by Timothy McCall, M.D.
Improved flexibility is one of the first and most obvious benefits of yoga. During your first class, you probably won’t be able to touch your toes, never mind do a backbend. But if you stick with it, you’ll notice a gradual loosening, and eventually, seemingly impossible poses will become possible.
Your head is like a bowling ball — big, round, and heavy. When it’s balanced directly over an erect spine, it takes much less work for your neck and back muscles to support it. Poor posture can cause back, neck, and other muscle and joint problems. As you slump, your body may compensate by flattening the normal inward curves in your neck and lower back. This can cause pain and degenerative arthritis of the spine.
Spinal disks – the shock absorbers between the vertebrae that can herniated and compress nerves – crave movement. That’s the only way they get their nutrients. Yoga helps keep your disks supple.
The relaxation exercises you learn in yoga can help your circulation, especially in your hands and feet. Yoga also boosts levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. And it thins the blood by making platelets less sticky and by cutting the level of clot-promoting proteins in the blood. This can lead to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes.
When you regularly get your heart rate into the aerobic range, you lower your risk of heart attack and can relieve depression. But even yoga exercises that don’t get your heart rate up that high can improve cardiovascular conditioning.
Yoga lowers cortisol levels, a stress hormone. Excessive cortisol has been linked with major depression, osteoporosis (it extracts calcium and other minerals from bones and interferes with the laying down of new bone), high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. In rats high cortisol levels lead to what researchers call “food seeking behavior” (the kind that drives you to eat when you’re upset, angry or stressed). The body takes those extra calories and distributes them as fat in the abdomen, contributing to weight gain and the risk of diabetes and heart attack.
Move more, eat less-that’s the adage of many a dieter. Yoga can help on both fronts. A regular practice gets you moving and burns calories, and the spiritual and emotional dimensions of your practice may encourage you to address any eating and weight problems on a deeper level.
Be Here Now
An important component of yoga is focusing on the present. Studies have found that regular yoga practice improves coordination, reaction time, memory, and even IQ scores. People who practice meditation demonstrate the ability to solve problems and acquire and recall information better – probably because they’re less distracted by their thoughts, which can play over and over like an endless tape loop.
Own Your Space
Regularly practicing yoga increases proprioception (the ability to feel what your body is doing and where it is in space) and improves balance. People with bad posture or dysfunctional movement patterns usually have a poor proprioception, which has been linked to knee problems and back pain. Better balance could mean fewer falls.
As you practice yoga, you begin to notice where you hold tension: It might be in your tongue, your eyes, or the muscles of your face and neck. If you simply tune in, you may be able to let it go.
Asana and pranayama probably improve immune function, but, so far, meditation has the strongest scientific support in this area. It appears to have a beneficial effect on the functioning of the immune system, boosting it when needed (for example, raising antibody levels in response to a vaccine) and lowering it when needed (for instance, mitigating an inappropriately aggressive immune function in an autoimmune disease like psoriasis).
Ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation – all these can be exacerbated by stress. So if you stress less, you’ll suffer less. Yoga, like any physical exercise, can ease constipation – and theoretically lower the risk of colon cancer – because moving the body facilitates more rapid transport of food and waste products through the bowels.
Many of us suffer from chronic low self-esteem. If you practice regularly with an intention of self-examination and betterment – not just as a substitute for an aerobics class – you can access a different side of yourself. You’ll experience feelings of gratitude, empathy, and forgiveness, as well as a sense that you’re part of something bigger, perhaps a “divine sign”. While better health is not the goal of spirituality, it’s often a by-product, as documented by repeated scientific studies.
Yoga can help you make changes in your life. In fact, that might be its greatest strength. Tapas, the Sanskrit word for “heat”, is the fire, the discipline that fuels yoga practice and that regular practice builds. You may find that without making a particular effort to change things, you start to eat better, exercise more, or finally quit smoking after years of failed attempts.
Studies of people with asthma, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes (formerly called adult-on-set diabetes), and obsessive-compulsive disorder have shown that yoga helped them lower their dosage of medications and sometimes get off them entirely. The benefits of taking fewer drugs? You’ll spend less money, and you’re less likely to suffer side effects and risk dangerous drug interactions.
A regular yoga practice helps develop friendliness, compassion, and greater equanimity. Along with yogic philosophy’s emphasis on avoiding harm to others, telling the truth, and taking only what you need, this may improve many of your relationships.
Several studies have found that guided imagery reduced postoperative pain, decreased the frequency of headaches, and improved the quality of life for people with cancer and HIV.
