What is Yoga, you may ask? It is the journey of self through self and to self.
Beginning of Yoga
The origin of Yoga can be traced back to the period between the 1st and 5th century CE, a Hindu sage named Patanjali began to document the ancient, meditative traditions practiced throughout India. He recorded techniques nearly as old as Indian civilization itself in 196 manuals called the Yoga Sutras. These texts defined yoga as the ‘yoking’ or restraining of the mind from focusing on external and worldly objects in efforts to reach a state of pure consciousness.
Yoga in Modern life.
Over time, yoga came to incorporate physical elements from gymnastics and wrestling too. Today, there are many approaches to modern yoga— though most still maintain the three core elements of Patanjali’s practice: physical postures, breathing exercises, and spiritual contemplation.
This combination of physical and mental exercise is widely believed to have a unique set of health benefits, such as improving strength and flexibility, boosting heart and lung function, and enhancing psychological well-being. But what have contemporary studies shown regarding the benefits of this ancient tradition?
What makes Yoga special?
Despite several attempts by many researchers, it’s tough to make any specific claims about yoga’s advantages. Its unique combination of activities makes it difficult to determine which component is responsible for a specific health benefit. Additionally, yoga studies are often made up of small sample sizes that lack diversity, and the heavy reliance on self-reporting makes results subjective. However, there are some health benefits that have more robust scientific support than others.
1. Flexibility and Strength
Twisting your body into yoga’s physical postures stretches multiple muscle groups. In short, stretching can change the water content of these muscles, ligaments, and tendons to make them more elastic. Over time, regular stretching stimulates stem cells, which then differentiate into new muscle tissue and other cells that generate elastic collagen.
Frequent stretching also reduces the body’s natural reflex to constrict muscles, improving your pain tolerance for feats of flexibility. Researchers haven’t found that any one form of yoga improves flexibility more than another, so the impact of specific postures is unclear. But like other low-impact exercises, yoga reliably improves fitness and flexibility in healthy populations.
The practice has also been proven to be a potentially powerful therapeutic tool. In studies involving patients with a variety of musculoskeletal disorders, yoga was more helpful at reducing pain and improving mobility than other forms of low-impact exercise. Adding yoga to an existing exercise routine can improve strength and flexibility.
2. Breathing Exercises
Yoga’s mix of physical exercise and regimented breathing has proven similarly therapeutic for lung health. Lung diseases like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, shrink the passage that carries oxygen, while weakening the membrane that brings oxygen into the blood.
But breathing exercises like those found in yoga play a vital role in relaxing the muscles constricting those passageways and improving oxygen diffusion. Increasing the blood’s oxygen content is especially helpful for those with weak heart muscles who have difficulty pumping enough oxygen throughout the body. And for those with healthy hearts, regular breathing practice can lower the blood pressure and reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
3. Yoga’s psychological effect.
Yoga’s most widely known benefit may be the most difficult to prove: its psychological effects. Despite the strong association between yoga and psychological wellbeing, there’s little conclusive evidence on how the practice affects mental health.
Yoga is claimed to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders. Since diagnosis of these conditions varies widely, as do their origin and severity, it’s difficult to quantify yoga’s impact. However, there exists evidence which suggests that yoga can help reduce the symptoms of stress, as well as meditation or relaxation. Research on the effects of yoga is still evolving.
Besides yoga’s powerful physical and mental health benefits, continuous research also suggests a regular yoga routine can benefit the brain by boosting thinking skills, and even stop cognitive decline.
In the future, we’ll need more intense studies, involving diverse participants, which can measure yoga’s impact on heart attacks, cancer rates, cognitive function and more. But for now, yoga can continue its ancient tradition as a way to exercise, reflect, and relax.