Yoga combines deep stretching-strengthening exercises with achieving a state of mental focus through breathing. Originating in India a few thousand years ago, yoga was designed to be a comprehensive spiritual practice. Over the past 30 years, however, yoga has been popularized in the United States with an emphasis on the physical benefits of the asanas (yoga poses) taught in a class setting.
In a typical yoga class, a dozen or so practitioners gather in a quiet room for about an hour. Through clear verbal instructions, the yoga instructor leads the class through various asanas. Many different flavors of yoga exist, but the common hallmarks of any yoga class include deep breathing, awareness of one’s own body, a focus on being in the moment and stretching-strengthening. Yoga can also be practiced at home or with a partner.
SCIENCE: DOES YOGA WORK?
Many recent scientific studies have attempted to prove that yoga benefits our health:
People who practice yoga regularly believe that it is valuable in preventing and managing chronic health problems and low back pain. In a questionnaire of over 3,000 yoga practitioners, almost all of those surveyed claimed that yoga benefited them in some way.
Low Back Pain
Many studies have examined whether yoga can alleviate lower back pain. Few if any studies show that yoga is significantly better than other core-strengthening exercises or physical therapy in ameliorating low back pain. Yoga has indeed been shown to improve strength, flexibility and balance.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
In a small study, a yoga regimen was shown to be more effective than wrist splinting or no treatment in relieving the signs and symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.
In a study of women (average age 75) with hyperkyphosis (excessive concave curvature of the upper back), a few months of yoga twice a week resulted in small but significant positive changes: their height increased by a mean of 1/2 cm, forward curvature diminished and they were able to get out of chairs faster. Furthermore, about half reported increased postural improvement and improved wellbeing. In another study of the elderly, compared to a standard exercise regimen or no activity, those who were involved with a regular course of yoga showed significant improvements in quality-of-life measures.
One study demonstrated that a short period (11 weeks) of yoga 1 hour perday reduced blood pressure in hypertensive subjects. In patients with heart disease who practiced yoga for an entire year, compared to controls, there was a trend in decreased anginal episodes per week, improved exercise tolerance and decreased body weight.
In a review that examined a few studies of people suffering with anxiety-related disorders, yoga tended to lessen the distress caused by anxiety. The most rigorous and promising experiment occurred with regards to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
In summary, the verdict is still out on whether yoga has statistically significant positive physical and psychological effects. Many of the studies done on yoga, including the ones listed above, have serious methodological flaws. Clearly, yoga is not a magic bullet for what ails us. It is safe to say, however, that the vast majority of people who do yoga regularly derive subjective benefits from their practice.
IS YOGA SAFE?
Simply put, yoga is extremely safe. That being said, along with any physical activity, people do get hurt performing asanas. Common injuries occur due to repetitive muscle strains and over-stretching of the neck, legs and knees. An experienced instructor (you can inquire about your instructor’s credentials) who knows about your pre-existing injuries and awareness of one’s own physical limitations are the key ingredients to an injury-free yoga experience.
Positions Left to Right: An asana known as “Upward Facing Dog”, which stretches the front of the body, including the chest and abdomen, while actively engaging the gluteus muscles and quadriceps.
An advanced yoga pose called “Wheel”. This asana strengthens and flexes the back.
“Seated Twist” aims to stretch the lateral aspect of the leg and buttocks while increasing rotation of the lower back.