What is Yoga?
Unlike stretching or fitness, yoga is more than just physical postures. Yoga is unique because it connects the movement of the body and the fluctuations of the mind to the rhythm of our breath. Connecting the mind, body, and breath helps us to direct our attention inward. It helps us all become more aware of our experiences from moment to moment. The awareness that we cultivate is what makes yoga a practice, rather than a task or a goal to be completed. Your body will most likely become much more flexible by doing yoga, and so will your mind.
This inward focus often gives Yoga a “bad rap” for being religious or over-spiritual. Yoga is not a religion. It is a practice that allows you to better connect your mind and body in a more holistic fashion.
Can I do Yoga if I have physical limitations or health conditions?
Yoga is a great activity for you if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease. It gives you strength, flexibility, and mind-body awareness. You’ll also need to do something aerobic (like walking, biking, or swimming) if you’re not doing a fast-moving type of yoga. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart problems, ask your doctor what you can do. You may need to avoid certain postures, like those in which you’re upside down or that demand more balance than you have right now. A very gentle program of yoga, coupled with a light aerobic activity like walking or swimming, may be the best way to start. Do you have arthritis? Yoga can help you stay flexible and strong without putting added stress on your joints. You get the added benefit of a mind-body approach that can help you relax and energize. If you’re pregnant, yoga can help keep you relaxed, strong, and in shape. If you’re new to yoga or have any health or pregnancy related problems, talk to your doctor before you give it a try.
Eleven Benefits of Yoga
1. Can Decrease Stress: Yoga is known for its ability to ease stress and promote relaxation. In fact, multiple studies have shown that it can decrease the secretion of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. A recent study of 131 people showed that 10 weeks of yoga helped reduce stress and anxiety. It also helped improve quality of life and mental health When used alone or along with other methods of alleviating stress, such as meditation, yoga can be a powerful way to keep stress in check.
2. Relieves Anxiety: Many people begin practicing yoga as a way to cope with feelings of anxiety. Interestingly enough, there is quite a bit of research showing that yoga can help reduce anxiety. A recent study followed 64 women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by severe anxiety and fear following exposure to a traumatic event. After 10 weeks, the women who practiced yoga once weekly had fewer symptoms of PTSD. In fact, 52% of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD at all!
3. Improve Heart Health: From pumping blood throughout the body to supplying tissues with important nutrients, the health of your heart is an essential component of overall health. Studies show that yoga may help improve heart health and reduce several risk factors for heart disease.
4. Improves Quality of Life: Yoga is becoming increasingly common as an adjunct therapy to improve quality of life for many individuals. In one study, 135 seniors were assigned to either six months of yoga, walking or a control group. Practicing yoga significantly improved quality of life, as well as mood and fatigue, compared to the other groups. Other studies have found that yoga may help improve sleep quality, enhance spiritual well-being, improve social function and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients with cancer.
5. May Fight Depression: Some studies show that yoga may have an anti-depressant effect and could help decrease symptoms of depression. This may be because yoga is able to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that influences levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter often associated with depression.
6. Could Reduce Chronic Pain: Chronic pain is a persistent problem that affects millions of people and has a range of possible causes, from injuries to arthritis. There is a growing body of research demonstrating that practicing yoga could help reduce many types of chronic pain.
7. Could Promote Sleep Quality: Poor sleep quality has been associated with obesity, high blood pressure and depression, among other disorders. Studies show that incorporating yoga into your routine could help promote better sleep. In a 2005 study, 69 elderly patients were assigned to either practice yoga, take an herbal preparation or be part of the control group. The yoga group fell asleep faster, slept longer and felt more well-rested in the morning than the other groups. Combined with Yoga’s ability decrease stress and relieve anxiety, this is a powerful combination that can drastically increase the quality of your sleep.
8. Improves Flexibility and Balance: Many people add yoga to their fitness routine to improve flexibility and balance. There is considerable research that backs this benefit, demonstrating that it can optimize performance through the use of specific poses that target flexibility and balance. A recent study assigned 66 elderly participants to either practice yoga or calisthenics, a type of body weight exercise. After one year, total flexibility of the yoga group increased by nearly four times that of the calisthenics group. Practicing just 15–30 minutes of yoga each day could make a big difference for those looking to enhance performance by increasing flexibility and balance.
9. May Relieve Migraines: Migraines are severe recurring headaches that affect an estimated 1 out of 7 Americans each year. Traditionally, migraines are treated with medications to relieve and manage symptoms. However, increasing evidence shows that yoga could be a useful adjunct therapy to help reduce migraine frequency. A 2007 study divided 72 patients with migraines into either a yoga therapy or self-care group for three months. Practicing yoga led to reductions in headache intensity, frequency and pain compared to the self-care group. Researchers suggest that doing yoga may help stimulate the vagus nerve, which has been shown to be effective in relieving migraines.
10. Promotes Healthy Eating Habits: Mindful eating, also known as intuitive eating, is a concept that encourages being present in the moment while eating. It’s about paying attention to the taste, smell and texture of your food and noticing any thoughts, feelings or sensations you experience while eating. This practice has been shown to promote healthy eating habits that help control blood sugar, increase weight loss and treat disordered eating behaviors. Because yoga places a similar emphasis on mindfulness, some studies show that it could be used to encourage healthy eating behaviors. Yoga has been found to cause a decrease in episodes of binge eating, an increase in physical activity and a small decrease in weight. For those with and without disordered eating behaviors, practicing mindfulness through yoga can aid in the development of healthy eating habits.
11. Can Increase Strength: In addition to improving flexibility, yoga is a great addition to an exercise routine for its strength-building benefits. In fact, there are specific poses in yoga that are designed to increase strength and build muscle. Based on multiple findings, practicing yoga can be an effective way to boost strength and endurance, especially when used in combination with a regular exercise routine.