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  • Writer's pictureFrank Whiting

How yoga works

Updated: Apr 17, 2018

And how it can be beneficial to anyone

So you came to yoga for the exercise, or to increase your flexibility, or maybe just because someone said it might be a good thing to try.  But after a few practices you’ve started to notice some unexpected changes – a few less aches and pains, more restful sleep, more patience and better focus at work or at home.  Or maybe you’ve been thinking about trying yoga but need a gentle “nudge” to get you in the door and on the mat.     Yoga as a holistic practice is based on the body’s ability to maintain and even heal itself, both physically and mentally.  A regular yoga practice has been proven (5,000 years of evidence) to improve health, heal aches and pains, keep sickness at bay, increase energy and even slow aging.  And don’t take our word for it – details can be found in studies by Boston University, Mayo Clinic, Annals of Internal Medicine, Duke University Medical Center, Harvard Health and countless more respected sources.

Physical Benefits (beyond the "stretch")

Physically, a regular yoga practice can boost your immune system, lower blood pressure, improve range of motion and dexterity, improve lung capacity and breathing efficiency (easing asthma and the effects of allergies), build strength, improve balance, increase blood flow and improve circulation, reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, improve digestion, improve quality of sleep, improve bone health and density (helping to prevent Osteoporosis), improve sexual function, moderate blood sugar levels, reduce sodium levels and reduce or eliminate IBS, constipation, and in theory the risk of colon cancer.  By helping circulate lymph throughout the body (the Lymph system has no “pump”), yoga helps the body eliminate toxins and waste and move disease fighting white blood cells to where they are needed to fight infection and disease. And the increased body awareness that comes with regular practice can lead to early detection of physical problems, allowing for preventative action. Studies have shown that yoga is a valuable tool in treating heart disease, Osteoporosis, Alzheimers, Type II Diabetes, Carpal Tunnel, Asthma, MS, Cancer, Muscular Dystrophy, Migraines, Scoliosis, Chronic Bronchitis, Epilepsy, Sciatica, OCD, Constipation, Allergies, Menopause.  And Arthritis loves the gentle movement of a traditional yoga practice. Maybe you’re “growing older but not up,” and the activities that you don’t want to give up are taking a toll – chronic back or neck pain is especially common.  The spinal flexibility from yoga’s gentle bends and twists helps to maintain and even stimulate repair of the soft disks between each vertebra, allowing the disks to be healthy and maintaining a clear path for the nerves that exit the spine between the vertebra to reach their destination unimpeded.  Not to mention the reduction and eventual elimination of back and neck pain from impinged spinal disks. The spinal health that a regular yoga practice creates is especially obvious if you have ever seen “Bodies: The Exhibition,” which showcases actual preserved human bodies in various states of dissection to show the body’s various systems.  One exhibit, labeled “The Thinker” after the famous statue by Auguste Rodin, shows the spine with nerves leaving the spine between each vertebra and clearly leading to each major organ.   From the exhibit it is obvious how spinal health is critical to proper organ function, and therefore to overall health.  If a nerve leading to an organ is impinged, the organ cannot function to its full potential.

Mental Benefits ("Who are you?")

If you have begun practicing yoga, you may have noticed that you leave each practice feeling physically relaxed and calm but mentally awake and alert.  The mental benefits of yoga are well documented, and are largely a result of the breath work (Pranayama) and the inward focus (Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana) that is part of the practice. It’s pretty simple - by reducing mental stress and physical tension we are better able to recall and have more organized thoughts. This improved cognitive function happens when we are able to clear our minds and refresh. From a place of peace and calmness, we are able to use our mental facilities more efficiently. A regular yoga practice can lead to improved mood, reduced stress, anxiety and depression, a higher level of self-acceptance and self control, a more positive outlook on life, better concentration, memory and attention, improved social skills, and an overall feeling of calmness.  To get technical, these changes occur through the stimulation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which in turn promotes rest, digestion and healing.  And breath work (Pranayama), especially Ujjayi breath (the slightly restricted breath commonly used throughout a yoga practice) has been shown to condition the Vagus Nerve, which sits at the top of the spinal column and controls the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Practicing in a group setting has been shown to stimulate the production of Oxytocin, the “love and bonding” hormone.  And practicing mindfulness through yoga and meditation results in higher Seratonin levels (the “happiness” hormone). Studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can help reduce anxiety and depression and can even benefit those suffering from schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions.  And the Veteran’s Administration is beginning to acknowledge the value of yoga as a component of their treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD and other stress-related disorders.

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