WRITTEN BY Dr. Nancy Palermo Lietz
Yoga has taken the western world by storm. In a 2012 “Yoga in America” survey by Yoga Journal, it was estimated that more than 20 million Americans regularly practice yoga. The first U.S. yoga studio opened in 1947 in California. Yoga studios are now popping up in all communities. In the U.S., you can perform yoga in heat, with rock music and even in the company of pets and children.
Read the full post to learn more about yoga as medicine!
Westerners, however, still regard the practice of yoga as an alternative form of exercise. Initially, they are drawn to the physical attributes of the practice yet, with time, they recognize that the mind-body benefits go well beyond physical fitness.
Yoga originated in ancient India and has been practiced for more than 5,000 years. The word “yoga” means a union or a coming together. Early on, it was a common belief that yoga allowed individuals to become more in tune with their mental, physical and emotional patterns. Ancient yogis did not have sophisticated medical equipment to study the effects of yoga.
Words fail to convey the total value of yoga. It has to be experienced.
Instead, they used their own bodies to experiment. They found that if yoga was practiced regularly, they were able to regulate their heart rate, body temperature and nervous-system functioning. Ancient yogis were not using yoga as medicine but rather as a means to reach a higher consciousness. The health effects were merely a side effect. Modern day physicians in India regarded these “side effects” as potential therapies and began looking at the practice of yoga as medicine.
Much of the early research originated in India and focused on yoga and its health benefits. Much of it was observational and rarely was “controlled.” This means that the scientists were merely studying the outcomes and not making the experimental design the same in each case.
The data, however, is intriguing. The systems in place at many of the institutions all seem to be helping people to manage a variety a of ailments—from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis to Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.
Western physicians have been slow to embrace the touted medical benefits of yoga but some of the best medical institutions in America are now taking a closer look. Though yoga still is considered a complementary form of medicine, many recent studies might help legitimize its medical benefits for a variety of conditions.
The American College of Sports Medicine recently published a study looking at the effect of yoga on asthma. After only 10 weeks of yoga practice, 43 percent of the patients in the study reported improvement in their asthma symptoms. They believed that the focus on breath, posture and alignment improved lung capacity.
CHRONIC BACK PAIN
In a study carried out by West Virginia School of Medicine, researchers looked at the effect of yoga on chronic back pain. After a 12-week program, 70 percent of the participants reported an overall decrease in back pain and 88 percent reduced or stopped taking medications prescribed to help with the pain. In addition, when compared to the participants who followed traditional medical therapies for back pain, those who participated in the yoga arm had significant improvement in control of pain and overall mood.
In a 2010 study reported in The Journal of Pain, participants who were diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome, were placed either a yoga group or a medication group. Those in the yoga group reported that they experienced pain relief which was as effective as medication.
A study out of Yale University looked at the effect of yoga on blood pressure. People with mild to moderate hypertension were enrolled into a yoga practice. Researchers found that both systolic and diastolic blood pressures were significantly improved. Overall blood pressure was reduced as compared to those in the medication group.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
Researchers at Boston University looked at the effect of yoga on anxiety. After a 12-week program, they noted an improvement in patients who experienced mild to moderate anxiety. Researchers discovered a 27 percent increase in the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain after 60 minutes of yoga. Low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety, depression and even Alzheimer’s.
The primary reason many seek out yoga is to quiet the mind and release tension. In 2013, more than 16 studies have looked at the effect of yoga on mental health. All study subjects showed an improvement in symptoms of depression. Participants reported improved sleep, reduction of chronic pain and feelings of overall well-being.
Beyond the mind-body connection achieved in yoga, participants note many physical benefits after only a few sessions. They include increased flexibility and strength, as well as an improved sense of balance. Older participants report fewer falls. After a few years, yoga participants will have stronger bones. DEXA (bone-density) scans were done on participants before they started yoga and then again after a few years of regular practice. The scans showed that the participants did not experience more bone loss and some, in fact, gained it—without medication. In addition, those who practice yoga regularly maintain a reduction in weight and tend to adopt a healthier lifestyle. The Journal of American Dietetic Association reported that individuals who practice yoga are more mindful, especially when it comes to eating.
Clearly the benefits of yoga are numerous but as with many exercise programs, it is important to get proper instruction from a reputable studio under the supervision of a well-trained instructor. Injuries from yoga are common so it is extremely important that one pays attention to all aspects of the practice. We should look at the practice as a whole treatment. Improvement of our health or medical ailment should be considered a welcomed side effect.