Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga

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Yoga is a 3000-year-old tradition that originated in India in 2000 BCE. The Western World has now started regarding yoga as a holistic approach to health. The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from a Sanskrit word “Yuj” which means union, or yoke, to join and to direct one’s attention (1).

Yoga builds strength, awareness, and harmony in our mind and body.

What makes yoga so interesting is the different kinds of yoga practices. This makes it possible for anyone to start. Every yoga pose can be modified in different styles to fit in the beginners as well as the professionals.

The evolution of yoga evolved

The first mention of yoga was in Rig Veda, which is a collection of hymns, ritualistic practices, and mantras. They were used by priests only. The high priests modified the practice and later documented them in Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita. This is where we start seeing the rituals transmitted into action and wisdom.

With the understanding of how these yogic practices have transformed over the last 5000 years, we also see an evolution leading humanity to enlightenment.

Yoga’s journey to the West first started with Swami Vivekananda, who traveled to the United States to visit the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. During his lectures, people got a glimpse of Hatha Yoga that later opened the door for more. 

But it was only by the 1950s when yoga was formally introduced to the West by a Russian lady, Indra Devi. She opened her first yoga school in Hollywood and it catered to stars and socialites.

Yoga, today is a billion-dollar industry with indoor and outdoor yoga studios all over the world.

Eastern and western yoga: what is the difference?

Over the generations, yoga evolved in a various manner both in East as well as West and branched off into a hundred systems. Patanjali saw its complexity and so he codified all aspects of yoga into a format which is known as Yoga Sutras. This is a collection of 196 verses or yoga. Hence, Patanjali has been known as the father of modern yoga.

Yoga has introduced itself in a different way to suit today’s fast pace. While Eastern yoga is more towards its cultural roots, Western yoga is more modern.

Eastern yoga includes social and individual discipline. Through physical movements, the asanas of Eastern Yoga are the path to bringing spiritual awakening and fitness. However, Western yoga preaches this practice to heal, lead a healthy lifestyle, and indulge in this form of exercise.

From the time Patanjali introduced this practice, Eastern yoga holds on to the authenticity of it. It practices Ashtanga Yoga for stress management, Hatha Yoga for physical strength, Iyengar Yoga for alignment of mind, body, and soul. Western yoga is more result-oriented and inclined to practices with weight loss in mind as well.

Yoga in the East is practiced in the lap of nature while Western yoga is practiced in indoor settings of the yoga studio.

Yoga teachers in Eastern Yoga are reckoned as Yoga gurus or leaders. It is a very respectful designation and they are just not focused on the physical aspects but also mental and spiritual upliftment. Western yoga teachers are more friendly and the atmosphere is casual.

Detachment from worldly possessions, Eastern yoga teaches a minimalistic way of lifestyle. Western yoga continues with normal life and doesn’t expect any changes.

While Eastern yoga is a practice of living your life, Western yoga has adopted yoga as a form of exercise which keeps your body more flexible and maybe prioritizes weight loss. Therefore along with  Hatha Yoga, Viniyoga, Bikram Yoga, Yin Yoga, and Kripalu Yoga, they also have Power Yoga, Prenatal Yoga, and Restorative yoga that are suited for the purpose.

However, yoga in any form has several relaxation techniques incorporated that bring you a bouquet of benefits. It can reduce your stress, increase your muscle strength, improve your respiration, improves heart health, enhances your cardio and circulatory health, and many more.

12 scientifically proven benefits of yoga

Here is an overview of the 12 benefits of yoga with scientific evidence.

1. Relieves stress and anxiety

Practicing yoga helps to achieve tranquility. It creates a sense of well-being and a relaxed mind. It increases your concentration, improves your focus, lowers the irritability, and helps you to take an optimistic approach towards life. While you practice yoga, energy is generated that is vital to your system. 

It optimizes your brain’s response towards stressful situations and helps to restore regulatory mechanisms associated with stress. Practicing yoga can suppress the feeling of anger, fear, aggressiveness by working on the area of the brain that is responsible for it. This results in lower anxiety, lower respiratory and heart rate, and lower blood pressure (2).

