I started practicing yoga when I was only fourteen years old, and now - six and a half years later - it is still an integral part of my life. I try to do some yoga every day, even if it is just for fifteen minutes, and I can honestly tell a difference in my body and my mind when I don't. My love and passion for yoga is something that I always try to share with my friends and family, and if you follow My Healthful Life on one of my social media pages, then you have probably seen that I have been known to strike a yoga pose in various public places (and get quite a few strange looks while I'm at it).
Yoga has impacted my life in countless ways, but what I'd like to do in this post is to talk about some of the benefits that research has shown yoga to have on the body and mind. Many of these benefits are things that I can personally attest to!
Benefits for the body:
Yoga has nearly endless benefits for the body, even at a sub-cellular level. One of the most fascinating ones to me is the effect it has on breathing. About a year ago, there was a neurologist who specialized in relaxation techniques who came into one of my nutrition classes to guest lecture, and he told us that most people do not know how to breathe properly! The way our lungs and diaphragm are built, we should be taking long, slow breaths with a slight pause between our inhale and exhale. This is how our bodies were designedto breathe. However, most people take much shallower breaths that do not even come close you filling their lungs, something that even I am guilty of despite knowing this information. Yoga and other meditative exercises focus on helping people to reconnect with their body and pay attention to their breathing, and as a result, help people breathe properly! This is truly an amazing thing because I can not think of a single biochemical pathway that does not require oxygen.
Perhaps the most commonly known benefits of yoga is that is helps to increase flexibility and muscle strength. Flexibility is important because it reduces the risk of injury, allows for a greater range of motion in joints, and even improves the transportation of nutrients in the blood to your muscles. Research has shown that people who do not stretch regularly have a higher incidence of pain, particularly in their low back and shoulders. This is especially important as you age. During yoga, you are constantly using your own body weight for resistance, which can help to increase your bone density and protect against the development of osteoporosis, as well as improve the overall health of your bones and joints. A study on the effects of yoga on knee osteoarthritis in women showed that after 8 weeks, the group that practiced yoga at least once a week had a 38% reduction on pain and 35% reduction in joint stiffness, while the control group that did not practice yoga reported that their symptoms were getting worse.
The following are just some of the other benefits that research has shown yoga has on the body:
Improves cardiovascular health
Decreases blood pressure
Improves blood lipid composition
Decreases blood sugar in people with Type 2 diabetes
Benefits for the mind:
One of my favorite things about yoga is that it emphasizes the importance of tuning in and listening to your body, something that I have talked about in several of my previous blog posts. Paying attention to, and giving your body what it needs can cause a drastic improvement on your mental state and overall health. Perhaps the most important thing that yoga does for your mind is to help relieve stress, which can have serious biological consequences if not controlled. Yoga stimulates the release of endorphins, which help to improve your mood, it increases mental clarity, and helps to center your attention. Remember what I said about yoga improving respiration? That increased oxygen consumption allows your brain to work to its full potential, thereby helping to increase your concentration.
Several studies have also shown that people who practice yoga regularly are typically more self-aware and are actually more mindful eaters because they are able to listen to the cues their body gives them about hunger and fullness.
As yoga's popularity continues to increase, more and more research is being done on its benefits. I know of at least one study currently being conducted on whether or not regularly practicing yoga may actually strengthen your immune system.
From a scientific perspective, yoga has been shown to have the most positive health benefits compared to any other sport. If you have never attended a yoga class, I encourage you to look into studios near you and try it out at least once (I'll warn you that your wrists may hurt the first few classes, but that goes away as they get stronger). Of course another option is to do a yoga DVD, although I personally have not yet been able to find one that I think comes close to the level of difficulty that you find at a yoga studio.
What many people do not know is that there are also quite literally hundreds of different types of yoga. Some focus more on building strength and cardiovascular endurance, others on flexibility, and others on meditation. This is great because you can always find a yoga practice that works for you, no matter how your body is feeling. I will go into more detail on the various types of yoga in a later post.
Fitness is an essential component in living a healthful life, and I think yoga is one of the best ways to achieve that. Please let me know if you have any questions!
Harvard Health (n.d.-b). The physical benefits of yoga. Retrieved October 5, 2017, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/exercise-and-fitness/physical-benefits-of-yoga
Harvard Health (n.d.-c). Yoga – Benefits Beyond the Mat. Retrieved October 5, 2017, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/yoga-benefits-beyond-the-mat
The Benefits of Yoga. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2017, from http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-health/health-conditions-library/general-health/Pages/yoga.aspx
Yoga: In Depth. (2008, May 1). Retrieved October 5, 2017, from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm