For those who practice, yoga can have many meanings, many purposes, and many benefits.
“The task at hand in Yoga is to find union—between mind and body, between the individual and her God, between our thoughts and the source of our thoughts, between teacher and student, and even between ourselves and our sometimes hard-to-bend neighbors,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. “The Yogic path is about disentangling the built-in glitches of the human condition, which I’m going to over-simply define here as the heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment…Yoga is the effort to experience one’s divinity personally and then to hold onto that experience forever.”
In addition to all this (as if this alone is not enough), men and women who enjoy the practice of yoga are quick to tell you about its physical benefits as well. I’ve heard yogis say it reduces their stress, helps them sleep better, detoxifies the body, and even gives them clearer skin. While the psychological and spiritual benefits of yoga may vary from person to person and can be difficult to measure empirically, the physical health benefits can—and have—been clinically studied. WebMD lists flexibility, strength, and better posture among yoga’s health benefits, and says also, “yoga has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. A slower heart rate can benefit people with high blood pressure or heart disease, and people who’ve had a stroke. Yoga has also been linked to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and better immune system function.”
Consumer magazine Yoga Journal lists improved bone and joint strength, increased drainage of lymph (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells), lowered resting heart rate, increased endurance, lowered blood pressure, lowered cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress), increased serotonin (a hormone commonly regarded as responsible for mood balance), lowered blood sugar and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, improved coordination and memory, better sleep, increased endurance, higher self-esteem, and pain relief among the health benefits of yoga in the article “Count on Yoga: 38 Ways Yoga Keeps You Fit,” by Timothy McCall, MD.
But as they say, peer review or it didn’t happen.
According to the Yoga Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides resources and education about the health benefits of yoga, in a study on chronic back pain, “when doctors at the HMO Group Health Cooperative in Seattle pitted 12 weekly sessions of yoga against therapeutic exercises and a handbook on self-care, they discovered the yoga group not only showed greater improvement but experienced benefits lasting 14 weeks longer.” The website goes on to cite research studies that show yoga having a positive impact on depression, improved nerve conduction in people with diabetes, decreased hot flashes in women going through menopause, improved pulmonary function in people with mild asthma, and even decreased fatigue in cancer survivors.
Western doctors are gradually becoming more accepting of the idea that actual physical benefits can now be tied to yoga practice, and that it does more than make people feel good. One can now find published clinical studies about the health benefits of yoga in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Frontiers in Psychiatry, and the Harvard Mental Health Letter from Harvard Medical School.
Of course, yoga alone should not be looked at as a cure for any medical illness, and one should not make the decision to stop taking one’s medication or forego a physician’s instructions in favor of yoga. But there is enough evidence to show that it may help improve the symptoms of many conditions, when practiced along with your current treatment regimen. Yoga may or may not help your particular medical condition in any empirically measurable way, but if it brings something positive into your life—psychologically, spiritually, or physically, then yoga on.
The Benefits of Yoga, the American Osteopathic Association
Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity, Mayo Clinic
Yoga for Health, NIH National
Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic
Prescription for Health and Healing, book by Timothy McCall, MD