Go Yoga!

Om…. The sound of peace and relaxation. Or do you find yourself saying “umm” instead?

For many people, the thought of doing yoga brings to mind hippies and hipsters, artsy folks and spiritual types. Yoga doesn’t feel like real exercise, and compared to traditional workouts, it just looks silly. Even the names of poses sound ridiculous: the lizard, the downward dog, the camel, the sugarcane. While many yoga practitioners claim to leader healthier, calmer lives, it can be hard to believe that just stretches and poses can confer any benefits.

But skeptics may be swayed by what we present in this article. More and more science supports the idea that yoga can be beneficial for anyone and everyone!

(As you read on, keep in mind that this is the tip of the iceberg. Researchers have been studying the benefits of yoga since 1960. Of the hundreds of studies published, we’ve limited the links below to studies published just in the last few years. Before starting any a yoga regime, make sure to talk to your doctor, find a proper instructor, and avoid risky poses that could cause injuries.)

yogaYoga originated in South Asia, perhaps even as early as the 3rd century B.C. The primary focus of yoga is disciplining the mind and body. Hatha Yoga has since become the most popular form of yoga in the west and focuses on physical wellbeing, breathing, and mediation. Several studies have looked at multiple health areas that may benefit from performing yoga, including pain management and stress relief.

Physical Relief

A study from just last week shows that people suffering from neck pain rapidly improved their functionality, quality of life, and pain level during motion after just a few weeks of yoga. Another study shows that yoga can be beneficial for people recovering from surgery: participants who practiced yoga had less pain and stiffness after full knee replacements, even on the day of the surgery!

However, what about people who suffer from debilitating and painful conditions, rather than local muscle or joint pain? One study of people with rheumatoid arthritis found that doing a very gentle style of yoga (Raj yoga) improved their disease activity, including inflammation, tenderness, and blood tests results. Another study found that doing yoga improved the quality of life for people with fibromyalgia. And a study from just a few months ago found that yoga could improve range of motion, walking time, and walking pain in patients with osteoarthritis.

Healthy people gain benefits from performing yoga too, especially from breathing exercises and what’s called “mindfulness-based practices.” A review of over 50 studies found that yoga could improve pulmonary function in healthy adults. Healthy adults who performed yoga for four or more years gained less weight than adults who did not.

Mental Relief

The other major benefit of performing yoga is mental. In the previously mentioned neck pain study, study participants reported less anger and hostility, less depression, and less fatigue. The participants of the fibromyalgia study felt more accepting of their condition, less helpless and less likely to obsess over symptoms. The author of that study suggests that this is because yoga promotes detachment of the mind from the physical body. This concept is called mindfulness and its benefits can be found in other meditation techniques as well.

Even people performing yoga for reasons unrelated to pain found mental relief and improved attitudes. This review article found that in four different interventions, participants trying to quit smoking felt fewer urges to smoke, had less of a temptation to smoke, and increased their desire to quit. Another study from last year found that breast cancer survivors could reduce stress and depression with yoga, and even pregnant women at risk of becoming depressed found that mindfulness yoga reduced depressive symptoms and helped them form a closer bond to their baby.

And it’s not just a placebo effect. While we won’t go into too much detail, several other studies have found biological mechanisms related to stress that can be helped through yoga (links here, here, here, and here).

Why Yoga?

These findings have several exciting implications in the healthcare field. For one, yoga provides an appealing alternative to exercise, which many people avoid because of the fear of making their pain worse. Yoga may also provide easier activity than traditional exercise for people with chronic conditions, including obesity. Performing yoga as a lead-up to starting an exercise regime can also help reduce “exercise intolerance,” when someone cannot exercise at the expected level without severe pain or fatigue.

Second, yoga can be more cost-effective than the standard treatment for pain relief or depression: anti-inflammatory drugs and anti-depressants. Especially for populations that should avoid medication (young children or pregnant women), yoga offers a safe and effective alternative. In addition, in most of these studies, researchers found that yoga practitioners missed fewer days of work due to pain (and therefore lost less income and productivity). These results combined are even prompting UK researchers to suggest that the National Health Service offer yoga classes alongside general care in order to cut costs associated with back pain.

So whether you want to lower your blood pressure, relieve the tension in your back, or just calm your mind after a stressful day, yoga can offer benefits for everyone!

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