Consistent yoga practice improves your serotonin level which is the ‘feel-good hormone’ and decreases depression.

A three-month intensive yoga program was conducted in Germany in 2005 on 24 ladies who perceived themselves to be stressed. The result showed a marked decrease in their stress level, anxiety, fatigue, and depression (3).

Another study done in 2007 in Australia with 131 participants exhibited that 10 weeks of practicing yoga helped reduce stress and anxiety (4).

In 2018, several medical and scientific studies on yoga were listed and it concluded that yoga helps relieve stress, anxiety, and depression in women (5).

It was seen that yoga produces a physiological state that gives you a sense of balance and union between the mind and the body (6).

Summary: Studies over the years have shown that yoga practices help decrease stress levels by bringing a balance between the mind and body.

2. Improve flexibility

Yoga practiced regularly improves the flexibility of the body and strength. Even though there are different styles of yoga, each of those particular styles makes you more flexible by working from the inside out. 

The yoga practice, where you connect your body’s movement to your breath, where you instruct your body to go as deep into a pose as you are physically capable, makes you pull in your muscles, ligaments, and other connective tissues that you never thought was possible. This creates a muscle memory that reminds your body that you were in a certain position before and that it is possible for you to go further in that position.

Yoga allows you to move through every range of motion, stretching your muscles and joints making your body flexible.

With continued practice, there is a gradual loosening of the muscles and connective tissues that surrounds the bones and joints. This is one of the reasons that associate yoga with reduced aches and pains (7).

A study conducted in 2005 in the USA showed that yoga decreased pain and improved the physical function of participants with osteoarthritis. Yoga also helped reduce the stiffness of the joints (8).

In Australia, a study conducted in 2013 found that practicing yoga improved balance and mobility in older people (9).

During a yoga session, the joints are taken to their full range of motion squeezing and soaking areas of cartilage that are normally not used. This brings blood to the area which carries with it fresh nutrients and oxygen, that prevents conditions like arthritis and chronic pain (10).

Summary: Yoga practices improve flexibility by stretching your muscles and joints that are taken to their maximum range of motion, resulting in the blood flow to the joints that prevents pain and improves flexibility.

3. Increases blood flow and level of haemoglobin

Yoga has been seen to increase blood flow, red blood cells, and hemoglobin levels. Increased blood flow promotes more oxygen to reach the body cells boosting their function. Yoga thins the blood which helps in its free flow and exponentially reduces the chances of a heart attack and stroke, which are often the result of blood clots (11).

Different poses that twist your body in several ways wring out the venous blood from your organs and allow the oxygenated blood to flow in them while the twist is released. This results in a lowering of the resting heart rate, better utilization of oxygen during exercise, and an increase in endurance.

Summary: Yoga increases the red blood cells by efficient breathing exercises and by doing special asanas. It also lowers the resting heart rate and helps in better utilization of oxygen by the body.

4. Improve cardio-respiratory performances

Respiratory muscles are very important and evaluation of their performance is extremely important. Yoga training is known to improve pulmonary function (12).

Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to the circulatory and respiratory systems’ ability to supply oxygen to the muscles during physical activity. It tells you how well your heart, lungs, and muscle work when you are active for an extended period of time. 

Yoga incorporates a system of physical practices and breathing techniques that have been seen to improve this and the biomarkers related to cardio-respiratory performance. Yoga has a beneficial effect on controlling the blood pressure, heart rate, increased oxygen taking capability by your body cells (13). 

A study was conducted in 2000 in the USA to determine the effects of yoga posture and breathing exercises on vital capacity. At the end of the study, it was concluded that yoga had a significant increase in vital capacity (14).

Vital capacity is a measure of the maximum amount of air that can be expelled from the lungs. It is important to understand the condition of your lungs and heart.

Summary: By improving the biomarkers of the cardio-respiratory system, yoga practices enhance and improve your pulmonary function.

5. Improves sleep quality

Sleep is an essential requirement for our overall health. Getting enough sleep plays a big part in our performance on a day to day basis. Unfortunately, the fast pace of life has affected us in more ways than we can realize. Different ways have been discovered and studied that aids your sleep. Yoga is one of them.

