Archeological evidence shows that yoga has been practiced for at least 5,000 years. Yoga brings together physical and mental disciplines to achieve peace in body and mind, helping you relax, manage stress and gain other health benefits. Yoga has many styles, forms and intensities. But most people, regardless of age can benefit from any style of yoga and nearly 11 million Americans currently enjoy its health benefits.The core components most general yoga classes include:
Poses. Yoga poses, also called postures or asanas are a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility. Poses range from lying on the floor while completely relaxed to difficult postures that may have you expanding your physical limits.
Breathing. Controlling your breathing is an important part of yoga. In yoga, breath signifies your vital energy. Yoga teaches that conscious breathing can help you control and energize your body as well as quiet your mind.
Health Benefits of Yoga
A 2010, a comparative analysis of 81 studies examined yoga’s health benefits and the health benefits of aerobic exercise with surprising results. The researchers found yoga to be especially effective at reducing stress, which was expected. But, they also found that yoga outperformed aerobic exercise at improving balance, flexibility, strength, pain levels among seniors, menopausal symptoms, daily energy level, and social and occupation functioning.
The research makes it clear that yoga deserves a permanent place at the fitness table, alongside other forms of exercise.
Flexibility. Some people’s image of yoga is contorting like an acrobat; which raises concern about their ability to participate in the activity. The good news is, you are never too old, unfit, or “tight” to do yoga and everyone can benefit from improved flexibility.
The series of yoga poses safely stretch your muscles and increases the range of motion and lubrication of joints. Yoga stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the sheath that surrounds your muscles.
In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga. The greatest gains were in shoulder and trunk flexibility.
Strength. Many of the poses in yoga build upper-body strength. This becomes crucial as people age. The standing poses, especially if you hold them for several long breaths, build strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominal muscles. When practiced correctly, nearly all poses build core strength in the deep abdominal muscles.
Posture. Yoga increases flexibility and strength which results in better posture. Most of the standing and sitting poses develop core strength because the deep abdominal muscles help support and maintain each pose. With a stronger core, you’re more likely to sit and stand tall. Another benefit of yoga is the increased body awareness. This heightened awareness tells you more quickly when you’re slouching or slumping so you can adjust your posture.
Breathing. Because of the deep, breathing that yoga involves, lung capacity often improves. This in turn can improve sports performance and endurance. Most forms of yoga emphasize deepening and lengthening your breath.
Stress Reduction.Yoga’s quiet, precise movements, most of which require balance and concentration draws your focuses away from your busy day and toward calm as you go through poses. Some yoga styles use specific meditation techniques to quiet the constant “mind chatter” while other yoga styles use deep breathing techniques to focus the mind.
At the end of a yoga session, you should feel invigorated, yet relaxed and calm – even beginners feel less stressed and more relaxed after their first class. If this isn’t the case, talk to your instructor. They may have suggestions to reduce your stress. Otherwise there may be another yoga class better suited to your needs for stress management and relaxation.
Heart Health. Perhaps one of the most studied areas of the health benefits of yoga is its effect on heart disease. Yoga has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. A slower heart rate can benefit people with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Yoga was a key component to the heart disease program designed by Dean Ornish, MD. This was the first program to partly reverse heart disease through lifestyle and diet rather than surgery. And yoga has been associated with decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as a boost in immune system function.
Weight Loss. Keeping off unwanted weight can be a little easier with a regular yoga routine. In a study of 15,500 average-weight adults, people gained three fewer pounds annually over the course of four years if they followed a routine of only 30 minutes of yoga per week. The weight loss may be a result of creating a closer relationship between mind and body during yoga, allowing participants to avoid overeating.
Lowers Risk for Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes. A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which looked at 98 adults with varying health concerns, such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, and diabetes, found significant improvements in blood sugar and total cholesterol levels with the incorporation of yoga into their routine.
How yoga may promote health Research into the health benefits of yoga is still in its infancy. But recent pilot studies point in promising directions. Yoga has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, which can help reduce a person’s risk of heart disease. There may be other heart benefits, too: A 2006 study found that yoga helped lower cholesterol levels and improve circulation in people who have cardiovascular disease.
Safety and Yoga
Yoga is generally considered safe for people of all abilities, even if you use a wheelchair or are overweight. But there are some situations in which yoga might pose a risk. See your health care provider before you begin yoga if you have any of the following conditions or situations, since complications can arise.
- Balance problems
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure
- Certain eye conditions, including glaucoma
- Severe osteoporosis
- Artificial joints
You may still be able to practice yoga if you take certain precautions, such as avoiding certain poses or stretches. Regardless of your health status, start slowly and gently.
For most healthy people yoga is a safe non-aerobic form of exercise, but it does have risks. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons notes that the most commonly treated yoga injuries in emergency rooms involve overstretching and strain from repetition to the:
Here are some tips to help you reduce your risk of injury from yoga:
If you are pregnant or have a pre-existing health condition. Always consult your health care provider before starting any exercise program. Your doctor can help you determine what type and level of yoga exercise is safe for you.
Ask questions. If you don’t understand an exercise, ask to see it again before you attempt it yourself.
Go slow. Warm up before each session and remember you’re not in competition with anyone else in the class. Learn the basics, such as proper breathing and how to maintain balance, before you attempt the more ambitious stretches.
Pay attention to your body. Yoga isn’t supposed to hurt. If a pose is uncomfortable or you can’t hold it as long as the instructor requests, don’t do it. Good instructors understand and encourage you not to exceed your personal limits. If the pain persists, see your health care provider. Stop immediately if you have chest pain, feel faint or overheated, or become dizzy. Get immediate medical help if the sensation continues after you stop the exercise.
Finding a yoga class
Although you can learn yoga from books and videos, it is better to learn with an instructor. Instructors will make certain that you are performing the poses correctly and help you avoid injuries. Classes also offer camaraderie and friendship, which are also important to overall well-being and sticking with it.
Today, yoga classes are offered nearly everywhere — from trendy health clubs to community education classes. To find a class near you, ask your friends or coworkers where they go, or check the local Y, nearby health clubs, senior center or park and recreation department. You can also visit iYogalife.com for yoga tips and information on classes.
Questions to ask include:
- What are the instructor’s qualifications? Where did they learn yoga, and how long have they been teaching?
- Does the instructor have experience working with students with your needs or health concerns? If you have diabetic neuropathy or balance problems, can the instructor help you find poses that won’t aggravate your condition?
- Is the class appropriate for beginners? Will it be easy enough to follow along if it’s your first time? Can you observe a class before signing up?
- What is the focus of the class? Is it aimed at your needs, such as stress management or relaxation, or is it geared for people who want to reap other benefits?
- What do you need to take along to class? Some classes require you to bring a mat or towel to sit or stand on while doing poses. Other classes will provide a mat.
Yoga isn’t just for the fringe crowd and people with diabetes can gain some real health benefits from this ancient exercise.