Yoga’s Physical and Mental Health Benefits

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Photo Credit: Shawn Lam 

Written by Andrew Lee

Yoga seems to be the latest trend in fitness these days.  From college students to celebrities, many have engaged in this mind-body art.  Why has it become so popular?  The answer may lie in yoga’s physical and mental health benefits.

Physical Benefits

Increases Flexibility

If your muscles and joints feel tight, yoga’s poses (asanas) may help relieve your pain.  That’s because every asana stretches muscles and “releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use and causes stiffness, tension, pain and fatigue”[1].  Yoga expands your soft tissues, such as ligaments and tendons, and leaves your body feeling limber.  Just over eight weeks of yoga can increase your flexibility by 35%[2].  In a recent study, 62% of a group of firefighters  reported their flexibility improved over a six week yoga program[3].  If you practice yoga continuously, the statistics suggest your flexibility can increase over a short period of time.

Prevents Arthritis & Disability

 Yoga stretches your joints to their fullest extent[4].  This lessens your chance of getting degenerative arthritis or becoming disabled[5].  Various yoga poses exercise regions of cartilage that we rarely use.  According to Dr. Timothy McCall, Yoga Journal’s medical editor, “[j]oint cartilage is like a sponge; it receives fresh nutrients only when its fluid is squeezed out and a new supply can be soaked up”[6].  If your joint cartilage does not receive these nutrients, these unused areas “can eventually wear out”[7]; this causes your bones to painfully grind against each other[8].  Yoga’s asanas that squeeze joints lubricate your unused areas of cartilage[9].  If you practice yoga now, your joints will thank you later.

Enhances Relaxation

The key to yoga is the breath.  When you breathe slowly and deeply during yoga, your mind begins to “focus on the present” and activates the parasympathetic nervous system[10].  This is known as the relaxation response.  Instead of releasing adrenaline, as the fight-or-flight response does[11], the relaxation response “lowers breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs”[12].  This form of meditation gives your nervous system a break from your busy schedule.  Yoga’s soothing nature can also make you sleep better to rejuvenate you each day[13].

Improves Blood Circulation

Yoga movements send oxygen to cells to improve their performance[14].  For example, twisting poses squeeze venous blood (deoxygenated blood[15]) out of “internal organs”[16].  After you untwist yourself, “oxygenated blood” is sent back into the organs[17].  Inverted poses that situate the body upside-down, such as downward dogs and handstands, send the venous blood “back to the heart, where it can be pumped to the lungs” to receive oxygen[18].  If you suffer from leg swelling or heart/kidney issues, you can benefit from inverted poses.

Yoga movements also increase “levels of haemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues”[19].  This causes the blood to thin and reduces blood clots that cause heart attack and strokes[20].

Mental Benefits

Become a Better Person

Scientists have proven yoga meditation can physically alter the brain’s structure to learn new skills[21].  Studies have found that meditators have more gray matter in the brain that is similar to a blank computer hard drive; new software you install on it will allow the computer to perform new tasks.  The same is true for gray matter; whatever skill you train your brain to become better at, can be achieved by practicing that specific activity.  For example, the more musicians practice, the better they will become at producing music.  Consequently, this will change the brain’s physical structure[22].  This also applies to meditators; the only difference is that meditators have a choice of what skill to meditate on.  First, studies have discovered if you “focu[s] [your] attention on your breath or a mantra, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier”[23] .  Second, meditating on “calm acceptance” will reshape the brain to easily recover from stress[24].  Finally, researchers have found if you meditate on emotions “of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others”[25].  In other words, whatever characteristic you want to achieve, you meditate on becoming.

Go Yoga Yourself!

In our fast paced lifestyle, we rarely slow down and focus on ourselves.  Yoga provides an outlet for us to relax and release our stress through exercise and meditation.  Give yoga a try; its physical and mental health benefits will last you a lifetime!

Endnotes


[1]Web MD

[2] Web MD

[3] Cowen

[4] McCall

[5] McCall

[6] McCall

[7] McCall

[8] McCall

[9] McCall

[10] McCall

[11] Web MD

[12] McCall

[13] McCall

[14] McCall

[15] Barber et al.

[16] McCall

[17] McCall

[18] McCall

[19] McCall

[20] McCall

[21] McGonigal

[22] McGonigal

[23] McGonigal

[24] McGonigal

[25] McGonigal

Works Cited

Barber, Katherine, et al. “Venous.” Oxford Canadian Dictionary of Current English. Ed. Katherine Barber. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2005. 945. Print.

Cowen, Virginia S. “Functional Fitness Improvements After a Worksite-Based Yoga Initiative.” Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies 14.1 (2010): 50-4. Scholars Portal. Web. February 16, 2010.

McCall, Timothy. “Count on Yoga: 38 Ways Yoga Keeps You Fit.” Yoga Journal. 2011.Web. February 25, 2011 <http://www.yogajournal.com/health/1634>.

McGonigal, Kelly. “Your Brain on Meditation.” Yoga Journal. 2011.Web. February 25, 2011 <http://www.yogajournal.com/health/2601>.

Web MD. “The Health Benefits of Yoga.” Web MD. 2011.Web. February 25, 2011 <http://www.webmd.com/balance/the-health-benefits-of-yoga>.

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