There are a lot of different ways to talk about the benefits of having a yoga practice, so I wasn’t sure what I’d write about when Jan asked me if I wanted to put a little something together for the blog. The physical benefits of doing yoga are the ones I’m most familiar with. Often people go to yoga classes simply because they feel better afterwards and that is a great reason to go. That’s a lot of what gets me out of bed and over to the Shala early most days. But, there’s a growing body of evidence showing that yoga practice can be effective therapy for a range of health conditions that would otherwise have a negative impact on peoples’ quality of life. Yoga is effective for managing chronic pain,[i] particularly chronic low back pain,[ii] as well as reducing certain risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease,[iii] reducing blood pressure,[iv] and improving the quality of life of people who are living with cancer.[v] That isn’t a complete list, obviously. My point is simply that developing a yoga practice tends to have a positive impact on peoples’ bodies regardless of where they are at. It is an effective way of treating health conditions that people we all know have.
The yoga therapist Doug Keller describes yoga as therapy for the human condition. I like that definition because it makes it clear that inasmuch as yoga does good things for peoples’ bodies it has a positive impact on them in other ways too. That matches my personal experience and, for me, that is probably the best kind of evidence when it comes to health stuff. Sometimes I get depressed and I also experience anxiety. My doctor agrees that my Ashtanga practice is a far more effective way for me to manage my mental health than pharmaceuticals. More importantly, so does my partner.
Keller’s definition also aligns well with traditional explanations of why a yoga practice might be worth doing. For example, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali describes yoga as the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. For Patanjali yoga was a means to the freedom from suffering that comes with complete self realization attained through a process that leads to being fully aware in the present moment. For most of us, the results of practice will be less extraordinary. But there’s a great deal of evidence to show that Patanjali was right. Yoga practice calms the mind.[vi] My experience of yoga practice as an effective way to manage my mental health is not unusual.[vii] In fact, its pretty normal.
I’m well into my forties now and I think a lot about what it means to age well. I’ve had an active life and have broken and torn a lot of stuff in my body. Yoga helps me deal with that. But, to be honest, I worry most about my mind. Away from the Shala I work as a policy analyst for the federal government. My job involves a lot of research, thinking, and explaining. I like doing those things and, whether I’m working or retired, want to be able to keep doing them. For that I’ll need a reasonable memory and solid cognitive functionality. I also want to continue spending as much time outside on my bike or in hiking boots as I can. I feel like doing yoga will help me meet those goals, and am glad to have learned that, with continued yoga practice, there’s solid evidence to show that I have more than a few more good years to look forward to![viii]
[i] Büssing, A., Ostermann, T., Lüdtke, R., & Michalsen, A. (2012). Effects of yoga interventions on pain and pain-associated disability: a meta-analysis. The Journal of Pain, 13(1), 1-9.
[ii] Holtzman, S., & Beggs, R. T. (2013). Yoga for chronic low back pain: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Pain Research and Management, 18(5), 267-272.
[iii] Chu, P., Gotink, R. A., Yeh, G. Y., Goldie, S. J., & Hunink, M. M. (2016). The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 23(3), 291-307.
[iv] Hagins, M., Selfe, T., & Innes, K. (2013). Effectiveness of yoga for hypertension: systematic review and meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013.
[v] Lin, K. Y., Hu, Y. T., Chang, K. J., Lin, H. F., & Tsauo, J. Y. (2011). Effects of yoga on psychological health, quality of life, and physical health of patients with cancer: a meta-analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011.
[vi] Da Silva, T. L., Ravindran, L. N., & Ravindran, A. V. (2009). Yoga in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders: A review. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 2(1), 6-16.
[vii] Andreoli, G., Curtiss, J., Hofmann, S. G., & Carpenter, J. K. (2016). Effect of Hatha yoga on anxiety: a meta-analysis. Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine.
[viii] Gothe, N. P., & McAuley, E. (2015). Yoga and cognition: a meta-analysis of chronic and acute effects. Psychosomatic Medicine, 77(7), 784-797.