The New Science on the Health Benefits of Yoga

Source: Huffington Post, Sonima.com

There were no signs that a heart attack was imminent. Dilip Sarkar was not overweight. Nor did he have high blood pressure or high blood sugar. In fact, the 51-year-old vascular surgeon from Virginia swears he had never been sick a day in his life. But in 2001, Sarkar found himself clutching his chest and eventually getting wheeled into the operating room for emergency by-pass surgery. Shortly after the life-threatening ordeal, which he later attributed to a hyperarousal state, Sarkar became fascinated by Ayurvedic medicine and yoga therapy as a way to improve his health and prevent this near-fatal event from happening again.

Today, Sarkar practices one hour (25 minutes of asanas, 25 minutes of pranayama and 10 minutes of mediation) every morning and, at age 65, is feeling better than ever without any medication. Retired from his private medical practice, Sarkar is now a yoga teacher and clinical researcher focusing on yoga’s many health rewards. To help deliver his findings to his physician friends, he founded a course called Yoga Therapy for Medical Professionals in 2010 that he teaches three or more times a year.

“What I’ve found through studying yoga therapy is that people who have a daily practice have effortlessly and automatically changed their lifestyle. They eat better, sleep better, their lifestyle is more regulated,” says Sarkar, who also serves as chairman of the School of Integrative Medicine at Taksha University in Hampton, Virginia. Don’t just take his word for it. Hundreds and thousands of scientific studies support his beliefs. As further proof, we dug up some of the most recently published works (all in 2015) on the perks of a persistent yoga practice.

Improves cardiovascular health. Sarkar, the poster child for this one, explains how: “Hypertension is due to a constriction of blood vessels, and heart disease is due to blockage in the coronary arteries. When relaxation sets in, yoga therapy relaxes blood vessels and reduces blood pressure while increasing the blood flow to the heart muscle.” A study published in the April issue of the journal Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome backs this: Researchers followed 182 middle-aged Chinese adults who suffered from metabolic syndrome who practiced yoga for a year. The activity proved to not only lower their blood pressure, but also help them significantly slim them down, too.

Curbs chronic neck and low-back pain. Postures are the backbone of yoga, so it’s no wonder a regular practice is good for your stance. Besides straightening your slouch, it may also ease pain. In the January issue of Israel’s Medical Association journal, Harefuah, researchers reported that yoga may be a valuable tool to treat chronic neck and low-back pain. “Herniated discs and spinal stenosis don’t cause pain. They cause an irritation of a nerve which cause a contraction of the muscle. The muscle tightness or spasm then causes the pain,” explains Sarkar, who did not work on this study. This is why doctors tend to prescribe a muscle relaxant to relieve low back pain. “In yoga therapy, when you hold a pose, your muscles contract and then slowly relax as you breath in and out. When relaxation sets in, back pain starts to go away.”

Sharpens the brain. An asana practice doesn’t just make your body more flexible, but also your brain too. In a recent study of 133 older adults, ages 53 to 96, those who practiced 30 minutes of yoga performed twice a week for more than a month saw an improvement in their cognitive function. “Focused breath equals maximizing oxygenation and movement increases blood flow to brain and body,” says registered nurse Graham McDougall Jr., Ph.D., the lead researcher of the report published in the June issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing. Participants of the study saw significant gains memory performance and had fewer depressive symptoms as well.

Controls diabetes. “The practice of yoga increases your digestive fire called agni,” Sarkar says. “So the yogic way of looking at diabetes is that the body cannot digest sugar, which is why blood-sugar levels are high. If you can improve your digestion, you can improve your blood sugar, which is great for both diabetes prevention and control,” he says. A new study published in the April issue of the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research supports this: Thirty men with Type 2 diabetes who practiced yoga for six months saw a significant decrease in their blood glucose levels.

