Yoga is an ancient physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India and has been practiced for an estimated 5,000+ years. The word ‘yoga’ derives from Sanskrit and means to join or to unite, symbolizing the union of body and consciousness.
Recognizing its universal appeal, on 11 December 2014, the United Nations proclaimed 21 June as the International Day of Yoga by resolution 69/131. The International Day of Yoga aims to raise worldwide awareness of the many benefits of practicing yoga. The theme for the 2018 celebration, organized by the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations, is ‘Yoga for Peace.’
Types of Yoga
There are many types of yoga. Hatha (a combination of many styles) is one of the most popular. It is a more physical type of yoga rather than a still, meditative form. Hatha yoga focuses on pranayamas (breath-controlled exercises). These are followed by a series of asanas (yoga postures), which end with savasana (a resting period).
Benefits of Yoga
The goal during yoga practice is to challenge yourself physically, but not to feel overwhelmed. At this “edge,” the focus is on your breath while your mind is open, accepting and calm.
For many people, yoga provides a retreat from their chaotic and busy lives. Whether you’re practicing downward facing dog posture on a mat in your bedroom, in an ashram in India or even in Charleston’s Battery Park, Yoga provides many mental and physical benefits.
Improves cardiovascular health. Hypertension is due to a constriction of blood vessels, and heart disease is often due to blockage in the coronary arteries. When relaxation sets in, as in yoga, blood vessels relax and blood pressure is reduced. Blood flow to the heart can be increased. Several small studies have found yoga to have a positive effect on cardiovascular risk factors:
It helped lower blood pressure in people who have hypertension. It’s likely that the yoga restores “baroreceptor sensitivity.” This helps the body senses imbalances in blood pressure and maintain balance.
A study published in anissue of the journal Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome backs this: Researchers followed 182 middle-aged Chinese adults who suffered from metabolic syndrome and practiced yoga for a year. The activity proved to not only lower their blood pressure but also help them significantly slim down.
Curbs chronic neck and low-back pain. Postures are the backbone of yoga, so it’s no wonder a regular practice is good for your stance. Besides straightening your slouch, it may also ease pain. In an issue of Israel’s Medical Association journal, Harefuah, researchers reported that yoga may be a valuable tool to treat chronic neck and low-back pain.
Herniated discs and spinal stenosis don’t cause pain. They cause an irritation of a nerve which cause a contraction of the muscle. The muscle tightness or spasms, causing the pain. This is why doctors tend to prescribe a muscle relaxant to relieve low back pain. In yoga therapy, when you hold a pose, your muscles contract and then slowly relax as you breath in and out. When relaxation sets in, back pain starts to diminish.
Fights Arthritis. When it comes to the benefits of different types of yoga, a study indicated that iyengar yoga, known for its use of props like belts, blocks, and other positioning aids, might help people with rheumatoid arthritis. This pilot study of eight people with rheumatoid arthritis showed that a six-week yoga program improved pain, pain disability, mental health, depression, vitality, and self-efficacy. Other types of yoga might help arthritis symptoms, too.
Sharpens the Mind. An asana practice doesn’t just make your body more flexible, but also your brain too. In a recent study of 133 older adults, ages 53 to 96, those who practiced 30 minutes of yoga performed twice a week for more than a month saw an improvement in their cognitive function. “Focused breath equals maximizing oxygenation and movement increases blood flow to brain and body,” says registered nurse Graham McDougall Jr., Ph.D., the lead researcher of the report published in an issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing. Participants of the study saw significant gains memory performance and had fewer depressive symptoms as well.
Controls diabetes. “The yogic way of looking at diabetes is that the body cannot digest sugar, which is why blood-sugar levels are high. If you can improve your digestion, you can improve your blood sugar, which is great for both diabetes prevention and control.” A new study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research supports this: Thirty men with Type 2 diabetes who practiced yoga for six months saw a significant decrease in their blood glucose levels.
Staves off stress and anxiety. It’s no secret that yoga is a great way to calm down. You can feel a soothing wave wash over you immediately during and after practice—and it’s not just a placebo effect. A new report presented at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Conference 2015 in April linked yoga to lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, especially in women at risk for mental health problems.
In the study of 52 women, ages 25 to 45, who had mildly elevated anxiety, moderate depression or high stress, those who performed Bikram (a 90-minute heated form of Hatha yoga) twice a week felt better (mood improved), looked better (pounds came off), and had better control over their anxiety.
