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From the Doctor: The Health Facts of Yoga

Written by Dr. Kim Aikens on September 10th, 2012

Yoga is an ancient discipline designed to bring balance and health to the body, mind and spirit. A long popular practice in India, beginning as early as 3000 B.C, yoga has become increasingly common in Western society today. Classes teaching the art of breathing, meditation and posing are offered nearly everywhere. During this last week of mindful exercise, we suggest you try something different and sign up for a yoga class near you!

Yoga has many styles, forms and intensities. Hatha yoga, for example is a well-known style, which many beginners find easier to practice because of its slower pace. In general, the core components of most yoga classes include:

1. Breathing:

Most forms of yoga emphasize deepening and lengthening of the breath. This stimulates the relaxation response -- the opposite of the fight-or-flight adrenaline boost of the stress response, and is one of the many reasons yoga can be so calming.

2. Postures:

Yoga uses a series of physical postures, or asanas, to help align the body, which can lead to increased relaxation, release of muscle tension and improved flexibility. Since there are various forms of yoga, there are numerous postures from which to choose. During a single class you might find yourself lying on the floor while relaxed, to doing more difficult postures that can really test your physical limits.

Health Benefits

Yoga and the Heart

Regular yoga practice has significant benefits to heart health. Studies have shown that yoga can decrease blood pressure as well as LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Therefore, its not surprising that yoga practice can also protect people with heart disease. In fact, yoga and meditation are two key components of the program designed by Dean Ornish M.D. This program was one of the first found to partly reverse heart disease through lifestyle modifications rather than surgery.

Yoga and Obesity

It’s surprising to think that yoga might actually help you to lose weight but it does! Researchers have shown that practicing yoga for a year can result in significant weight loss. In addition, it has been shown to improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes.

Yoga, Stress and Anxiety

Yoga is a great stress reliever and has been found to decrease both perceived stress and anxiety. Chief among yoga’s stress busting effects is a whole host of biochemical responses. Practicing yoga lowers circulating blood levels of catecholamines, which are produced in the adrenal glands during high stress situations. In addition, yoga can lead to a state of enhanced calm through lowering levels of hormone neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

Yoga and Mood

Taking a yoga class a week can give a big boost to your mood and sense of wellbeing.  A study done in 2005 on a group of women taking a weekly yoga class found that depression scores decreased by 50% and anxiety by 30% after only three months. Yoga has also been found to improve mood and quality of life for the elderly, cancer survivors and patients with epilepsy.

Yoga, Strength and Flexibility

Yoga works by safely stretching your muscles. One study showed that participants improved their flexibility by 35% after only 8 weeks of yoga. In addition, when practiced correctly, yoga leads to increased upper body, core and abdominal muscle strength, which is particularly important as we age. Even less vigorous types of yoga can provide strength and endurance benefits.

Yoga and Fitness

Yoga involves deep, mindful breathing. When practiced regularly, this can lead to improved respiratory performance. In addition, yoga increases strength and flexibility. And yoga is terrific for all ages. One study found that a group of seniors practicing Hatha yoga for six months had significant improvements in quality of life and physical measures compared to a group doing a walking exercise.

So as part of our last week on mindful fitness, try signing up for a yoga class near you! Incorporating yoga into your regular exercise routine, along with continued mindfulness practice, is a terrific way to stay healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Kim Aikens

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