The ability of yoga to increase relaxation and induce a state of balance mentally has been seen to positively affect sleep quality and improve insomnia.

 Several studies have been done and this point has been proved. 

A study was done at Harvard Medical School on 20 people. All of them were suffering from different degrees of insomnia. They were asked to use yoga as a tool to help them improve their sleep quality. All of the participants practiced yoga regularly for 8 weeks.

They kept a diary of their hours of sleep, how many times did they wake up at night. They started maintaining the diary two weeks before the yoga regime started and for the entire eight week period of the study. In the end, it was seen that there was a noticeable improvement in their overall sleeping condition (15).

Amongst all the reasons that were mentioned, it was concluded that yoga reduces stress, depression, and anxiety. It renewed the body and calmed the mind. It eased muscles and joint pain and also improved breathing (16).

Another study conducted on the elderly showed that yoga helped in falling asleep faster, getting up in the morning more rested and energetic, and fewer episodes of disturbed sleep (17).

Summary: Yoga calms the mind, reduces stress and anxiety, regulates your breathing, and reduces pains. These factors together lull the body into a good sleep.

6. May reduce migraine

Migraines are recurring headaches that are of varying intensity and are often accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound. Triggers can be stress, certain drink, and food or some hormonal changes in the body (18).

The prevalence of migraine is high. Roughly 1 out of every 7 Americans each year suffer from this.

However, several studies have now shown that yoga could be a useful associate in reducing the frequency of migraines.

A study was conducted in 2014, in Karnataka, India. It showed that yoga therapy had a beneficial effect on people with migraines by reducing frequency and intensity (19).

A study in 2007 was done to check the benefits of yoga therapy. 72 patients suffering from migraines were either given yoga therapy or were in self-care groups for three months. It was seen that at the end of the study, yoga practice led to a reduction in headache intensity, frequency, and pain (20).

Summary: Yoga has shown to improve the people suffering from migraines. It reduces the intensity and frequency of the pain.

7. Yoga may promote healthy eating habits

High rates of obesity, lower levels of physical activity and poor dietary intake have become common these days, around the world. It has been seen that an important timeline when overweight and obesity rates increase, is young adulthood. With increased fast food consumption and reduction in physical activity, the obesity problem has spread like a pandemic (21).

Studies showed that yoga has a positive impact on health, including benefits in weight management. It increased the fruit and vegetable intake, reduced snacking, and less frequent consumption of fast food (22). 

Yoga has shown to promote healthy eating habits that control blood sugar and treat eating disorders (23).

It has also been stated that because yoga emphasizes mindfulness, some studies show that it could be used to encourage healthy eating behavior.

A study was conducted in 2009 in Australia on the effectiveness of yoga therapy for binge eating disorder. It was found that binge eating episodes decreased and there was an increase in physical activity (24).

Summary: Yoga encourages healthy eating habits and can stop binge eating.

8. It may reduce inflammation

Inflammation is the immune system’s response to injury and infection. It is a way of the body to signal the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue. It is a natural reaction and is temporary. 

Chronic inflammation occurs when the body is constantly in a state of stress. This can lead to multiple problems including premature aging and diseases like cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

It has been found that yoga may reduce inflammation. One of the biggest reasons for inflammation is stress and studies have found that by practicing yoga, it is easier to manage the mind and decrease stress. This helps the body to recover and heal quickly.

In addition to that, regular yoga changes the production of stress and hunger hormones, which increases adiponectin, an anti-inflammatory hormone.

A study done in 2015, in India on the effect of yoga practice on the levels of inflammatory markers showed that participants who practiced yoga regularly had lower levels of inflammatory markers compared to the ones who didn’t (25).

Regular practice of yoga lowered cholesterol, pro-inflammatory cytokines, and bad cholesterol like VLDL and triglycerides.

Summary: Regular yoga practice reduces the main factors of inflammation in the human body, thereby favorably influencing the overall health status.

9. Yoga can fight depression

Yoga practices increase multiple neurotransmitters and hormones such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, all of which are anti-depressants. 

