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Benefits Of Yoga

Emma Stewart -Before discussing the many benefits of yoga, it’s useful to define yoga and what it means to me. On my very first yoga teacher-training weekend I was asked to write a definition of yoga. I wrote; “Yoga is practice for the mind and the body to focus the mind on the present, preparing your body to go beyond the mat to bring balance to every aspect of your life.” Having delved more into the scientific research behind the benefits of yoga, it’s clear that when practiced regularly, yoga can have huge benefits to our mental and physical health.

Like many who find themselves in a yoga class for the first time, I came to yoga to find peace and acceptance after suffering with severe depression following the sudden and unexpected death of my father from a heart attack. I spent the first 6 weeks of my yoga journey crying in Savasana. I no longer cry in Savasana but am certainly more connected with my emotions. Yoga has given me the courage to accept my feelings and share them without judgment. Personally, yoga helped me overcome depression, low self-esteem and anxiety. The benefits don’t stop there. The Psychiatry Department of Islamic Azad University1 conducted research from July 2006 to July 2007 on a group of women who participated in 90-minute yoga classes, twice a week for two months. The study found that participation in a two-month yoga class could lead to a significant reduction in perceived levels of anxiety. In 2012, St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center2 in Brighton, MA found similar results concluding that yoga could be beneficial in relieving stress and anxiety.

The Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation3 near Bangalore, found that a more physical asana practice followed by relaxing postures activated the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) more than simply relaxing. Activation of the PNS, the “rest and digest system,” not only allows for mental relaxation but allows the blood flow to be directed into the intestines and the reproductive organs, slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. In this rest and digest state, blood glucose levels are lowered, reducing the risk of diabetes. A study carried out at The Yoga Institute in Mumbai4 found that a regular yoga practice resulted in a 26% decrease in “bad” cholesterol and the progression of heart disease stopped in 47% of the patients involved in the trial.

Flexibility is synonymous with yoga. Yoga, when practiced consistently over time, will improve your flexibility, both physically and emotionally. Muscles will gradually loosen, and eventually all of those Instagram poses that were once impossible, will become more possible (not that we should aim to get our body into a particular pose or shape!). As we improve our flexibility in yoga, our muscle strength also improves; not only looking good but improving balance, posture and reducing back pain.

Regular yoga practice has also been found to increase bone density, reducing the risk of osteopenia and osteoarthritis. A sensible, modified yoga practice can even reduce joint pain, improve joint function and flexibility for people suffering from one of the various types of arthritis.

There are currently multiple medical trials taking place to measure the impact of yoga on cancer patients. Previous research indicates that yoga is valuable in helping to achieve relaxation and to diminish stress in cancer patients (Hacettepe University, Ankara, 2010)5.

Regardless of the plethora of research into the benefits of yoga, it is up to each individual to discover the benefits for themselves. It might be that you choose yoga as a way to relax, or for the physical practice, to increase strength, or to combat chronic pain, or to reduce the effects of inflammation such as heart disease and diabetes, or to improve your balance and reduce the risk of age-related falls. It might be that you, like every other human being, desire a community of like-minded people to be a part of, or you just want to explore your edge and experiment with the shapes your body can make. Whatever your reason for coming to the mat, know that there are many benefits of a regular yoga practice, as long as you remember to honour your body; breathe; and smile.

Javnbakht, M & Kenari, R & Ghasemi, M. (2009). Effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women. Complementary therapies in clinical practice. 15. 102-4. 10.1016/j.ctcp.2009.01.003.

Li, Amber & W Goldsmith, Carroll-Ann. (2012). The Effects of Yoga on Anxiety and Stress. Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic. 17. 21-35.

Vinutha HT, Raghavendra BR, Manjunath NK. Effect of integrated approach of yoga therapy on autonomic functions in patients with type 2 diabetes. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2015;19(5):653-7.

Chandra KS, Bansal M, Nair T, et al. Consensus statement on management of dyslipidemia in Indian subjects. Indian Heart J. 2014;66 Suppl 3(Suppl 3):S1-51.

5. Ulger O, Yağli NV. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2010 May;16(2):60-3. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2009.10.007. Epub 2010 Mar 5.

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