38 BENEFITS OF YOGA PRACTICE
Excerpts from Timothy McCall, M. D. printed in Open Exchange Magazine October-December 2006
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, much less do a backbend. Stick with it and you’ll notice a gradual loosening, and eventually, seemingly impossible poses will become possible.
More than just looking good, strong muscles protect us from conditions like arthritis and back pain. They help prevent falls in elderly people. When you build strength through yoga, you balance it with flexibility.
When we slump, our body expends energy to compensate. We then carry additional weight instead of balancing. If our head is held forward, we carry an additional 10-15 pounds around with us every day. In addition, when we slump, normal curves of the spine may flatten and cause pain and a degenerative arthritis.
Yoga asana practice takes the joints through their full range of motion. This can help prevent or mitigate disability by providing sustenance to areas of cartilage that normally aren’t used.
Spinal disks— the shock absorbers between the vertebrae that can herniate and compress nerves—crave improvement. That’s the only way they get their nutrients. Yoga helps keep these spinal disks supple.
It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis.
The relaxation exercises practiced in yoga, particularly corpse/shavasana and pranayama (breathing or literally “vital energy expansion”) can help circulation, especially in the hands and feet. Yoga boosts levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. Yoga asana practice also 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 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.
When you regularly get your heart rate into the aerobic range, you lower your risk of heart attack and can relieve depression. And…even yoga exercises that don’t get your heart rate up that high can improve cardiovascular conditioning.
LOWER BLOOD PRESSURE
If you have high blood pressure, medical studies show that you might benefit from yoga practice.
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.
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.
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. The spiritual and emotional dimensions of your practice may encourage you to address any eating and weight problems on a deeper level.
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.
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 Transcendental 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.
Yoga encourages you to relax, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system (often called “fight or flight response”) to the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is calming and restorative; it lowers breathing and flow to the intestines and reproductive organs—comprising what Herbert Benson, M. D. calls the relaxation response.
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 poor proprioception, which has been linked to knee problems and back pain. Better balance may mean fewer falls.
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, raise 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 your pelvis if you’re trying to get pregnant or induce relaxation when you’re having trouble falling asleep.
One begins to notice where we hold tension. It might be in your jaw, eyes, and muscles of the neck or hips. By simply tuning in, you might be able to let go.
Better sleep means you’ll feel less tired or stressed and more creative. You’re also less likely to have accidents.
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).
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.
lcers, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation—all of 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.
PEACE OF MIND
Yoga quells the fluctuations of the mind, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In other words, it slows down the mental loops of frustration, regret, anger, fear, and desire.
Many of us suffer from chronic low self-esteem. Regular practice 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.
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.
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.
Good yoga teachers can adjust your posture, gauge when you should go deeper in poses of back off, deliver hard truths with compassion, help you relax, and enhance and personalize your practice.
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, reduce or eliminate drug side effects or dangerous drug interactions.
Yoga (asana, pranayama 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.
GOOD RELATIONSHIPS/HEALTHY SOCIETY
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.
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.
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.
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.
Karma yoga (service to others) is integral of 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.
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 affect change gives you hope. And hope itself can be healing.
As you read all the ways yoga improves you’re 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–change your nervous system. This is one of the great lessons of yoga: Everything is connected—your hipbone at 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.
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?
This article is copied without permission (and I’m working on it!!!) from an article by Timothy McCall, MD. In Open Exchange Magazine/October-December 2006/32nd Anniversary Edition. Dr. McCall is Yoga Journal’s medical editor and a board-certified specialist in internal medicine. Please check with your health care provider and your good judgment before following any of these recommendations.