Staves off stress and anxiety. It’s no secret that yoga is a great way to calm down. You can feel a soothing wave wash over you immediately during and after practice—and it’s not just a placebo effect. A new report presented at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Conference 2015 in April linked yoga to lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, especially in women at risk for mental health problems. In the study of 52 women, ages 25 to 45, who had mildly elevated anxiety, moderate depression or high stress, those who performed Bikram (a 90-minute heated form of Hatha yoga) twice a week felt better (mood improved), looked better (pounds came off), and had better control over their anxiety.

Related: Yoga’s Role in the Treatment of Eating Disorders

Decreases depression. Keeping a cool head can keep you from getting down, too. In the May issue of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, researchers found that women experiencing postpartum depression saw a significant improvement in their anxiety, depression, and health-related quality of life after just eight week of yoga (twice a week) compared to their counterparts who did not practice yoga. In another unrelated study in theIndian Journal of Palliative Care, breast cancer patients who practiced 60 minutes of yoga daily over a 24-week period, which included surgery and radiotherapy or chemotherapy (some heavy stuff!), reported a big drop in depressive symptoms compared to the non-yoga group. Nothing like a good Warrior Pose to help you put up a good fight.

Lowers cancer risk. If cancer runs in your family, you may want to pick up a regular yoga practice, which has shown to prevent the genetic mutation from expressing, Sarkar suggests. Cancer patients could also use yoga as a fierce weapon to battle the effects of the disease. A study published last January in Journal of Clinical Oncology found that performing yoga twice a week for as little as three months could lower inflammation, boost energy, and lift the mood of female cancer patients.

Promotes positive self-perception. Your yoga teacher isn’t the only one oozing optimism. In a pilot study from Brazil published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice in May, university students reported feeling good after their yoga practice, especially pertaining to self-control, self-perception, well-being, body awareness, balance, mind-body and reflexivity. “The word yoga itself means union. It unites your mind, body and spirit. During yoga practice, we inhale positive emotions and exhale negative emotions,” explains Sarkar, who did not work on this study. “Yoga also helps quiet the mind chatter [like endless to-do lists].”

Lengthens lifespan and youth. Another study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine this May analyzed the effects that 90 days of yoga had on an obese 31-year-old man who had a history of fatigue, difficulty losing weight, and lack of motivation. Not only did adopting a yoga or meditation-based lifestyle help erase some signs of aging, but also prevented several lifestyle-related diseases of which oxidative stress and inflammation are the chief cause.

Reduces PMS. While Savasanah sounds great during that time of the month, other poses may alleviate period symptoms as well. In a new study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine this May, researchers found that 11 women who practiced yoga in the follicular phase (from first day of period until ovulation) and luteal phase (during ovulation) of a menstrual cycle felt more relaxed or were in a more peaceful mental state immediately afterward compared to the control group.

 

Study Finds Yoga Can Help Back Pain, But Keep It Gentle, With These Poses

Source: NPR

If you're tired of popping pain medicine for your lower back pain, yoga may be a good alternative.

New research finds that a yoga class designed specifically for back pain can be as safe and effective as physical therapy in easing pain.

The yoga protocol was developed by researchers at Boston Medical Center with input from yoga teachers, doctors and physical therapists.

During the class, trained instructors guide participants through gentle poses, including cat-cow, triangle pose and child's pose. Simple relaxation techniques are part of the class as well. More difficult poses, such as inversions, are avoided.

A guidebook that details the poses taught during the class is freely available, as is a teacher training manual.

The findings, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, are in line with new guidelines for treating back pain from the American College of Physicians. The group recommends that people with back pain should avoid pain medicines if possible, and instead opt for alternatives such as tai chi, yoga and massage. As we've reported, those guidelines are aimed at people with run-of-the-mill back pain, rather than pain due to an injury or other diagnosed problem.

Who was in the study? Researchers recruited 320 racially diverse, predominantly low-income participants in the Boston area, all of whom had chronic low back pain. The study lasted one year.

What did participants in the study do? Participants were divided into three groups. One group was assigned to a weekly yoga class for 12 weeks. Another group was assigned 15 physical therapy (PT) visits. The third group received an educational book and newsletters. For the remainder of the year — roughly 40 weeks — participants in the yoga group were assigned to either drop-in classes or home practice. The PT group was assigned to either "PT booster sessions" or home practice.

