Introduction to Yoga: Part 1: The Benefits of Yoga (Yaz Rooney)

Welcome to this beginner’s guide to yoga, information that will demonstrate what yoga practice is all about. In this short series, you’ll learn about:

Part 1: The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Yoga

Effectiveness of Yoga

One of the oldest forms of mind and body conditioning (yes! it’s been around for almost 6000 years!) yoga is more effective than any other health activity that has been developed during the last few thousand years. In the UK, the Guardian reported that the NHS is becoming so convinced of the effectiveness of yoga on overall health improvement that, “… NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens, announced that yoga was to be offered to health professionals alongside Zumba and health checks, in a package aiming to cut the £2.4bn annual cost of sick leave in the health service.” Certainly, Public Health England were concerned to find that about £1 out of every £40 of NHS funds is spent on employee absenteeism arising from stress-related diseases, and these statistics have been used to support the UK government’s drive to include yoga in the new employee well-being package.

A 2016 survey reported that about 21 million Americans were practicing yoga during that year. 66% of the survey respondents performed yoga in order to increase energy, 55% to improve immune function and 28% were working on improving their health and preventing disease. Supporting this and many other studies in yoga, a 2017 study, reported in Science Daily, showed that disciplines such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi can actually bring about transformation in those molecular reactions in our DNA responsible ill-health and depression.

Psychological Benefits

The effect of yoga on physical and psychological stress is well-known, probably because chronic stress tends to negatively impact the various systems of the body (think cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, muscular, etc.), and the ability of yoga to bring about deep relaxation appears to help these negative symptoms quite significantly. A 2018 research report showed that significant reductions in stress-related psychological conditions (e.g. anxiety,depression, insomnia, etc) were found within participants of a yoga group over a 16 week period when compared to a control group who did not practice yoga. The control group, however, when they began an 8-week yoga regime showed improved symptoms.  Similarly, AARP report that 17 studies published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed significant reductions in blood pressure when yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises were practised regularly.

Yet another 2017 study  demonstrated that participants suffering from anxiety and depression who took part in a 3 month yoga and meditation retreat showed decreases in their symptoms and increases in mindfulness. Researchers noted increases in a particular neurotransmitter that is responsible for learning and memory, and for complex processes such as inflammation, immunity, mood regulation, stress response and metabolism. To add to this, researchers discovered an increase in a substance responsible for what they term ‘stress resilience’. In other words, increases in a substance that supports our mental and physical ability to cope in difficult situations.

Interestingly,  writer Jessica Migala spoke to research fellow Jonathan Greenberg, PhD of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who reported that when yoga is practised by inmates in prison, it increases their sense of well-being and self-control. Greenberg pointed out that people who practise yoga have a tendency to react much more calmly to stressful situations, and that this is probably related to the fact that the practice of meditation as part of yogic disciplines tends to bring about changes in brain structure and volume in the areas of awareness, attention and self-related thinking.

 Physical Benefits

AARP remind us that almost 40 years ago, cardiologist Dean Ornish, M.D. made yoga a hotly debated topic amongst medical professionals when he claimed that a combination of  yoga, meditation, diet and exercise could help heal heart disease. A report in the Journal of Yoga and Physiotherapy states that mental stress is linked to the production of harmful chemicals and hormones that negatively impact the cardiovascular system, pointing out the logical deduction that yoga interrupts the stress response, and is therefore an effective means to improve overall health in patients suffering from stress-related heart conditions. California State University yoga professor Amy Wheeler acknowledges these yoga benefits, adding that the practice of yoga can help people reduce their medication intake.

Other Physical Benefits in a Nutshell

There are proven physical benefits of yoga, which include:

  • increased flexibility and range of motion (i.e. yoga lubricates joints, ligaments and tendons)
  • reduced pain in joints and muscles (due to decreased inflammation and lubrication)
  • a higher resistance to illnesses (because of a strengthened immune system)
  • stronger lung capacity and therefore higher quality respiration
  • increased metabolism (which can lead to weight loss!
  • higher quality of sleep (especially due to improved breathing and a more oxygenated body)
  • detoxifying qualities due to increased the flow of blood to various parts of the body.
  • toning and invigoration of muscles that have grown flaccid and weak.

Who Yoga Can Benefit

Unlike many other activities and exercises, yoga is suitable for almost anybody at any age and in any condition. The Journal of Yoga and Physiotherapy reports that the statistics for the elderly are growing rapidly in the US, Europe and Japan, and that in general, this older generation tend to get little exercise. They point out that yoga is an easy discipline for the elderly and helps improve their fitness levels. Those who may not be able to perform vigorous exercise routines are able to select gentler routines that are beneficial to their health. One study that the journal refers to, evaluated the fitness levels of elderly individuals after a 24 week (3-times a week) regime. Of the 204 participants, 176 completed the course. They found that individuals in the yoga group improved their physical fitness level compared to those in the control group who did no yoga whatsoever.

Most people will find some form of benefit from doing yoga particularly if they do so consistently and follow the correct techniques. Due in part to the fact that yoga poses and exercises can be performed to any extent and degree that the person chooses, even those with injuries and illness will usually find that they will get some benefit by incorporating yoga into their lifestyle.

An Economical Activity

Yoga is extremely economical, with no need (if you don’t want to) for any purchases of equipment.  It is also convenient in that it can be done almost anywhere and at any time.

Go to Part 2 to explore How Yoga Contributes to Weight Loss 

For more information about this part of Yoga and Physical Health, please refer to the Beginner’s Guide to Yoga Book.

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