Health, Heart, Happiness
Physician Dean Ornish included the practice of yoga in his groundbreaking protocol for preventing, treating, and reversing heart disease over three decades ago, and this was only the beginning of spotlighting yoga within a holistic health approach. Since then, Duke University Integrative Medicine department, as well as, the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine of Massachusetts General Hospital, have harnessed the positive effects yoga holds within the treatment of diseases. These institutions have also initiated yoga teacher training courses to certify yoga instructors within their hospitals to help circulate this powerful tool.
The benefits of yoga can be astonishing and, therefore, can sound somewhat ambiguous. Of course, yoga increases your flexibility. Many people show an initial aversion, complaining, “I’m not flexible enough for yoga”. That inhibition alone calls you even closer to the need of the art of yoga. Increasing muscle flexibility alone will help decrease the load placed on all of your joints throughout the day; therefore, decreasing injury. Yoga also has the ability to increase muscular strength which can decrease risks of arthritis as well as osteoporosis (see Wolff’s Law). It is important to note that flexibility without strength can be detrimental to practitioners, increasing the risk of hypermobility injuries. Same goes for strength without flexibility. It is imperative to find the balance between the two to create a harmonious balance for each body shape and body type. Within the art of yoga we are taught how to listen to our bodies and how to check in. With proper form and technique yoga can help decrease the risk for injuries, decrease the detriment of injuries and decrease the recovery time after an injury occurs. Yoga helps you tune into your body, increasing your awareness of what’s going on inside of you.
Posture is imperative for joint, cartilage, bone and nerve health. However, between typing on a computer, driving, eating, and sitting all day, the world is out in front of us and we must lean in to reach it. This poor posture can cause increase in shoulder protraction (rounded shoulders), forward head posture as well as increase in kyphosis of your thoracic spine causing a hunchback look. Not only is this posture bad for your spine, but has been found to cause shoulder issues, neck troubles and even back problems. The practice of yoga has been found to dramatically decrease these symptoms by realigning one’s posture. Yoga has even been proven to reduce pain due to chronic conditions such as carpal tunnel, fibromyalgia, and even correct flattened feet!
A healthy heart is imperative for life. This fact seems obvious but many of us don’t know how to keep our heart healthy. Of course: drink less alcohol, eat fruits and vegetables, stress less, etc. But what else? The heart pumps on average 6 quarts of blood throughout your entire body three times every minute!
- The heart beats 35 million times in one year (that’s over 2.5 billion times in an average lifetime)
- In one day the blood in your body travels an average of 12,000 miles
- If all the veins, arteries and capillaries were laid end to end it would be long enough to go around the Earth 2.5 times (60,000 miles)
Yoga has been proven to get your blood flowing. In twisting poses, after the release, oxygenated blood from the heart and lungs is better able to enter organs. Inversions help pump venous blood from your feet, legs and pelvis back to the heart to become re-oxygenated. This new oxygen and hemoglobin decreases the risk of blood clots in your system decreasing the risk of blood clots.
Even in a slower flow yoga class, your heart rate is regularly brought into an aerobic range. (To find your aerobic range, visit the Active site for a few easy calculations.) Regularly bringing your heart rate into this range has been proven to decrease depression, decrease the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. Studies have found that yoga practice even lowers the resting heart rate causing a decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Practicing yoga regularly can help circulate, oxygenate and regulate blood flow from the heart throughout the rest of the body.
Cortisol (a hormone released during sensations of crisis) has been proven to increase your body’s ability to preserve long-term memory. However, chronic high levels of cortisol has been proven to lead to permanent changes in the brain. These changes can lead to depression, osteoporosis (due to the extraction of calcium in bones,) high blood pressure, insulin resistance and obesity. With the use of asana and relaxation techniques such as meditation, cortisol levels decrease increasing the quality of life for many practitioners.
Slowing your breath causes relaxation. Try it during rush hour traffic. Yoga decreases the amount of time spent in the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and increases the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest;) decreasing heart rate, blood pressure and increasing blood flow to vital organs.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin have shown an increase in the left prefrontal cortex following meditation. This is the area of the brain that’s associated with positive moods, equanimity, and emotional resilience. Therefore, meditation has been scientifically proven to make you feel happier, help balance mood swings, and find resiliency over depression, stress and sadness.
Yoga and meditation is a medicine in and of itself. Will it cure all diseases? I’m not sure. But it will help prevent many and has the potency to treat some. If you’re scared to try, it may be beneficial to start with some simple conscious breathing. The Chopra Center has a beautiful article written for people new to meditation: 5 Meditation Styles for Beginners. For those ready to take the next step, find a studio by you and inquire, share your concerns, whatever they may be! Also know, many studios offer “yoga for beginners” classes!
See also: for guided meditations from the Chopra Center! Another great way to start!