The Benefits of Yoga

Those of you that know me, know that I am currently a nursing student. For one of my classes I needed to write a paper on exercise and health. I chose to write about yoga. I like to do yoga for exercise and have been doing it off and on for the last 10 years. I was interested in researching it for my paper because it is often the topic of health articles that say how good it is for you. I wanted to look into the subject more and see for myself what effects that yoga has on our bodies and our health. I know from my own personal experience that when I do yoga regularly, I feel amazing, both physical and mentally. What I found when I researched yoga was so interesting. I want to share it with you. So here is my paper on the subject. I hope that you enjoy reading it and perhaps learn something new. Feel free to tell me about something that you didn't know about yoga before or about your own experience with yoga in the comment section below.

The Benefits of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient mind-body practice that works to bring the mind and body together to achieve peacefulness. Traditionally, peacefulness is achieved through the poses, behavior, diet and meditation. There are many styles of yoga, all are beneficial and promote good health and well-being. Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced style of yoga today, because it’s poses, called asanas, are the easiest to perform. Almost anyone can practice yoga, even severely obese people and people with physical disabilities (MayoClinic).

Flexibility & Strength

There are many benefits to practicing yoga. Flexibility can be easily improved through yoga. One study showed that the participants showed 35% more flexibility after just eight weeks of practicing yoga. The most improved areas are the shoulders and torso. The asanas, or series of poses, stretch not only the muscles but also the soft tissues in the body, like the ligaments, tendons and fascia sheath. When the muscles are stretched, they release lactic acid that has been stored up in them. Lactic acid is responsible for causing fatigue, stiffness, and pain from tension. Asanas also improve flexibility by increasing the joints’ range of muscle and their lubrication (WebMD).

Another area of improvement is strength. While all the styles of yoga target strengthening the core muscles of the abdomen, some styles are more suited for improving muscle tone than others. Also, when the core becomes stronger, the posture of a person is positively affected. The stronger your abdomen becomes, the more likely you are to sit and stand straight. In addition, the poses create self-awareness so you are more conscious of how you are holding your body and therefore more likely to have correct posture (WebMD). A benefit of improved strength and flexibility is that the risk of injury from everyday activities is reduced (MayoClinic). This is especially important as we age and it becomes easier to become injured by small falls or accidents. Yoga is a great way to combat the increased risk of injury.

Benefits of the yoga breathing method

An important component of yoga is breathing with long, deep breathes while holding the poses. This kind of breathing is useful in increasing lung capacity. Another benefit from the breathing method used in yoga, is that it stimulates the relaxation response of the body. The relaxation response is opposite of the flight-or-flight response and it tells the body that it’s time to rest-and-digest (WebMD).

Yoga & Medical Conditions

Practicing yoga is excellent for heart health as well as many other medical conditions. It lowers blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. A slower heart rate helps lower hypertension and reduces the risk of heart disease, as well as stroke. Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D. developed the first heart disease program that aimed to reverse the disease through lifestyle and diet instead of surgery. An important component of his program was yoga. Through his program he successful reversed the disease in his participants of the program. Yoga also increases immune system functions and it has an anti-oxidant effect. Some other medical conditions that it helps relieves the symptoms of are asthma, arthritis and chronic back pain. Currently, the National Institutes of Health is funding studies to examine the effectiveness of yoga on insomnia and multiple sclerosis. Another exciting benefit is the affect that yoga can have on weight-loss and obesity. Because yoga teaches bringing the mind and body into harmony and control over the body, yoga can be an effective method of weight-loss because you can gain control over your body and over the binge-eating. While it is not an aerobic activity, it can go to the root of the problem and target the overeating (MayoClinic).

Mental benefits of yoga

Some of the benefits of yoga are harder to measure, but people that practice yoga testify to the effectiveness of yoga on these areas. Many cite that they experience increased energy, concentration, memory and learning. They also note that they have a more positive mood, greater feelings of happiness and contentedness, as well as better self-acceptance. They also feel that they become more spiritually aware after practicing yoga. These are all thing that are difficult to measure scientifically but still have a positive effect on a person’s life (WebMD).

Yoga is an extremely effective way to manage stress. By directing your attention away from the stressors and toward calmness as you breath and concentrate on the poses, the stress level begins to decrease (MayoClinic). The effect is immediate in a person’s body. When practicing the deep breathing and meditation of yoga, not only does the person immediately feel calmer, but there are biochemical responses as well. The catecholamines, which are the stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands, are decreased. Also the neurotransmitters- dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine, are decreased. These play a role in the fight-or-flight response of the body. When the release of these is decreased, the body goes into a calmer, more relaxed state (WebMD).

