At this point, most of us have heard of yoga. After all, even in the West, yoga has been around for quite a while. The practice of yoga derives from ancient India and was first described in the Yoga Sutras written by Indian physician Patanjali in 3000 BC. Today, there are many forms of yoga – including Hatha, Iyengar and Bikram among others. Traditionally, yoga is a spiritual practice that includes much more than the physical postures that you may be familiar with. Rather, yoga combines the physical postures(asanas), with breath work (pranayama), meditation, philosophy and basic living guidelines.
Since yoga’s introduction to the West, it has become a popular form of exercise touted for its mental and physical benefits. Over the years studies have confirmed many of the health benefits of yoga along with theories as to how it works to provide these benefits. Before we look at specific diseases, let’s look at some of the effects of yoga on the body.
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and is found running from the brainstem down through the body to nearly every organ including the heart, lungs, stomach and intestines. Additionally, the brain receives a large amount of sensory information from the skin through the vagus nerve. The PNS is largely responsible for states of relaxation and feelings of calm. Therefore, stimulation of the vagus nerve can have a relaxing effect on the body. Yoga has been shown to increase vagal activity and may have such a positive impact on our health, in part, through this mechanism. Studies have also shown that yoga can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may also occur due to increased vagal activity.
Yoga has been shown to have several general effects on the body. Not surprisingly, yoga can improve balance, flexibility and strength. Yoga has also been shown to improve weight loss, BMI and waist and hip circumferences. Decreases in blood pressure and exercise-induced heart rate increases can also be seen over time. Additionally, yoga has been shown to improve antioxidant status, meaning individuals who practiced yoga had higher amounts of antioxidants.
From this information alone, one can see how great an impact yoga can have. In fact, you may be able to glean that yoga could be good for the heart and perhaps even psychological problems such as anxiety and you would be right. So, let’s look at some of the more specific health benefits of yoga.
As just mentioned, yoga can be great for heart health. We’ve just talked about how yoga can decrease blood pressure and improve weight loss – both good for the heart – but it has also been shown to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels. Yoga can also decrease episodes of chest pain in those with coronary artery disease, improve cardiovascular endurance in patients with heart failure and decrease C-reactive protein – a marker of inflammation.
While it may make sense to some of us that yoga, and the involved breath work, would have a positive impact on our lungs, studies have also corroborated this. In patients with asthma, yoga has been shown to improve lung function and asthma symptoms while decreasing usage of medication.
Diabetes has become an epidemic and is one of the most common endocrine conditions. Along with many other natural treatment interventions, yoga can help. Yoga can decrease fasting blood sugar and blood sugar after meals in diabetic patients. It can also decrease A1C, which is a marker of average blood glucose over the past 3 months. These results, combined with improvements in weight, BMI, cholesterol and antioxidants can all have a positive impact on individuals with diabetes.
A healthy immune system is incredibly important for one’s overall well-being – from fighting off illnesses to prevention of cancer. When our immune system isn’t functioning properly all sorts of problems can develop, like allergies or autoimmune diseases. One autoimmune disease that has shown benefit from yoga is multiple sclerosis (MS). In a study on individuals with MS, those participating in yoga had significant improvement of fatigue. In another example, yoga has been shown to decrease pain and disability from pain in rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune arthritis that can affect many joints of the body.
Yoga can have a huge impact on psychological health. Yoga can enhance mindfulness, reduce stress and anxiety and improve depression. Improvements in stress and anxiety may also be the reason for yoga’s ability to improve sleep. Yoga can improve efficiency of sleep, total sleep time, length of time to fall asleep, number of awakenings during the night and overall quality of sleep.
Chronic pain can be a very debilitating problem to deal with. Luckily, yoga can be beneficial for various types of chronic pain, including low back pain, migraine headaches, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. There are several theories as to how yoga reduces pain. It may be through stimulation of the skin, akin to massage, that helps to block the pain stimulus. Or it could be through reduction of substance P, a pain signaling molecule, in the skin. Improvements in sleep as mentioned previously could lead to less production of substance P and therefore less pain. Also, it could be that yoga increases serotonin which can help to reduce pain.
