athletic endeavor. But my unwillingness to stretch became a problem as one injury after another propelled me into doctors’ offices, physical therapy and cortisone shots. And when all of those medical visits failed to cure me of nagging hip pain that made running impossible, I finally decided to make serious changes in my fitness routine by introducing myself to yoga.

I started with YouTube, quickly finding two channels I liked. I enjoyed having the freedom to practice at home when it fit into my schedule, as well as the ability to figure out if I liked yoga enough to sign up with a studio.

Some days I did hour-long fat burning yoga. Some days I did 20 to 30 minute sessions that focused on specific areas of the body. Some days I did shorter sessions aimed at headaches or stress relief. And some days I chose gentle practices of varying lengths for relaxation and meditation.

After months of YouTube yoga, I signed up with a hot yoga studio, and I immediately knew this studio was perfect for me. I’ve been a member for over a year now, and whether I’m attending a hot vinyasa class, a warm yoga class or special events like sunrise yoga at the beach, I look forward to practicing with knowledgeable, fun instructors and like-minded fellow participants.

So why has yoga become such an important part of my life? Here are five reasons that yoga is beneficial for my fitness routine and so much more.

1. Yoga is a consistent stress-reliever.

Around the same time I started yoga, I started meditating. And yoga and meditation go hand-in-hand to relieve stress.

In yoga, we move our bodies while letting go of thoughts. When I’m on my yoga mat, I’m fully present on my mat. I’m not thinking about my to-do list or what I’m going to make for dinner or strategizing how I’m going to get my kids to all their activities. By the time I settle into Shavasana at the end of each practice, my mind and body have both released whatever stress I walked into the studio with, and I try to bring that mindset and positive energy with me the rest of the day.

2. Yoga relieves my headaches.

I suffer from frequent migraines. As my doctor and I experiment with treatments, there’s one constant he urges me to continue: yoga. I can walk into that studio with a blinding headache and walk out after an hour of yoga with no pain. And I’m pretty sure it helps to prevent any headaches that might be on the horizon.

3. My body didn’t just become more flexible, it grew stronger.

Because yoga is a full body workout, I see muscle definition I haven’t seen in years. Once I started noticing tricep and abdominal toning, I realized how lopsided my fitness had become by focusing on running with no other cross-training. Yoga makes me feel like my core and upper body are just as strong as my legs.

4.  Pain from a long-term injury became manageable.

I’ve suffered from intermittent pain in my left hip for years, a pain that consistently worsened as I increased my running mileage. I iced, used a foam roller and downed Ibuprofen. But I kept running until the pain got so intense I couldn’t run anymore.

About a month into my yoga practice, I was able to run regularly again and I continue to be able to run. And because I’ve learned so much about my body from yoga, I now know exactly what stretches to rely on whenever I feel that familiar beginning twinge of hip pain.

5. Yoga helps my other fitness practices.

When I’m not doing yoga, I’m going to Orangetheory Fitness or running in my neighborhood. Not only does yoga help me to run pain-free, but the strength and flexibility I gained allows me to run for longer distances and keeps my upper body in shape for the weight floor and rowing portions of Orangetheory.

Yoga also taught me how to use the mindfulness of breath inherent in yoga practice during a tough run. Rather than desperately huffing and puffing when I hit a mental wall, I learned to connect with my breath, which helps increase my oxygen flow and get past the struggle to complete my run.

Yoga will always be a regular part of my life. I may not do it every day, but it’s grown into an essential aspect of my fitness routine that I know will help me continue to be an athlete and provide important benefits in other areas of my life. Namaste.

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