Public Health Community Advisory – September is National Yoga Month (sponsored by the Yoga Health Foundation and included in the US Department of Health & Human Services’ 2013 list of national health observances), designed to educate about the health benefits of yoga and to inspire a healthy lifestyle. – See more at about National Yoga Month at the Yoga Health Foundation website.1
Yoga is defined as the stilling of the changing states of the mind.2 Yoga practice includes meditation, postures (or asanas) and controlled breathing and is recognized as complementary or alternative medicine because of numerous health benefits. A comparison study of yoga and other exercise programs found yoga to be equally or more effective.3 Before you begin practicing yoga, consult your physician. In your yoga class, tell your teacher of any health conditions or concerns.
Why should you do yoga? Here are a few reasons to give it a try:
1. Improved physical fitness. Yoga uses poses and one’s body weight as resistance (think push-ups). Your physical strength and range of motion will inevitably improve. You will also get better posture as a bonus. Many of us work at a desk job, which means we lean over most of the day. By increasing body awareness and strengthening back and shoulder muscles, yoga can improve posture and help alleviate back and neck pain
2. Increased balance and flexibility. Balance is incorporated in many yoga poses, and repeated practice helps increase balance and flexibility. Also, strength and range of motion will improve. Yoga works!
3. Reduced stress:4 numerous studies have found an association between yoga and reduced stress and anxiety. The harmful effects of daily stress are known risk factors for a variety of acute and chronic conditions. Yoga also helps manage chronic conditions, from back pain to depression to anxiety. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, yoga helps relax the body and contributes to feeling peaceful.
4. Increased composure and improved physiological function. Breathing is an integral part of yoga. You learn breathing techniques on the mat that you can apply off the mat to help you maintain your composure in difficult situations. Yoga helps you control your breathing. Controlling your breathing can in turn help you control your body and quiet your mind. Regular practice has been associated with improvements in several physiological functions such as blood pressure, respiration and heart rate, metabolic rate, and overall exercise capacity.5
5. Better mood!6 Yoga was found to be associated with greater mood improvement than going for a walk. One study used magnetic resonance imaging to monitor levels of neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). Higher levels of GABA are associated with lower anxiety and improved mood. The researchers found that yoga practitioners reported greater increases in mood and had higher GABA levels than did walkers.
6. Immune system boost.7 The beneficial effects of yoga on the molecular level may begin immediately after practice. Taking a nature walk or listening to music is known to increase the immune system response, and yoga may be an even better helper for your immune system. Researchers at the University of Oslo assessed 10 participants during a weeklong retreat as they practiced yoga and meditation for the first two days, and then went on nature walks and listened to jazz or classical music on the remaining days. The researchers drew blood before and after each session and analyzed immune cells (peripheral blood mononuclear cells). Although nature walks and music produced changes in the expression of 38 genes in the circulating immune cells, yoga changed 111 genes. This means that yoga is 2.9 times as effective at boosting the immune system as nature walks and music.
7. Boosts self-esteem and confidence, which in turn helps you with your relationships and overall well-being.
1Yoga Health Foundation, http://yogahealthfoundation.org/yoga_month
3Ross A, Thomas S. The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2010;16(1):3-12. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0044.
4Chong CSM, Tsunaka M, Tsang HWH, Chan EP, Cheung WM. Effects of yoga on stress management in healthy adults: a systematic review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2011;17(1):32–38.
5Raub JA. Psychophysiological effects of Hatha Yoga on musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary function: a literature review. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2002;8(6):797-812. doi:10.1089/10755530260511810.
6Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, Cabral HJ, Tian H, Terhune DB, Ciraulo DA, Renshaw PF. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2007;13(4):419-426. doi:10.1089/acm.2007.6338.
7Qu S, Olafsrud SM, Meza-Zepeda LA, Saatcioglu F. Rapid gene expression changes in peripheral blood lymphocytes upon practice of a comprehensive yoga program. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(4): e61910. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061910
This article was written by Lina Lander, ScD, an associate professor in the UNMC COPH Department of Epidemiology. Dr. Lander’s research interests are in identifying sources of occupational injuries and musculoskeletal trauma; case-crossover study design methodology and applications; and medical errors and adverse events.