The skinny: Researchers assessed changes in pain and function using a 23-point questionnaire. The participants in the yoga and physical therapy groups had about the same amount of improvement in pain and functioning over time.

When the study began, about 70 percent of the patients were taking some form of pain medication. At the end of three months, when the yoga classes were wrapping up, the percentage of yoga and PT participants still taking pain medication had dropped to about 50 percent. By comparison, the use of pain medication did not decline among participants in the education group.

"It's a significant reduction," says study author Rob Saper, director of integrative medicine at Boston Medical Center.

"I'm not recommending that people just go to any yoga class," Saper told us. He pointed out that their research has helped nail down poses and relaxation techniques that are helpful and safe.

Saper says he chose to compare the effects of yoga with physical therapy because "PT is the most common referral that physicians make for patients with back pain. It's accepted, it's reimbursed, and it's offered in most hospitals."

Saper says if research shows that yoga can be as effective, "maybe yoga should be considered as a potential therapy that can be more widely disseminated and covered [by insurance]."

An editorial published alongside the study points out that treating low back pain is complicated and improvements documented in the study were modest.

"Any single treatment approach is unlikely to prove helpful to all or even most patients," writes Stefan Kertesz of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine and his co-author, Douglas Chang of University of California, San Diego. Nonetheless, as this new study has shown, "yoga offers some persons tangible benefit without much risk," they conclude.

Increased well-being: Another reason to try yoga

Source: Harvard Health Publications

The ability of yoga to help dial back both physical and mental problems is reason enough to try it. But there's more. Even at this early stage of research, a regular yoga practice appears to correlate with increased well-being, including better sleep, better body awareness, weight loss, and greater happiness. By improving mindfulness, it simultaneously helps to boost compassion, gratitude, and "flow" states, all of which contribute to greater happiness. Early evidence suggests that yoga may even slow aging on the cellular level, perhaps through its stress-busting effects.

What makes these findings so exciting is that they suggest that a regular yoga practice can improve multiple areas of your life at once, creating positive feedback loops that can further promote health. For example, yoga can help improve your sleep, which in turn gives you more energy and focus during your day. When you feel better physically and mentally, you have the energy to adopt better habits, including a healthier diet and more physical activity. These changes in turn can lead to better weight control, which helps with a host of physical problems. More exercise—not to mention fewer aches and pains—can improve your sleep, and so the cycle continues.

BETTER SLEEP

How do you feel when you wake up in the morning— refreshed and ready to go, or groggy and grumpy? As many as one in four Americans sleeps less than six hours a night. Insufficient sleep can make you too tired to work efficiently, to exercise, or to eat healthfully.

Over time, sleep deprivation increases the risks for a number of chronic health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But emerging research shows that yoga may help you fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and sleep more soundly—without the negative side effects of medication.

Yoga facilitates sleep by reducing stress, anxiety, and arousal—all known causes of poor sleep. One small study looked at a Kundalini meditation and breathing practice. Twenty people who had trouble sleeping did the 30-minute practice every night before going to bed. After eight weeks, researchers found that the participants were sleeping 36 minutes longer on average and waking up less during the night. Over all, the quality of their sleep improved by 11%.

Sleep problems tend to increase as you get older, but a study done on adults ages 60 and up offers some good news. When scientists surveyed 35 seniors who had been doing a daily yoga practice for at least two years, they found that those who did yoga fell asleep 10 minutes faster, got an extra hour of sleep, and felt more rested when they woke up in the morning, compared with seniors who did not do yoga.

Yoga even helps with full-fledged insomnia. While following common advice on how to get a good night's sleep can reduce sleep problems, people in one study fell asleep 37% faster after eight weeks of yoga compared with 28% for those who received only the advice.

Research shows that there is a "dose-response" effect—meaning that the more you practice yoga, the fewer sleep disturbances you are likely to experience and the more restorative your sleep will be. Even if you don't have problems falling asleep, yoga can improve the quality of your slumber.