Decreases depression. Keeping a cool head can keep you from getting down, too. In an issue of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, researchers found that women experiencing postpartum depression saw a significant improvement in their anxiety, depression, and health-related quality of life after just eight week of yoga (twice a week) compared to their counterparts who did not practice yoga.
In another unrelated study in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care, breast cancer patients who practiced 60 minutes of yoga daily over a 24-week period, which included surgery and radiotherapy or chemotherapy (some heavy stuff!), reported a big drop in depressive symptoms compared to the non-yoga group. Nothing like a good Warrior Pose to help you put up a good fight.
Lowers cancer risk. If cancer runs in your family, you may want to pick up a regular yoga practice, which has shown to prevent the genetic mutation from expressing. Cancer patients could also use yoga as a fierce weapon to battle the effects of the disease. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that performing yoga twice a week for as little as three months could lower inflammation, boost energy, and lift the mood of cancer patients.
Promotes positive self-perception. A yoga teacher isn’t the only one oozing optimism. In a pilot study from Brazil published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice in May, university students reported feeling good after their yoga practice, especially pertaining to self-control, self-perception, well-being, body awareness, balance, mind-body and reflexivity. The word yoga itself means union. It unites your mind, body and spirit. During yoga practice, we inhale positive emotions and exhale negative emotions. “
Yoga develops inner awareness. It focuses your attention on your body’s abilities at the present moment. It helps develop breath and strength of mind and body. It’s not about physical appearance.
Yoga studios typically don’t have mirrors. This is so people can focus their awareness inward rather than how a pose — or the people around them — looks.
Surveys have found that those who practiced yoga were more aware of their bodies than people who didn’t practice yoga. They were also more satisfied with and less critical of their bodies. For these reasons, yoga has become an integral part in the treatment of eating disorders and programs that promote positive body image and self-esteem.
Lengthens lifespan and Extends youth. Another study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine analyzed the effects that 90 days of yoga had on an obese 31-year-old man who had a history of fatigue, difficulty losing weight, and lack of motivation. Not only did adopting a yoga or meditation-based lifestyle help erase some signs of aging, but also prevented several lifestyle-related diseases of which oxidative stress and inflammation are the chief cause.
Reduces PMS. In a new study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers found that 11 women who practiced yoga in the follicular phase (from first day of period until ovulation) and luteal phase (during ovulation) of a menstrual cycle felt more relaxed or were in a more peaceful mental state immediately afterward compared to the control group.
Encourages Mindful Eating. Mindfulness refers to focusing your attention on what you are experiencing in the present moment without judging yourself. Practicing yoga has been shown to increase mindfulness not just in class, but in other areas of a person’s life.
Researchers describe mindful eating as a nonjudgmental awareness of the physical and emotional sensations associated with eating. They developed a questionnaire to measure mindful eating using these behaviors:
- Eating even when full (disinhibition)
- Being aware of how food looks, tastes and smells
- Eating in response to environmental cues, such as the sight or smell of food
- Eating when sad or stressed (emotional eating)
- Eating when distracted by other things
The researchers found that people who practiced yoga were more mindful eaters according to their scores. Both years of yoga practice and number of minutes of practice per week were associated with better mindful eating scores. Practicing yoga helps you be more aware how your body feels. This heightened awareness can carry over to mealtime as you savor each bite or sip, and note how food smells, tastes and feels in you mouth.
Boosts Weight Loss and Maintenance. People who practice yoga and are mindful eaters are more in tune with their bodies. They may be more sensitive to hunger cues and feelings of fullness.
Researchers found that people who practiced yoga for at least 30 minutes once a week for at least four years, gained less weight during middle adulthood. People who were overweight actually lost weight. Overall, those who practiced yoga had lower body mass indexes (BMIs) compared with those who did not practice yoga. Researchers attributed this to mindfulness. Mindful eating can lead to a more positive relationship with food and eating.
Enhances Fitness. Yoga is known for its ability to soothe tension and anxiety in the mind and body; it can also have an impact on a person’s exercise capacity. Researchers studied a small group of sedentary individuals who had not practiced yoga before. After eight weeks of practicing yoga at least twice a week for a total of 180 minutes, participants had greater muscle strength and endurance, flexibility and cardio-respiratory fitness.
Other physical benefits of yoga include:
- Improved muscle tone
- Maintaining a balanced metabolism
- Improved athletic performance
- Protection from injury
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