Yoga is a gentle, accessible exercise that increases flexibility and muscle tone and helps you become more aware of your breathing. It’s not just “good for you” that’s been proven. There’s also a wealth of scientific research to back up the benefits.
Yoga is a combination of specific postures (asanas), breath techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana). It integrates the mind and body. It is an ancient Indian tradition that has found its way into modern mainstream studios and videos worldwide.
The American Osteopathic Association member and resident at Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency, Josie Conte, D.O., says that the most common perception of yoga in America is just one aspect of its original form.
She says that the word “yoga” is derived from ‘yuk,’ Sanskrit. This word means to unite in relation to the self or higher self. There are eight limbs to yoga, which include not just the yoga postures but also the way you behave, the use of breath for mind and body change, meditation, withdrawal of the senses, and meditative awareness.
You’re most likely to find Hatha Yoga in your local studio. This form focuses on a lot of movement with additional breathing and meditation.
Neha Gothe is an associate professor of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She studies the effects of Hatha Yoga on the brain and cognitive health.
She says, “It is a great place to start for someone who has never done yoga before.” The movement can be standing or seated. Some yoga exercises are done supine. Hatha is the combination of these different activities.
Yoga can be beneficial to your brain and body, as Gothe and others have discovered.
Sharpens the thinking skills
Gothe and his colleagues conducted a study in which participants were asked to practice yoga for an hour every day, three times a week, over a period of 3 to 6 months. Each subject underwent a brain scan both before and after.
Gothe says, “This allows us to literally, physically, and biologically examine how the brain changes or how the networks and connections in the brain change as a result of yoga practice.”
They found positive effects on executive function, which is the set of skills needed to set goals, adhere to multi-step instructions, and remain focused. Gothe and his colleagues also found the same results in a systematized review of numerous studies.
The review included different populations, including college students, adults in the workforce, and older adults. All showed positive improvements [in cognition].
Reduces inflammation and stress
Stress is defined by the breakdown of “disease”: dis-ease. Stress can be caused by the hustle and bustle of everyday life or other health conditions. It has a negative effect on your body.
Stress is not only bad for your mind, but it can also cause damage to your internal organs. Stress can make you feel like you are being chased by an angry tiger or if you’re sitting at your desk and trying to meet a tight deadline. Your muscles tense up, you breathe shallowly and quickly, and your heart beats faster (raising your blood pressure). You also release cortisol, which is a stress hormone and increases inflammation within your organs and tissues.
Regular yoga practice allows your body to be at ease and rest from stress.
The effort to move the body and relax it through asana (yoga poses) relaxes the brain, and all the vagal and sympathetic factors–cytokines, blood pressure, and heart rate learn to relax,” says Barbara Moss. She is a family physician in Augusta.
Reduces chronic Pain
Researchers found that in studies of people with chronic pain conditions such as low back pain and arthritis, yoga had a positive effect on the condition. Conte says that the results are particularly striking for back pain.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 313 people suffering from chronic low back pain improved their mobility by taking a weekly yoga class. This was more effective than standard care, says Conte.
The American College of Physicians recommends yoga for chronic back pain before any medication.
Promotes mindful eating
Yoga can help you lose weight, but not the way you might think.
It’s not uncommon for Americans to reduce a practice such as yoga to a quick-fix fitness program. But Moss says that this “ancient system” of living was intended to be much more.
Yoga is not about flat abs or standing on one’s head. It’s about understanding your own experience and moving forward.
According to research, people who practiced yoga at least once a month for four years gained less weight at midlife compared to those who didn’t. People who are obese typically lose weight in the same circumstances.
Yoga can help you become more in touch with your body and a better eater. You learn to listen to your body and its hunger cues and, more importantly, the signs that you are full and need to stop eating.