Yoga & Stress

There are several very interesting studies that show the effectiveness of yoga on stress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. One study on stress and yoga took place in Germany in 2005. The participants were 24 women that described themselves as “emotionally distressed.” They were divided into two groups. The control group maintained their everyday activities, while the test group took two 90 minute yoga classes every week for three months. All the participants were tested to ascertain their feelings of depression, anxiety and overall well-being. After the three months ended, the test group that took the yoga classes felt less stressed and more energized. Also their initial complaints of headaches, backache and poor sleep was resolved more than for the women in the control group. As for their test score, the test group showed an improvement of 50% on their depression score, an improvement of 30% on their anxiety score, and an improvement of 65% on their overall well-being score (Harvard).

Yoga & Fibromyalgia

In 2008, the University of Utah conducted another study on effectiveness of yoga on stress. They divided the study participants into three groups: 12 experienced yoga practitioners, 14 people with fibromyalgia and 16 healthy people. Fibromyalgia is considered to be a stress-related illness with hypersensitivity to pain. The test was conducted by applying pressure on the thumbnail. The results were that the people with fibromyalgia noted the pain at the lowest pressure and their MRI’s showed the most brain activity at the areas of the brain that show pain responses. The yoga practitioners had the highest tolerance for pain and the least amount of activity on their MRI’s at the pain centers of their brains. The researchers noted that people that are stressed are more sensitive to pain and that yoga helps to control stress and the body’s response to pain (Harvard).

Yoga & Depression

The effect that yoga has on depression is another exciting area of research. In 2005, the New Hampshire Psychiatric Hospital conducted a study on the effect of one yoga class on the inpatients of the hospital. There were 113 participants, who had major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The researchers compared the scores of the participants on the Profile of Mood States before and after the class. The results were that the levels of tension, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility and fatigue all dropped significantly after just one yoga class(Harvard).

One study on depression was done on the effectiveness of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY), which is a style of yoga that includes cyclical breathing patterns that range from slow and calming to fast and stimulating. The study compared the effectiveness of SKY to other treatments for depression. The participant in this study were 45 inpatients that were being treated for depression. They were divided into three groups. One group did thirty minutes of SKY, six days a week for four weeks. The second group had bilateral electroconvulsive therapy. And the third group had medication, tricyclic antidepressant, imipramine. After four weeks, the results were 93% remission for the electroconvulsive therapy, 73% remission for the imipramine and 67% remission for SKY (Harvard). The yoga was almost as effective as the antidepressant medication. And while it was not as effective as electroconvulsive therapy, it is still effective and worth trying before something like electroconvulsive therapy.

Yoga & Alcoholism Treatment

Another study was done on the effectiveness of SKY on treating alcohol-dependent men.  This study followed 60 alcohol-dependent men through their treatment. After one week of standard detox, the men were randomly divided into two groups. One group got two weeks of SKY treatment and the other group got two weeks of standard alcoholism treatment. The results at the end of the study were that the scores for depression dropped 75% for the men in the SKY group and 60% for the men in the standard treatment group. Also the levels of the stress hormones, cortisol and corticotropin, dropped in the SKY group but not in the standard group (Harvard).

Yoga & PTSD

There is another study that shows some promise for helping soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. In this study, the participants were disabled Australian Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD. All of the veterans were heavy, daily drinkers and were taking at least one antidepressant. For five days a week for six weeks, the participants had SKY breathing, other yoga asanas, education about stress reduction and guided meditation. They were tested before and after the six weeks on the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS), which ranks severity of symptoms on an 80 point scale, 80 being the most severe. At the end of the study, the group of veterans that participated in the study had a reduction in their scores, on average from 57, being moderate to severe, to 42, being mild to moderate. And when they were retested six months later, the results were still present. The control group were the veterans that were on a waiting list to get in the program. Those in the control group showed no change in their scores (Harvard).

It is undeniable that this ancient practice is just as beneficial today with our modern problems as it was thousands of years ago. The connection between the mind and body is not something that we should ignore, unfortunately most of the time we do. Today we focus on treating the physical symptoms, when maybe all that we need to do is to bring our mind and body back together again into peacefulness.

 

Sources:

Harvard Health Publications. Yoga for Anxiety and Depression. April 2009. Harvard Medical School. 9 Sept. 2010<http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/ Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/ 2009/April/Yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression>.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Yoga: Tap into the Many Benefits of Yoga. 16 Jan. 2010. Mayo Clinic. 9 Sept. 2010 <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/yoga/CM00004>.

WebMD. The Health Benefits of Yoga. Matthew Hoffman, MD. 12 Aug. 2008. 9 Sept. 2010 <http://webmd.com/balance/the-health-benefits-of-yoga?page=3>.