These are just some of the potential benefits of yoga that have been studied. There are a variety of styles of yoga for all body types and mobility levels. A good yoga instructor can help to modify a practice to maximize benefit and comfort level for each individual. Check with your local yoga studios and instructors to find a style that’s right for you and be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning a practice to make sure that its safe for you.
A consistent yoga practice decreases blood pressure through better circulation and oxygenation of the body.
A slower pulse rate indicates that your heart is strong enough to pump more blood with fewer beats. Regularly practicing yoga provides a lower pulse rate.
Yoga improves blood circulation. By transporting nutrients and oxygen throughout your body, yoga practice provides healthier organs, skin, and brain.
Like the circulatory system, a lower respiratory rate indicates that the lungs are working more efficiently. Yoga decreases the respiratory rate through a combination of controlled breathing exercises and better fitness
A combination of lower heart rate and improved oxygenation to the body (both benefits of yoga) results in higher cardiovascular endurance.
Yoga practice massages internal organs, thus improving the ability of the body to prevent disease. Additionally, an experienced yoga practitioner becomes better attuned to her body to know at first sign if something isn’t functioning properly, thereby allowing for quicker response to head off disease.
Gastrointestinal functions have been shown to improve in both men and women who practice yoga.
Yoga practice has frequently been correlated with a stronger immune system.
Pain tolerance is much higher among those who practice yoga regularly. In addition to pain tolerance, some instances of chronic pain, such as back pain, are lessened or eliminated through yoga (see below for more on back pain).
Having a balanced metabolism results in maintaining a healthy weight and controlling hunger. Consistent yoga practice helps find the balance and creates a more efficient metabolism.
Yoga stimulates the detoxification process within the body.Detoxification has been shown to delay aging, among many other health benefits
The very nature of yoga teaches the practitioner how to hold and control one’s body in a more healthful position. Through consistent practice, your posture will improve so that you look more confident and healthy.
One of the premises of yoga is that you are using the weight of your own body for overall strength.
Regular yoga practice provides consistent energy. In fact, most yogis state that when you perform your yoga correctly, you will feel energized after your yoga session rather than tired.
The benefits of a better metabolism along with the exercise of yoga work to keep your weight in check. Additionally, the stretching of muscles longwise helps to reduce the amount of cellulite that can build around muscles.
Because of the many benefits to both body and mind that a yoga routine can provide, many find that their sleep is much better.
An integral part of the yoga practice is balance and control over your body. With a consistent practice, you will find that your overall balance will improve outside the yoga class.
Yoga is derived from Sanskrit and means "to join together and direct one’s attention." This is exactly what happens to your body after you start practicing yoga. Yogis find that their body works together much better, resulting in more graceful and efficient body movements.
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.
With a strong body core, you receive better posture and overall body strength. A strong core helps heal and reduce injuries. This is why a lot of athletes do yoga as cross training (boxers, MMA fighters, etc).
Yoga can improve your sexuality through better control, more relaxation, and more self-confidence.
Overall well-being improves with yoga practice. The combination of creating a strong mind-body connection, creating a healthy body, and focusing inward can all lead to improvement in your mood
The concentration required during yoga practice tends to focus your attention on the matter at hand, thereby reducing the emphasis you may have been putting on the stress in your life.
One benefit to the controlled breathing used in yoga is a reduction in anxiety.
Continued practice of yoga results in a balance of many hormones and nervous system, which brings about a more stable, positive approach to life.
Most yogis report a huge reduction in the amount of hostility they feel as well as a sense of control when anger flares. This calm effect is likely from the relaxation and meditation that is incorporated in their yoga practice that leads to an overall calming of the nervous system. Less hostility means lower blood pressure and stress and a healthier approach to life.
Researchers have shown that as little as eight weeks of yoga practice can result in better concentration and more motivation.
Improved blood circulation to the brain as well as the reduction in stress and improved focus results in a better memory.
The attention required in yoga to maintain the structured breathing in conjunction with yoga poses sharpens the ability to keep a sharp focus on tasks.
In yoga, you learn the interconnectedness of all of life. Your yoga practice soon evolves from a personal journey to one connecting to to the community at large where your social skills improve along with your yoga practice
Concentrating so intently on what your body is doing has the effect of bringing calmness. Yoga also introduces you to meditation techniques, such as watching how you breathe and disengagement from your thoughts, which help calm the mind.
