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.