Aoife McHugh is a freelance wellness writer and yoga teacher based in Abu Dhabi. Here, she explains the importance of a good yoga stretch.

June 21st, the day that Irish people have been waiting for with bated breath. The 10pm sunset and those ethereal evenings with their 'grand oul stretch.'

Call it kismet or fate but there is also another apt celebration on this date. International Day of Yoga falls at this time of year, I am now going to share some of the benefits of stretching your mind and body here.

In yoga practice, the mind and body go together like Beyonce and Jay or PB and J. I couldn’t pick between these two iconic American duos, but can you blame me? I am just crazy in love with this practice.

I will start with some of the bodily benefits I learned during my study of Yoga and Anatomy which henceforth, I will refer to as Yoganatomy.

Did you know the phrase "I’ve got your back" is thought to have originated in World War II? As soldiers entered unknown territory they depended on those behind them to look out for them. How often do you take time to watch your own back?

Take a moment to check yourself: are you slouched on the couch? Are you looking down at your phone? Now imagine the screen is flashing, it is an incoming call: "Hello, this is your spine calling." Now you’re sitting up tall.

The spine has thirty-three vital vertebrae that keep the body in line. The bodily benefits blanketed beneath these bones are bountiful. A pure powerhouse of productivity, the spine has more connections than a 90s telephone directory.

Lean back
As we examine the body from top to tail, the ideal anatomical position involves everything being stacked. If your head is hanging over your shoulders and you are scrolling on our phone, this can add serious strain to your neck muscles. A 30 degree angle can add 60 pounds. Maybe Fat Joe was on to something when he sang Lean Back? Ok, I’m done with the 2004 rap puns now.

Always back yourself
There are many physical causes of back pain but some are driven from deep within. Let’s look at Dobby, the endearing house elf in Harry Potter. His posture reflects his position in society. Often, we develop our posture based on self-beliefs. Others may suffer from having too much pressure and responsibility, the weight of the world is quite visibly on their shoulders. Ask yourself: what is happening emotionally? Visualise pain dissolving during yoga practice and breathe into uncomfortable areas. Yoga also reminds us of the importance of alignment.

Your spine can tell the time
As we grow older, we become shorter as our discs become thinner. Discs are like little donuts that act as cushions which connect the vertebrae. The pressure of the day compresses the spine and at night, the body reabsorbs water, filling the discs.

This means that in the morning you are taller, but only until you are 35. We begin to lose this ability when we hit 30. (I’ll use this as my excuse the next time someone asks me to use the measuring chart to go on a rollercoaster.)

A final note
If you have a curve in your upper or lower back (Hyperkyphosis/Lordosis) avoid anything that mimics the curve. If you have HyperKyphosis focus on neutralizing the upper back and creating space. Supported fish pose is great for this. As I place my hand on the remarkable ridges of my spine, I marvel at this mini mountain range and all that’s inside.

There are a myriad of ways to keep your spinal health on track and yoga is firmly at the heart of that. So with the spine in mind, mount your mat and tell yourself "I’ve got your back."

Of course, if you have any concerns for your spine health, you should speak with your GP.

#YOGAGLOW
Now let’s examine how yoga can positively impact the largest organ of the body, comprising of around 20 square feet, it’s the skin. Yoga brings us to a parasympathetic state, where the entire body has the opportunity to rest and digest.

Yoga repairs the body and builds new younger cells which in turn leads to younger looking skin. Through circulation of the blood, oxygen and nutrients are brought to cells and all of this leads to you feeling swell (as in glowing not swollen!) Try the 30 day selfie challenge and notice how the rate of your radiance changes over time.

Don’t roll with cortisol
Yoga impacts everything, right down to our Endocrine System. The place responsible for almost every cell, organ and function in your body. This allows activation of hormones, releasing them through the blood stream to perform vital functions such as controlling our mood and metabolism.

Cortisol is the stress hormone that shuts down non-essential systems that are hindering flight mode. This includes digestion. We all have those days when we get that thunk* in the pit of our stomach and straight away, cortisol comes to play.

We then have a choice, we can allow it to ruin the rest of our day or enable our breath to take it away. *This is actually a word, not just a sound effect from a 1960s Batman fight scene. Stress leads to all kinds of issues from digestion to reproduction so it is important to keep it in check.

Here are some other ways that cortisol can curtail you:

  • If you have poor posture, the breath stays in the chest causing stress
  • If you keep your abdomen tight, the breath is shallow and therefore gas exchange is limited
  • Less deep breathing leads to higher acidity and inflammation in the body

What we learn in yoga also translates into everyday life. Take time throughout the day to reactivate your diaphragm and breathe into your belly. In times of tension, I like to think of this action as a corti-solvent, forcing the stress hormone (cortisol) to hightail it home with less freedom to roam. The next time you are admiring your cat or dog slumbering on the couch, notice that they are breathing through their belly when they are relaxed. Stress? Even animals ain’t got time for that.

There are so many benefits linked to yoga practice and mindful breathing, sure what’s not to love about a grand oul stretch in the evening?