Studies over the years have concluded that yoga has an antidepressant effect and can help lower the symptom of depression. One study was conducted in 2006, in Bangalore, India, on the antidepressant efficacy and hormonal effects of Sudarshana Kriya Yoga in alcohol-dependent individuals.

Following a week of detoxification, a two-week yoga intervention, it was observed that the participants had fewer symptoms of depression and lower levels of cortisol. The level of ACTH hormone decreased too. This hormone increases the cortisol level that excites the nerves (26).

In another study that was conducted in 2004, in the USA, it was observed that practicing yoga decreased symptoms of depression in young adults in the age group of 18-29 years (27).

Summary: Yoga, increases the neurotransmitters and hormones, which are anti-depressants and may have a positive effect on lowering depression.

10. Benefits of yoga on cancer patients 

Yoga’s effect on cancer patients has been the topic of a lot of researches and studies. It has been stated that while yoga is not a cure for cancer, nor a way by which this dreadful disease can be prevented, yoga increases physical, spiritual, and emotional wellness.  

Breathing exercise and meditation, that is practiced in yoga, can reduce stress, promotes healing, and in some ways improve the quality of life amongst cancer patients. Stress exacerbates tumor growth in cancer. Yoga incurs a healthy sense of acceptance that helps cancer patients to adapt to the situation. It also helps in the reduction of side effects related to cancer such as pain, tiredness, sleep problems, and depression.

Research suggests that yoga can produce an invigorating effect mentally and physically that reduces fatigue (28).

Summary: Even though yoga can’t prevent or cure cancer, it can reduce the markers that can lead to cancer as well as help retain mental peace in cancer patients.

11. Yoga Reduces Your Chance of Injury

Yoga practice encourages your body to increase your awareness of how you feel from day to day and from pose to pose. You understand the likely tight or injury-prone areas of the body that need your attention to avert full-blown injury in the future.

Yoga combines active and passive stretching that is very helpful for keeping you injury-free. In active stretching, the body moves and stretches dynamically, creating warmth and suppleness in the tissues. Passive stretching is where you hold a posture for a minute or more in a manner that is relaxed, allowing your muscles to lengthen even more. As a result, you get elastic and pliable tissues that help you bounce back more easily from the stressors.

Yoga also strengthens your spine. It works on the tendons and ligaments, making them less susceptible to breakdown.

Summary: Active and passive stretching practiced in yoga helps strengthen your spine, tendons, muscles, and tissues making it less prone to injury.

12. Improves quality of life

Stress has a negative effect on the immune system and prolonged exposure increases susceptibility to diseases that lead to physical and mental health problems. Practicing yoga and meditation has shown to lower both acute and chronic stress that help individuals to get over other comorbidities associated with diseases. This, in turn, improves the quality of life.

A randomized, controlled, 6-month trial of yoga was done in Portland, USA, on healthy participants in the age group of 65-85 years. It was to determine the effect of yoga on cognitive function, fatigue, mood, and quality of life. The group was divided into three. One group practiced yoga, one group was walking and the other one was the control group. 

After the completion of the trial, it was seen that all the 135 participants significantly improved on all the parameters determining the quality of life. The mood was improved, there was a reduction in fatigue in comparison to the other groups (29).

Other studies have found that yoga improves the quality of sleep, enhances the spiritual well being, reduces anxiety and depression, which ultimately improves the overall quality of life (30, 31, 32).

Summary: Yoga practices have been seen to improve the quality of life by reducing stress, depression, and chronic pain. It aids in good sleep and results in a better life prospect.

The final note

Several studies have proven the benefits of yoga, both physically, as well as, mentally. Embracing this age-old practice will ensure you enjoy a full mind and body exercise. 

It can help by calming your mind, lowering depression and stress, reducing anxiety and anxiety-related ailments, increasing strength and flexibility of spine, bones, tissues, cartilages, and joints.

Yoga also helps in improving your quality of sleep, reducing chronic pains in the joints, and migraines thereby improving the overall quality of life.

Taking out time from your busy schedule to practice yoga a few times per week will go a long way in enriching your mind and soul while promoting good health.

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