Yoga: The New ‘Old’ Medicine

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Yoga has been practiced for at least 5,000 years. The word itself seems to radiate peace and tranquility, perhaps because of its etymology. “Yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Yuj,” which essentially means to join or unite. The goal of yoga is for the individual to “unite” with physical and mental disciplines.

About 11 million Americans enjoy the benefits of yoga, which include improved flexibility, strength, posture, breathing, concentration and cardiovascular health, as well as reduced stress and positive effects on medical conditions.

Yoga is ageless and adaptable; anyone at any age can participate. Each person is encouraged to exercise at their own pace and skill level, and most poses can be adapted for specific physical limitations. Of course, there is a learning curve involved whenever you try something new, but the earlier you begin a yoga practice, the more benefits you can enjoy.

Why Yoga Makes Us Feel Good

Scientists have only recently examined why people feel so good after practicing yoga. It has to do with brain chemistry.

Neuroscientists now know the release of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is clearly demonstrated in those who participate in yoga. GABA is a neurotransmitter that inhibits nerve impulses, particularly in the cerebral cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for thinking and sensing. Higher levels of GABA are associated with a relaxed feeling and keener mental awareness.

Neuroscientists have measured GABA in two different studies that compare the levels of the neurotransmitter in participants of an hour-long yoga class with the levels in similar groups who either walked or read for the same one-hour period. The results were impressive. Brain MRIs showed a 27 percent increase in GABA in yoga participants, compared to the group that just did quiet reading.

GABA also lowers beta brain waves, which contribute to a state of anxiety, nervousness and hyperactivity. The connection is so strong that some mental health counselors recommend yoga as a treatment for chronic anxiety and stress.

An Old Practice with Newly Discovered Benefits

Our long-ago ancestors who succeeded at hunting and foraging had higher GABA levels that gave them the calmness and clarity of mind needed to be patient while waiting for prey. Many yoga positions have primitive names and postures associated with these hunting behaviors. Here in modern times, those of us whose chief “hunting” activity is finding a parking spot at the mall can still benefit from this mental and physical practice.

  • Flexibility. You are never too old to stretch. Stretching your muscles releases the lactic acid that builds up in them as you exercise. A “pretzel” pose may not be realistic for most seniors, but gradually improving your flexibility will help you stay mobile and active. Taking your joints through a range of motion helps to lubricate their surfaces, which is beneficial. The soft tissues, namely the tendons, ligaments and sheaths, can be elongated and made more flexible over time. One study showed that only eight weeks of yoga improved flexibility markedly for the trunk and shoulders.
  • Strength. Various styles of yoga focus on maintaining individual poses and working through sequences of many poses. Even though it looks and feels easy at first, these poses can really be a challenge. Staying in a pose correctly for an appropriate period of time can gradually improve muscle tone and strength. Building core strength helps avoid back problems, improves balance and coordination, and generally contributes to good posture.
  • Posture. In this digital age, many of us work at desks, watch TV on the couch and generally lead sedentary lives. All of these activities contribute to poor posture. Yoga is one good antidote for this problem. Concentrating on developing core strength, balance and flexibility offsets some of the inherent forward curve or stooped posture that becomes increasingly common as we grow older.
  • Breathing. A good yoga practice isn’t complete without deep, mindful breathing. This helps with lung function and endurance and creates a general sense of wellbeing. Better breathing also helps maintain a higher level of oxygen in the blood steam, which, in turn, supports the brain and other vital organs. Mindful breathing techniques also help to manage stress.
  • Stress relief. Most beginners notice they feel less stressed and more relaxed, even after their first yoga class. People who take classes regularly have decreased levels of catecholamines, the hormones produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. With yoga, there is also a boost in oxytocin in your system. Oxytocin—also known as the “hormone of love”—is normally produced in modest quantities in the brain and is associated with trust and bonding. It also staves off depression.
  • Mood. These attributes are hard to pin down objectively, but yoga participants report that they feel happier and more content after class than before. This post-exercise feeling is common and I believe very important, or almost no one would be “hooked” on exercise. Personally, I feel a whole lot better after a workout of any type than I do at the beginning of the activity.
  • Cardiovascular benefits. Yoga lowers blood pressure and slows heart rate over time. As with breathing, the mind can be focused on certain bodily functions for beneficial effects. Yoga has long been a key component of many famous medical and spa regimens. There have been some associations of yoga with a boosting of the immune system, as well as decreased levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, which are the fats in the blood.
  • Other medical conditions. Less studied but still intriguing is the use of yoga for chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, back pain, arthritis, insomnia and multiple sclerosis. Yoga alone is not going to be the cure for many chronic conditions, but it is a safe addition to generally accepted therapies. All the benefits above would help anyone with almost any disease, with little risk.
  • Memory and learning. Improving your ability to focus while in a yoga class may carry over to other activities of daily living, including those dependent on memory and learning. The physical disciplines of yoga probably contribute to better learning ability, awareness and attention. Visualizing and holding a pose, controlling your breathing and concentrating on the task at hand are aspects of yoga that can help you tune out noise in your everyday life and improve your productivity.

Are there any drawbacks to yoga? Not really. It’s important to learn proper form for each pose, though, in order to avoid injury. Yoga is not competitive, so beginners must work at their own pace and be patient with their bodies at first. If you’re concerned about whether beginning a yoga practice would be beneficial, speak with your doctor first.

Although some of its positive effects could use more research and objective evidence, yoga has been practiced for centuries and continues to grow around the world. I say, visit a local studio or pick up a yoga DVD and reap the benefits.

Dr. Allen Weiss, CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System, is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

NCH Healthcare System

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