Yoga: it’s the word that is everywhere, the practice that is surging in popularity every year. It seems that everybody is doing it, partly because everybody is doing it. In 2001, 4 million Americans said they practiced some form of yoga, and in 2011, that number reached 20 million. Simply said, yoga is a method of discipline for achieving goals. It sounds standard but it’s hardly so. Yoga is not a method for achieving goals, such as taking a driver’s test or following a recipe. Yoga is a practice that exists on a physical, mental, and often spiritual level, making it a multilayered approach to solving problems or reaching goals. What is attained or solved is all dependent and determined by each individual’s practice. This individual experience of yoga is part of its appeal and benefits.
Incredibly, yoga is believed to have existed in an early form as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE. Archeologist Gregory Possehl discovered seals with figures molded in meditational or yoga poses at the Indus Valley Civilization site, a civilization that existed during the Bronze Age. Yoga has been a long-standing tradition within Hinduism, originating in ancient India. It’s also found in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Hatha yoga, one of the most practiced types of yoga in the Western world today, became a staple form of practice in the Middle Ages. In the late 19th century, Hindu monks finally introduced yoga to the Western world. Since its migration, it has taken over 100 years for the practice to be proven valuable for your health.
The exact understanding of how yoga is beneficial for health is where the path divides into many twists and turns. It was in the 1980s, 20 years after the first yoga health boom in America, that Dean Ornish connected yoga to heart health, thus anchoring the practice’s status as a form of exercise. Yoga faced some negative reactions as people reported experiencing serious health reactions, such as spinal stenosis, retinal tears, degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine, etc. However, the sources of these injuries appears to include beginner’s competitiveness and instructors who lack qualification.
Yoga recently has been studied as a complementary intervention for cancer patients. Specifically, breathing and relaxation techniques used in yoga practice helped these patients manage insomnia, depression, pain, fatigue, and anxiety. A study found that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs showed positive effects of yoga on sleep anxiety, quality of life, and spiritual growth. Because of this, yoga has a strong link to the field of positive psychology, a field that studies alternate strategies for healing to achieve optimal human functioning. Scientists within the field strictly believe that the mind and body cannot be separated. This means that all physical benefits received by yoga accompany mental benefits, such as awareness, positivity, and inner consciousness, which come together for a “total” therapy.
Hatha yoga is a type of yoga that is used primarily for physical health, although vinyasa yoga can also be utilized for health benefits. The difference between the two is that vinyasa creates an internal heat through the faster-paced change of positions. The heat that’s created reduces chance of infection, stimulates the metabolism, and detoxifies muscles and organs by sweating. In addition, the constant change of positions stimulates the blood flow, allowing for nutrients and oxygen to replenish the body more effectively. Hatha yoga is of a slower pace and focuses on asanas (seated positions to increase flexibility and vitality,) balance, breathing, and meditation. The regulation of movement is a priority of the nervous system, as stated by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. Yoga’s physical benefits are also related to the release of endorphins and shifts in neurotransmitter levels. Endorphin release is more likely to exist in vinyasa yoga and other “high-intensity” yoga. Lower-intensity yoga, such as hatha, induces deep relaxation.
Yoga’s benefits are wide reaching. Amazingly, a yoga intervention program that was designed for overweight women resulted in significantly less binge eating and more physical exercise during and after the program. The women grew to be self-motivated and sought other forms of exercise. There is also some support for yoga being used in conjunction with medicine for ADHD, to help manage schizophrenia, and to assist in managing chronic (but not acute) back pain. In addition, some asanas can temporarily decrease pressure placed on hernias, and may be used to train athletes to improve performance. If yoga were a pill, some might call it a wonder drug.
Presently the medical landscape supports the practice of yoga in conjunction with standard care until further research is performed and gaps are closed to effectively study and create a standardized approach to yoga therapy.
- Benefits of vinyasa yoga: vinyasa flow yoga. Yoga Health Benefits Web site. April 3, 2009. http://yoga-health-benefits.blogspot.com/2009/04/benefits-of-vinyasa-yoga.html.
- Hatha yoga: the yoga of postures. ABC of Yoga Web site. http://www.abc-of-yoga.com/styles-of-yoga/hatha-yoga.asp.
- Yoga. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga.
- Yoga as exercise or alternative medicine. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_as_exercise_or_alternative_medicine#Background_and_overview.