Yoga has long been recognized for increasing flexibility, building muscle strength, and supporting good posture. Over the last few decades, there has been renewed interest in yoga and potential health benefits found for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stress management. According to the 2016 Yoga in America study, the number of yoga practitioners significantly increased from 20.4 million in 2012 to 36.7 million in 2016. How does this 4000-year old Mind-Body Intervention (MBI), that originated in India, differ from exercise, and what is the science behind yoga and mental and physical health?
What is Yoga?
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “yug” which means “to yoke” or “join” mind, body, and spirit. According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), more than 85% of U.S. adults who practiced yoga experience a reduction in stress. Nearly two-thirds of adult yoga users report they are motivated to exercise more regularly, and 4 in 10 are motivated to eat healthier as a result of practicing yoga. The 2017 NHIS survey indicates yoga is the most commonly used complementary health approach in adults, and women remain the largest constituency practicing yoga in the U.S.
Yoga, like other mind-body practices, “utilizes the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms,” according to the NCCIH. Yoga is different from a traditional workout due to its multiple components:
- Postures (asanas)
- Breathing techniques (pranayama)
- Sound (mantra)
- Focus (drishti)
- Attitude of curiosity and non-judgment
These components, found in yoga, help to improve communication between the brain and body. The top-down processes (the contemplative elements of yoga) impact stress by stimulating the vagus nerve. In contrast, the bottom-up processes (movement involving the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems) regulate the hypothalamus-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and nervous system.
Yoga and Stress
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) manages your body’s stress response and is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). It is also involved in the fight or flight response and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is linked to the relaxation response. Chronic stress activates the “fight or flight” response and can increase cortisol levels and inflammation in the body. Establishing a self-regulating mind-body practice such as yoga may help us bounce back from stress and develop better ways to respond to stressful circumstances.
Improving the way we respond to stress is linked to:
- A quicker cardiovascular recovery from a stressful or emotional moment
- Reduced level of perceived stress
- Faster recovery from illness or trauma
- Better management of dementia and chronic pain
Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Yoga
On-going research indicates yoga can have even more beneficial effects, including:
- Improved heart rate variability (HRV)
- Enhanced physical health (balance, strength, mobility)
- Improvement in the way the brain processes information
- Better nervous system regulation
- Reduced pain/fatigue
- Decreased levels of stress, depression, anxiety
- Improved biochemical effects (regulated blood glucose, lower levels of cortisol)
- Improved quality of life and overall sense of well-being
Different Types of Yoga:
A personal or group yoga practice can provide positive changes in breath, stress, and emotional regulation while creating mind-body awareness. Finding a yoga class and a yoga teacher that resonates with you may take trying different types of yoga classes to develop a yoga practice.
There are several types of yoga to choose from:
- Hatha. Combining a series of basic movements with breathing.
- Vinyasa. Yoga poses that flow continuously into one another.
- Power. High-intensity yoga that focuses on muscle strengthening.
- Ashtanga. Poses combined with a special breathing technique.
- Bikram. Includes 26 specific Hatha poses performed in a heated room (“hot yoga”)
- Iyengar. Uses blocks, straps, and chairs to help assist with proper alignment.
- Restorative. Involves the use of props to adapt poses and practice yoga with less strain or discomfort.
- Kundalini. Involves movement and breath with a variety of mediation techniques and an emphasis on mantra for focus.
- Kripalu. Highlighting awareness and acceptance of sensations, emotions, and thoughts that occur during yoga.
- Yin Yoga. Involves holding postures for 3 to 5 minutes to work with deep connective tissues and fascia.
- Yoga Nidra. A Yogic technique to promote deep rest and relaxation.
Although some physical yoga exercises and postures are more challenging than others, studies suggest yoga goes beyond just burning calories and providing a good workout. Yoga and other mind-body practices using movement and breath offer us the ability to help regulate our nervous system. There are many benefits when we self-regulate and choose how we respond to situations, especially during trying times.