THE HEALTHY BENEFITS OF YOGA
Yoga is on par with aerobic exercise as one of the best things you can do for mind, body,
and spirit, research suggests.
For decades, aerobic exercise—the type that raises your heart and breathing rates, such as running or cycling—has been touted by scientists as the gold standard in terms of the number of health benefits it brings. More energy, improved mood, lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers, better sleep, better thinking, better sex, and on and on. There may be another form of exercise that does even more for you: yoga. And weight control may be at the top of the long list of yoga benefits.
The only way to be certain of what yoga can do for you is to try it for yourself and see. Yoga does more than calm you down and makes you flexible.
Aerobic exercise remains a fun, simple, inexpensive, highly effective form of exercise that confers all sorts of important benefits. And it’s important that we all be active every day if we can, taking breaks to move around so we don’t spend our entire time sitting.
Yoga is a valid exercise choice. Yoga should no longer be seen as something even remotely fringey, or even as something that’s only good for improving flexibility. It has become clear that yoga deserves a permanent place at the health and fitness table, alongside other forms of exercise that may be more familiar to most people. To put it another way, if you like yoga, don’t feel like you’re missing out if you’re not also putting in time on the treadmill or exercise bike. Yoga seems to be able to provide many of the physical benefits of exercise—and then some. It behaves as both exercise and meditation.
Yoga exercise aims to improve strength, flexibility and breathing, while at the same time helping with physical health and mental well-being. This ancient system of postures, called asanas, and breathing exercises has been around for more than 5,000 years.
Some meditation techniques may also be involved.
There are different types of yoga to suit different needs and abilities for relaxation, flexibility, strength and balance. When some people think of yoga, they imagine having to stretch like a gymnast. That makes them worry that they’re too old, unfit, or “tight” to do yoga. The truth is you’re never too old to improve flexibility.
The series of yoga poses called asanas work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use and that causes stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. In addition, yoga increases the range of motion in joints. It may also increase lubrication in the joints. The outcome is a sense of ease and fluidity throughout your body.
Yoga stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. And no matter what your level of yoga, you are likely to see benefits in a very short period of time. In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga. The greatest gains were in shoulder and trunk flexibility.
Some styles of yoga, such as ashtanga and power yoga are more vigorous than others. Practising one of these styles can help you improve muscle tone. An even less vigorous style of yoga, such as Iyengar yoga, which focuses on less movement and more precise alignment in poses, can provide strength and endurance benefits.
Many of the poses, such as downward dog, upward dog, and plank pose, build upper-body strength. This becomes crucial as people age. The standing poses, especially if you hold them for several long breaths, build strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominal muscles. Poses that strengthen the lower back include upward dog and chair pose. When practised correctly, nearly all poses build core strength in the deep abdominal muscles.
With increased flexibility and strength comes better posture. Most standing and sitting poses develop core strength. That’s because you’re counting on your deep abdominals to support and maintain each pose. With a stronger core, you’re more likely to sit and stand tall. Another benefit of yoga is the increased body awareness. This heightened awareness tells you more quickly when you’re slouching or slumping so you can adjust your posture.
Because of the deep, mindful breathing that yoga involves, lung capacity often improves. This in turn can improve sports performance and endurance. But yoga typically isn’t focused on aerobic fitness the way running or cycling are. Taking an intense power yoga class that gets you breathing hard in a heated room, however, can provide an aerobic benefit.
Most forms of yoga emphasise deepening and lengthening your breath. This stimulates the relaxation response: the opposite of the fight-or-flight adrenaline boost of the stress response.
Even beginners tend to feel less stressed and more relaxed after their first class. Some yoga styles use specific meditation techniques to quiet the constant “mind chatter” that often underlies stress. Other yoga styles depend on deep breathing techniques to focus your mind on the breath. When this happens, your mind becomes calm.
Among yoga’s anti-stress benefits are a host of biochemical responses. For example, there is a decrease in catecholamines, the hormones produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Lowering levels of hormone neurotransmitters, dopamine, norepinephrine, noradrenaline and adrenaline, creates a feeling of calm. Some research points to a boost in the hormone oxytocin. This is the so-called “trust” and “bonding” hormone that’s associated with feeling relaxed and connected to others.
Harder to pin down and research scientifically, concentration and the ability to focus mentally are common benefits you’ll hear yoga students talk about. The same is true with mood. Nearly every yoga student will tell you they feel happier and more contented after class. Researchers have begun exploring the effects of yoga on depression, a benefit that may result from yoga’s boosting oxygen levels to the brain. Yoga is even being studied as an adjunct therapy to relieve symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Perhaps one of the most studied areas of the health benefits of yoga is its effect on heart is heart disease. Yoga has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. A lower blood pressure can benefit people with heart disease and stroke. Yoga was a key component to the heart disease programme designed by American specialist Dr Dean Ornish. This was the first programme to partly reverse heart disease through lifestyle and diet rather than surgery. On a biochemical level, studies point to a possible anti-oxidant effect of yoga and yoga has been associated with decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as a boost in immune system function.
As yoga has become more popular in the West, medical researchers have begun studying the benefits of therapeutic yoga. This is also called integrative yoga therapy or IYT. It’s used as an adjunct treatment for specific medical conditions, from clinical depression to heart disease. Yoga benefits other chronic medical conditions, helping to relieve symptoms of asthma, back pain and arthritis.
Some studies have suggested that yoga may have a positive effect on learning and memory. Other researchers have been studying whether yoga can slow the ageing process, increase a person’s sense of self-acceptance, or improve energy levels.
Some potential benefits of yoga may be hard to study scientifically. For instance, yoga has been said to increase spiritual awareness. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of claims for what yoga can do. Go to any yoga studio and listen to students after the class. Some will even tell you that yoga can help improve marriages and relationships at work.
Yoga may be an untapped resource for losing weight. There appears to be an intriguing role for yoga in the area of weight control, with the key mechanism being yoga’s stress-reducing power. There is evidence that suggests chronic stress leads to changes in food-seeking behavior, including increased consumption of foods high in sugar and fat, which may eventually lead to obesity. Yoga provides many of the benefits typically associated with exercise, and is also so effective at reducing stress and it’s possible that yoga might be a particularly useful weapon in the arsenal against obesity.
It’s good for beginners to find a teacher. If you’re considering giving yoga a try, rest assured that you don’t have to be a contortionist to do it. But it’s best to find a class with a teacher, as starting on your own with a video can be tough. It’s important to learn how to do the poses correctly, at which point you can supplement your class time by doing yoga at home. Scientific literature has shown that the health benefits of yoga can be obtained with a single weekly class, but most studies have used a bigger dose. So it is logical to assume that the more you put in, the more you’ll likely get out.