Yoga has been practiced around the world for thousands of years. Between 12 and 15 million Americans do it regularly and swear by its numerous benefits for their health and well-being. Followers practice at home or join classes for pure relaxation.
Most yoga styles focus on physical poses, called “asanas.” They also include breathing techniques and forms of meditation. There are other versions that teach you to move your body in unfamiliar ways. These are meant to build greater flexibility, strength and balance.
Yoga Is Good for You in Ways
You May Never Have Heard of
Now, researchers are finding that there may be many more health benefits in connection with yoga than previously thought. One small study involving 123 middle-aged and older adults concluded that diabetic yoga practitioners might be able to control their blood sugar levels better than their non-practicing counterparts. The study results were published in the journal “Diabetes Care.”
The researchers said they did not mean to suggest that yoga should be considered as an alternative to traditional treatments of diabetes, such as weight loss and medical blood sugar control. “To really lose weight and rein in blood sugar, more vigorous exercise would work better,” wrote Dr. Shreelaxmi V. Hedge of the Shrinivas Institute of Medical Science and Research Center in Mangalore, India and leader of the study. Still, she said, “it should be noted that yoga controlled the blood sugar levels, which otherwise rose in the [non-yoga-practicing] control group.”
The yoga style her research was based on is a relatively “gentle” version among yoga practices. It was chosen because it is easy to get into. Some more vigorous styles involving complicated poses would not be appropriate for older adults and those with chronic health conditions, according to Dr. Hedge.
In fact, a lot of people shy away from taking up yoga because they consider themselves as too old, too stiff and too unfit to perform even the most basic poses. Yoga instructors generally disagree with such preconceptions. The consensus is that nobody is ever too old or too out of shape to improve flexibility.
Stretching releases the lactic acid built up in the muscles, which can cause stiffness, tension, pain and fatigue. It also increases the range of motion in the joints and promotes their lubrication. This results in more ease and fluidity throughout the body. Yoga stretches do not only benefit the muscles and joints but all tissues in the body, including ligaments, tendons and the fascia sheath that surround the muscles.
More rigorous yoga styles are focused on building muscle mass. They are called “ashtanga” or “power yoga.” But even tamer versions, such as “Iyengar” or “hatha,” which are designed to achieve optimal alignments in their poses, can help improve strength and endurance. Poses that strengthen the lower back and abdominal muscles are especially helpful for people who spend many hours sitting. More strength and flexibility afford better posture, which counterbalances the potential damages from extended immobility.
Perhaps the most studies on the benefits of yoga have been conducted with regards to its effect on heart health. Practicing yoga is highly recommended as a non-medical tool to help lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. Again, it is not to be taken as an alternative to other forms of hypertension- or heart disease treatment but as a useful support element.
The same goes for measures to control cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Studies have shown that yoga helped lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and improve blood circulation in patients with cardiovascular disease. Some hospitals have incorporated yoga into their post-cardiac rehabilitation program.
There is also evidence that yoga helps to release antioxidant agents into the blood stream. In Dr. Hedge’s study, participants who practiced yoga suffered significantly less from what is called “oxidative stress,” a condition that is caused by molecules, also know as “free radicals,” that damage cells and contribute to a host of diseases. “Yoga may curb oxidative stress because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that acts as a brake against the gas pedal of the sympathetic nervous system,” said Dr. Hedge.
The calming effects of yoga are certainly among its best-known qualities. Even beginners and infrequent practitioners appreciate the anti-stress benefits. Some say that doing yoga exercises in the morning improves their mood and ability to concentrate for the rest of the day. Others claim that they have been able to overcome addictions and improve their lives in countless more aspects, including in the bedroom.
Needless to say, there is little chance to scientifically prove the validity of all these assertions. What matters more is that people experience a sense of well-being when they engage in the practice. “Yoga helps reduce stress. That can impact your overall health,” said Dr. Deepak Chopra, world-renowned author of wellness books and advocate of alternative medicine. “While yoga won’t cure everything that ails you – or make your boss nicer – it will help you deal with stress better. And that could make a big difference,” he added.