Yoga practice lowers cholesterol through increased blood circulation and burning fat. Yoga practice is a great tool to fight against harmful cholesterol levels.
Your lymphatic system boosts your immunity and reduces toxins in your body. The only way to get your lymphatic system flowing well is by movement. The specific movements involved in yoga are particularly well-suited for promoting a lymphatic system.
There is evidence to suggest that yoga may lower blood glucose levels.
As does any good exercise program, yoga reduces the sodium levels in your body. In today’s world of processed and fast foods that are full of sodium, lessening these levels is a great idea.
Practicing yoga helps to regulate and control hormone secretion. An improved endocrine system keeps hormones in balance and promotes better overall physical and emotional health.
Triglycerides are the chemical form of fat in the blood, and elevated levels can indicate a risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. A recent study shows that yoga can lead to "significantly lower" levels of triglycerides.
Yoga has been shown to increase the level of red blood cells in the body. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen through the blood, and too few can result in anemia and low energy.
Vitamin C helps boost immunity, helps produce collagen, and is a powerful antioxidant; and a yoga regimen can increase the vitamin C in your body.
Due to the low impact of yoga and the controlled aspect of the motions, there is a very low risk of injury during yoga practice compared to other forms of exercise.
In many forms of exercise, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, providing you with that fight-or-flight sensation. Yoga does the opposite and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic system lowers blood pressure and slows the pace of your breathing, which allows relaxation and healing.
Consistently practicing yoga leads to better muscle tone.
Subcortical regions of brain are associated with well-being, and yoga is thought to dominate the subcortex rather than the cortex (where most exercise dominates).
Yoga consumes less oxygen than traditional exercise routines, thereby allowing the body to work more efficiently.
With yoga, breathing is more natural and controlled during exercise. This type of breathing provides more oxygen-rich air for your body and also provides more energy with less fatigue.
Without practice, eye-hand coordination diminishes. Yoga maintains and improves eye-hand coordination
The strong mind-body connection and flexibility gained from yoga leads to grace and skill.
Working the entire body, yoga improves endurance and is frequently used by endurance athletes as a supplement to their sport-specific training.
Becoming aware of your body and how it moves, as one does in yoga practice, leads to increased depth perception.
Yoga reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, keeps off weight, and improves cardiovascular health, all of which lead to reducing your risk of heart disease.
. It is well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. Additionally, yoga’s ability to lower levels of cortisol may help keep calcium in the bones
In addition to the glucose reducing capabilities of yoga, it is also an excellent source of physical exercise and stress reduction that, along with the potential for yoga to encourage insulin production in the pancreas, can serve as an excellent preventative for type II diabetes.
. Individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome who practiced yoga showed greater improvement than those who wore a splint or received no treatment at all. Researchers saw improved grip strength and reduction of pain in the study participants.
There is some evidence to show that reducing symptoms of asthma and even reduction in asthma medication are the result of regular yoga.
The slow, deliberate movement of yoga poses coupled with the gentle pressure exerted on the joints provides an excellent exercise to relieve arthritis symptoms. Also, the stress relief associated with yoga loosens muscles that tighten joints.
Using yoga in the early stages of muscular dystrophy can help return some physical functions. The practice of Pranayam yoga helped one teen regain many of his abilities lost to muscular dystrophy.
Regular yoga practice has been shown to reduce the number of migraines in chronic migraine sufferers
Exercise that does not elevate respiration, yet increase oxygen levels in the body is ideal for treating chronic bronchitis. Luckily, yoga can do this, as well as aerate the lungs and provide energy.
Studies of people with OCD have shown that practicing yoga has lead to a reduction in symptoms–resulting in less medication or medication no longer needed.
Due to the practice of yoga and overall better posture, the digestive and elimination systems work more efficiently. If the practitioner also has a healthy diet, any constipation will be eliminated through yoga.
Using a neti pot to clear the sinuses is an ancient form of yoga to help reduce or eliminate allergy symptoms. Certain types of breathing can also help clear the nasal passages.
Yoga practice can help control some of the side effects of menopause.
Yoga reduces spinal compression and helps overall body alignment to reduce back pain