The Importance of Yoga in Life and Health
Can Yoga Impact my Health?
This week I would like to move from the microbiome and circle back to the topic of exercise. Specifically, let’s talk about the importance of yoga as part of your fitness regimen. I have made sure to incorporate this into my exercise routine for the last 14 years. At least once a week I take a Yoga class. It really helps with any soreness or stiffness I may have accumulated during the week and it helps me disconnect from the everyday mayhem. Also, as you move through and hold the different postures, or asanas, you work on your sense of balance which is vital, particularly as we age.
So, Yoga feels good, helps with balance, seems to help with relaxation and it stretches out your muscles. Is there anything else beneficial about it? Should you make it part of your exercise practice? Of course, we will talk about that today, but first let’s get a little background.
History of Yoga
Yoga is an ancient practice. It has been part of Indian culture for thousands of years, used as a way to combine the physical with the psychological and the spiritual.
The word Yoga comes from the ancient Sanskirt and it means “to unite or harmonize”. The goal is to unite/harmonize body and mind.
The first recorded mention of Yoga was found in the Indian scriptures called Vedas (1500 BC). However, pottery found in the Indus Valley portrays people in Yogic poses. This pottery is, at least, 5000 years old.
In the 1890’s, during the Chicago World Fair, an Indian Sage by the name of Swami Vivekanandana brought the first yoga demonstration to the West. This would lay down the ground work for the spread of yoga that many of us practice today.
There are several schools of Yoga, but here are the four most commonly seen and practiced:
- Iyengar Yoga: This is the most widely recognized school. Its founder, B.K.S Iyengar, published a book in 1966 called Light on Yoga, which introduced many of the Yoga vocabulary we use today. This type of Yoga concentrates on physical alignment of the body during postures and uses props (like blocks and straps) to assist the student.
- Sivananda Yoga: This was developed by a medical doctor in South India in the late 1800’s. This form is based on 12 key postures as well as breathing techniques, meditation and chanting.
- Ashtanga Yoga: This school is based on an ancient manuscript called Yoga Korunta, rediscovered early in the 20th century. It is an athletic and physically demanding form of Yoga.
- Kundalini Yoga: This school is based on the teachings of Yogi Bhajan, who introduced this system to the west in 1969. It uses a breathing technique, while you execute postures, called the fire breath.
Branches of Yoga
Within the schools, several branches have developed as well, with the hope of accommodating people of all levels and with different needs. There are also modern additions to yoga, like yoga in a hot and humid room, aka hot yoga. Here are a few of the more popular branches in the West:
- Hatha Yoga – this is the most practical and the best known in the West. Its purpose is to train through physical postures, breathing and relaxation techniques. Through this, it aims to bring the two sides of the body into a state of balance. Actually, in sanskirt, “ha” means sun and “tha” means moon. Two opposing “sides” that come into balance.
- Raja Yoga – this branch involves mastery of the mind. It deals with mastering consciousness and quieting the mind. As the word raja implies, this is considered the “supreme” yoga.
- Tantric Yoga – is actually known by many as the sex yoga. It works through harnessing sexual energy and it prepares for the union of male and female. ❤
Yoga and science
Now that we know some of the history and branches of Yoga, let’s talk about the importance of yoga and the science behind it. Can it truly help us?
Naturally, it is a great way to stretch and lengthen our muscles. It is also a way to clear our mind. Since asanas are held for periods of time and it works with our own body weight as resistance, it also helps strengthen our muscles. If you flow quickly enough through the poses, you may even bring up your heart rate (although this is truly not a cardiovascular form of exercise). It can even help people lose some weight!
However, what is the importance of yoga in terms health conditions? Let’s see.
Several studies have looked at the effects of Yoga on people with major depressive disorder.
One recent study showed that an intervention consisting of Iyengar Yoga and breathing exercises significantly improved depressive symptoms for people both on and off anti-depressive medications.
Furthermore, a systematic review looking at 23 different studies done between 2011 and 2016 supported the efficacy of yoga as a form of treatment for depression.
One caveat with this research was that most of the studies were on the smaller side.
Hopefully, we will continue to see larger studies further exploring and confirming this connection.
Stress and Anxiety
A study looking at stress and anxiety over 16 weeks found significant reductions in stress and all psychological health measures in the group that was practicing yoga when compared to the no yoga group. They reported less stress, less anxiety, and better general psychological health, and overall well-being.
Another study looking at anxiety in children and adolescents, reviewed 35 different studies and found that 25 of those studies showed reduction in anxiety with yoga practice.
Studies looking at sleep in nurses found improved self-reported sleep quality after six months of regular yoga practice.
Additionally, we know aging causes changes in sleep and the elderly often experience difficulty with this. A review of several studies looking at sleep in the elderly found 3 studies that showed improvement in sleep after 6 months of practicing yoga consistently.
Again, in these studies, participant numbers tended to be on the smaller side.
This is a big area of research for the benefits of yoga, and probably the one where the strongest evidence exists.
A review looking at 10 different studies with a combined total of 967 participants, found a positive benefit for the short-term benefit of chronic lower back pain.
Other studies looking at the effects of yoga on pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis and headaches/migraines also showed an improvement in pain levels in those who practiced yoga.
Furthermore, some studies have shown pain relief in fibrolmyalgia, osteoarthritis and even carpal tunnel.
Yoga is considered safe during pregnancy and many studies suggest pregnant women who practice yoga have a lower incidence of depressive symptoms, pain during pregnancy and delivery and less complications for both mom and baby during delivery.
Putting it all together
So, what is the importance of yoga in health? The strongest evidence points towards yoga helping with mood disorders, such as depression, and pain management. It also seems to be helpful in controlling anxiety. Much research work remains, but there are suggestions of many more benefits.
If for no other reason, do it because it feels good. I think it is a perfect combination between stretching and strengthening. I am not sore after a yoga class, even though it can be challenging to hold poses. It is also a nice way to get away from the crazies of the week. Finally, it helps maintain my sense of balance.
So, go ahead, get your downward dog, warrior I or tree pose on. If you have never tried it, try going to a yoga studio and easing into a beginner class. See how you feel during and afterwards. You may be surprised how much you gain from from it. 🧘🏻♀️
As always, thanks for visiting. I hope you enjoyed your weekly dose of health!
Have an amazing, healthy week! 💫