The ancient Indian practice of yoga is now common in the West. Associated with serenity, peace and good health, millions of Americans spend billions of dollars every year on yoga classes and equipment.
Why the popularity, you might ask? Although there’s no doubt that yoga has become fashionable in some circles, there are a host of real benefits to be derived from regular yoga practice. And it can change your body significantly. Read on for some of these benefits.
The first question you might ask is what, exactly, is yoga? The answer isn’t that simple. It’s a large group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices. They arose in ancient India, probably around 5 or 6 B.C.E. That makes it thousands of years old.
These days in the West, yoga most often refers to a type of Hatha yoga. This type consists mostly of poses or postures named asanas, as well as breathwork.
In Indian tradition, yoga is not just a system of exercise; it has an essentially spiritual, meditative nature. Yoga is often referred to as a “mind-body” practice and has recently come under the scientific research spotlight. Scientists are interested in learning about the effects of yoga on the body and mind. Far more research is required, but there are some positive indications.
The effects of yoga on the body (and mind) range from changes that happen right after a yoga class, to what happens to you after sustained practice.
The most obvious benefit of yoga, even right after a class, is increased flexibility. And it’s not just your imagination. A recent study conducted by Colorado State University looked into the effects of short-term Bikram yoga training on the general fitness of a group of young adults.
Bikram yoga sessions take place in a heated, humidified studio. Each session includes 26 postures performed in a set order over 90 minutes. The study participants who did Bikram yoga were found to have significantly increased lower back, hamstring, and shoulder flexibility compared to those who didn’t do yoga.
According to a study carried out by the University of Illinois found that just one Hatha yoga session of 20 minutes had a significant effect on the brain. Researchers tested participants’ accuracy and speed on tests of inhibitory control and working memory. These tests measure how well the brain can take in, focus on, retain, and use new information.
The study found that yoga participants performed significantly better straight after yoga practice than those who walked or ran on a treadmill for the same length of time.
Researchers speculated that the breathing and meditation aspects of yoga calm mind and body. This prevents distractions, something that might stretch beyond yoga practice into everyday life.
Yoga’s stress-busting benefits can be felt after (and even during) your very first class. All exercise is good at combating stress. For example, exercise allows you to release built-up tension in your body, and provides an outlet for emotional tension, too.
It also gives you the “happy hormone” effect, making you feel better. Because yoga combines several stress-relieving techniques, it’s even better than regular exercise. For one thing, it gets you into a meditative state, which helps to relieve psychological and physiological stress.
Yoga combines this state with physical exercise, stretching, and breathing exercises that can powerfully de-stress you.
Research shows that the stress-relieving benefits of yoga last beyond the class. Indeed, it can reduce the impact of stressful situations, as well as regulate the way in which the body’s stress response system works.
A study conducted by Temple University’s Gait Study Center found that Iyengar yoga can help women over 65 with balance and stability. This, researchers said, could help prevent falls in the elderly. A group of older women participated in a nine-week Iyengar yoga program designed for the elderly by founder, B.K.S. Iyengar.
This form of yoga involves the use in a number of props, which allow practitioners to gradually gain mastery over the postures. At the same time, participants develop more self-confidence. Just nine weeks of yoga led to participants walking faster, more confidently, and more flexible in the lower extremities.
People who suffer from insomnia can benefit from regular yoga practice. Yoga encourages relaxation, deep, cleansing breaths, and a focus on the present. This shifts the balance in the body from the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response).
This ability to induce relaxation and a balanced mental state have been found to benefit sleep. In a 2005 study, yoga was found to increase the total number of hours slept and a feeling of being rested in the morning.
A 2011 study discovered that yoga could produce a sound night’s sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep most nights increases a sense of wellbeing, boosts your brainpower, improves productivity, helps you feel refreshed on waking up, rather than groggy.
A study published in 2011 in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine looked at the effects of Iyengar yoga on high blood pressure. Participants had mildly elevated blood pressure and were not receiving treatment for it.
After 12 weeks of Iyengar practice, yoga participants showed significant reductions in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. As the study was small, further research into the effects of yoga on blood pressure is required.
Yoga is scientifically proven to leave your skin glowing. This is because of vasodilation, the enlargement of blood vessels in the body that happens when you practice yoga. As a result of this vasodilation, nutrients are carried to the skin and toxins are flushed away. This can prevent acne and premature ageing.
If, however, you suffer from rosacea or a lot of facial flushing, avoid Bikram or hot yoga. Because they are performed in a heated room, these types of yoga can exacerbate these skin conditions.