You hear a lot of talk about the health benefits of yoga. As teachers, we see our students change on a daily basis; but the buzz about what we do and what we see can quickly be put in its place by a Doubting Thomas who says, “Prove it.” There is a reason why every yoga teacher needs to know about the proven health benefits in studies, research, trials, and exactly where to find the facts. We can put the next Doubting Thomas back in a closet, and all of this research is good for expanding our minds.
Proven Yoga Health Benefits
Yoga is a system of health maintenance that attempts to combine the body, mind, and spirit into an integrated unit to promote health and increase longevity. The yoga positions, called asanas, are combined with breathing exercises and mental concentration, to encourage a state of physical calm and mental clarity. Yogic practice is thought to go back before Vedic times, but today, scientists are learning about its true value as an aid to health.
The practice of yoga can have measurable effects on well-being and mood. A 2012 University of Michigan study showed that yoga can help pregnant women, who were considered at high risk for postpartum depression, benefited from a 10-week period of yoga exercises. Because pregnancy hormones have been linked to the incidence of depression after the birth of the child, the study investigated whether a pre-emptive approach to stress relief, through yoga, would reduce the incidence of women with this condition. Results showed that women were able to manage stress symptoms more easily and were more accepting of non-pharmaceutical methods for controlling depressive symptoms, leading to both healthier mothers and healthier babies. The reduced stress also allowed for better bonding between mother and child.
A study done at Ohio State University, in 2010, found that subjects, who did yoga on a regular basis, had lower levels of a chemical called IL-6, cytokine interleukin, in their bloodstreams. This chemical is implicated in higher incidences of inflammation in the body and is linked to heart disease, type-2 diabetes, stroke and other age-related diseases. The results suggest that yoga exercise can help to reduce inflammation throughout the body and improve health as people age.
Lower Back Pain
Yoga has also been found to significantly improve pain and disability from chronic low back pain. A 2009 study from the Department of Community Medicine, at West Virginia University, found that subjects, who practiced yoga over a 24-week period, had reduced pain symptoms, greater function, fewer symptoms of depression and a trend toward using less medication than the control group. These results suggest that people, who suffer from chronic lower back conditions, should consider yoga classes as a valuable therapeutic alternative.
Emotional Benefits of Yoga Training
In addition to the many ways yoga helps your body, it also has many emotional benefits. People, who practice yoga, usually find that they are more relaxed and centered after a session. Over time, this can carry over into everyday life. Let’s look at some of the emotional and psychological advantages to yoga training.
Stress is one of the biggest problems of modern life. It has been associated with many medical conditions, including obesity and high blood pressure. Yoga is one of the best methods to reduce stress, for several reasons.
Exercise, in general, can be effective for relieving stress, but yoga is especially good for accomplishing this. Yoga postures force the practitioner to focus on the details of each movement. This not only works out the body, but gives the mind a useful task upon which to concentrate.
Another reason yoga is so beneficial in this regard is that it promotes deep breathing. Stress is associated with shallow and fast breathing. When you are stressed out, you also tend to breathe higher up, through the chest or lungs, and not the abdomen. Yoga teaches you to slow down your breathing and to breathe through your diaphragm. This can very quickly help you feel more centered and relaxed.
Yoga can also make you feel more positive and confident. A 2010 study, conducted at the Boston School of Medicine, found that yoga is more effective than walking – when it comes to reducing anxiety and putting people in a better mood. This suggests that yoga might be effective for helping people with depression and other mood disorders, though more research has to be done before this can be stated conclusively.
One indirect way yoga can be emotionally beneficial is in its ability to help you get a better night’s sleep. Lack of sleep can cause quite a bit of stress and other emotional difficulties. Yoga training can be useful for giving the body a workout that’s stimulating, yet not so stimulating that it interferes with sleep. Unlike many other types of exercise, you can practice many yoga postures close to bedtime.
There are many emotional, as well as physical benefits, to practicing yoga. Many people find that certain postures, or styles of yoga, are particularly helpful for certain purposes, such as relaxing or winding down after a day at work. There is little doubt that practicing yoga can help a person feel better in many ways.
Yoga Calms the Mind
The breathing techniques of yoga are designed to calm the mind, body, and soul. By concentrating on the in and out rhythm of your breathing, you are forced to be in the present moment, as opposed to worrying about the past or future. It helps clear the mind of all the unnecessary worry and preoccupation with everything that is going on in life and what needs to get done. It cleanses the palette of the mind, if you will, and prepares for a new day. That way you can start afresh after your cleansing, instead of continuing to allow those thoughts to compound and clutter the mind.
Yoga Increases Body Awareness
Yoga teaches how to become in tune with your body and to be able to recognize when it is being held in a state of tension or anxiety, both which are dangerous health risks and contribute to the onset of stroke, heart attack, panic attacks and extreme anxiety. Yoga teaches you to recognize when your body is in this state of stress and tension. By knowing what physical warning signs to look for, and how the body reacts physically, you can then use the yoga breathing techniques to calm the body back to its normal state, where you are at peace and feel in control, calm, and balanced. Concentrating on breath and body, through these yoga practices, eases tension and relaxes the mind and body. Some of the physical warning signs that the body is under stress include:
• Clenched fists
• Gritting teeth
• Labored breathing
• Tightened or clinched muscles
• Excessive fidgeting
Yoga Enhances Overall Well-being
We all know that exercise relieves stress and tension. There are, however, many who cannot do strenuous exercises due to one medical reason or another. For these people, yoga is a welcomed alternative to vigorous exercise routines. Yoga focuses largely on stretching the body and deep breathing. While not a high impact or strenuous workout, yoga is very powerful and has beneficial effects on the body, mind, and soul. The stretching elongates the muscles and limbers them up – making it easier to get around and accomplish everyday tasks in your daily routine. It increases blood circulation, pumping more blood to the heart and brain, which gives you a boost of energy and flexibility. The heavy breathing increases oxygen to the blood and heart, which increases alertness and relaxes the body, while ridding it of negative or toxic thoughts, through visualization. By envisioning the inhaling as taking in positive energy and the exhaling as releasing the negative, yoga invokes a feeling of overall well being and peace.
Not Just for the Body
Yoga is not just for the body, though it does have a positive affect on the limbs and joints. It is designed as a mind, body, and soul experience that enhances overall well being. It has far reaching benefits and is an excellent form of exercise for all ages.
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Janakiramaiah N, et al. “Antidepressant Efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) in Melancholia: A Randomized Comparison with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Imipramine,” Journal of Affective Disorders (Jan.–March 2000): Vol. 57, No. 1–3, pp. 255–59.
Kirkwood G, et al. “Yoga for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of the Research,” British Journal of Sports Medicine (Dec. 2005): Vol. 39, No. 12, pp. 884–91.
Maria Muzik, Susan E. Hamilton, Katherine Lisa Rosenblum, Ellen Waxler, Zahra Hadi. Mindfulness yoga during pregnancy for psychiatrically at-risk women: Preliminary results from a pilot feasibility study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2012.06.006
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University of Michigan Health System (2012, August 8). Yoga reduces depression in pregnant women, boosts maternal bonding. ScienceDaily.