Karma yoga (service to others) is integral to yogic philosophy. And while you may not be inclined to serve others, your health might improve if you do. A study at the University of Michigan found that older people who volunteered a little less than an hour per week were three times as likely to be alive seven years later.
As you read all the ways yoga improves your health, you probably noticed a lot of overlap. That’s because they’re intensely interwoven. Change your posture and you change the way you breathe. Change your breathing and you change your nervous system. This is one of the great lessons of yoga: Everything is connected – your hipbone to your anklebone, you to your community, your community to the world. This interconnection is vital to understanding yoga. This holistic system simultaneously taps into many mechanisms that have additive and even multiplicative effects. This synergy may be the most important way of all that yoga heals.
Strong muscles do more than look good. They also protect us from conditions like arthritis and back pain, and help prevent falls in elderly people. And when you build strength through yoga, you balance it with flexibility.
Each time you practice yoga, you take your joints through their full range of motion. This can help prevent degenerative arthritis or mitigate disability by providing sustenance to areas of cartilage that normally aren’t used.
It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis.
When you contract and stretch muscles, move organs around, and come in and out of yoga postures, you increase the drainage of lymph (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells). This helps the lymphatic system fight infection, destroy cancerous cells, and dispose of the toxic waste products of cellular functioning.
Lower Blood Pressure
If you’ve got high blood pressure, medical studies show that you might benefit from yoga.
Feeling sad? One study found that a consistent yoga practice improved depression. At the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson, Ph.D., found that the left prefrontal cortex showed heightened activity in meditators, a finding that has been correlated with greater levels of happiness and better immune function. More dramatic left-sided activation was found in dedicated, long-term practitioners.
Yoga lowers blood sugar and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and boosts HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In people with diabetes, yoga has been found to lower blood sugar, decreasing the risk of diabetic complications such as heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness.
Yoga encourages you to relax, shifting the balance from sympathetic nervous system (or fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is calming and restorative; it lowers breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs – comprising what Herbert Benson, M.D., calls the relaxation response.
Some advanced yogis can control their bodies in extraordinary ways, many of which are mediated by the nervous system. Scientists have monitored yogis who could induce unusual heart rhythms, generate specific brain-wave patterns, and, using a meditation technique raises the temperature of their hands by 15 degrees Fahrenheit. If they can use yoga to do that, perhaps you could learn to improve blood flow to you pelvis if you’re trying to get pregnant or induce relaxation when you’re having trouble falling asleep.
Another by-product of a regular yoga practice, studies suggest, is better sleep-which means you’ll be less tired and stressed and less likely to have accidents.
Yogis tend to take fewer breaths of greater volume, which is both calming and more efficient. A 1998 study published in The Lancet taught a yogic technique known as “complete breathing” to people with lung problems due to congestive heart failure. Yoga also promotes breathing through the nose, which filters the air, warms it (cold, dry air is more likely to trigger an asthma attack in people who are sensitive), and humidifies it, removing pollen and dirt and other things you’d rather not take into your lungs.
Peace of Mind
Yoga quells the fluctuations of the mind, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In other words, it slows down the mental loops of frustration, regret, anger, fear, and desire.
According to several studies, asana, meditation, or a combination of the two, reduced pain in people with arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other chronic conditions.
Good yoga teachers can adjust your posture, gauge when you should go deeper in poses or back off, deliver hard truths with compassion, help you relax, and enhance and personalize your practice.
Yoga and meditation appear to reduce anger by increasing feelings of compassion and interconnection and by calming the nervous system and the mind. It also increases your ability to step back from the drama of your own life, take a more thoughtful approach, and remain steady in the face of bad news.
Consider chanting. When done in a group, chanting can be a particularly powerful physical and emotional experience. A recent study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute suggests that humming sounds – like those made while chanting OM – open the sinuses and facilitate drainage.
Kriyas, or cleansing practices, are another element of yoga. They include everything from rapid breathing exercises to elaborate internal cleansings of the intestines. Jala neti, which entails a gentle lavage of the nasal passages with salt water, removes pollen and viruses from the nose, keeps mucus from building up, and helps drain the sinuses.
In much of conventional medicine, most patients are passive recipients of care. In yoga, you get involved in your own care; you discover that your involvement gives you the power to effect change, and seeing that you can effect change gives you hope. And hope itself can be healing.
Just believing you will get better can make you better. Unfortunately, many conventional scientists believe that if something works by eliciting the placebo effect, it doesn’t count. But most patients just want to get better, so if chanting a mantra – like you might do at the beginning or end of yoga class or throughout a meditation or in the course of your day – facilitates healing, even if it’s just a placebo effect, why not do it?