Hype or Help— Can Yoga Improve the Mind as Well as the Body?

Hype or Help— Can Yoga Improve the Mind as Well as the Body?

A Look at the Benefits of an Exercise that is Said to Improve More than Just the Waistline

Twice a week at the Lake Wales Public Library, certified yoga instructor Kelley Bogle leads her class in a 90-minute long session of breathing exercises, body postures, and meditation.  Bogle teaches all levels of yoga, and while her students’ abilities differ, the goal is the same for everyone.  “It’s about mindfulness and being aware,” she says.  Bogle has been certified for more than 10 years, but she began practicing yoga two decades earlier— to help alleviate pain from poor posture and double-jointed knees.  Yoga relieved her pain but it also provided another benefit— mental clarity.  “Meditation really helped me deal with things.  I didn’t have to be drawn into every drama around me,” she elaborates.

Mind, Body, and Soul
Since the jogging craze of the 1970s, American culture has been fixated on exercise and health, even though our waistlines have continued to expand.  Workout fads have come and gone like fashion trends, and the connection between physical and mental health has sometimes gotten lost.  Bogle use to work out to Jane Fonda tapes, and push her body to its physical limits.  “You can be addicted to exercise; I exercised with injury and that’s part of mental health,” she observes.  But today she enjoys yoga, a healthier, more mindful exercise that is skyrocketing in popularity.

Hatha yoga, the most common type of yoga practiced in the United States, combines three elements: physical poses, called asanas; controlled breathing practiced in conjunction with asanas; and a short period of deep relaxation or meditation.

Poses are said to work on all systems of the body.  Besides strengthening and elongating muscles, these postures tone up glands, internal organs, and spine nerves.  Yoga also increases blood flow helping the digestive system utilize nutrients from the foods we eat and the lymphatic system to eliminate toxins from the body.  Over time, yoga has become big business.  But there is a growing body of research to back up claims that it can help one’s psychological state as well.

What the Research Says
In a German study published in 2005, a group of self-described “emotionally distressed” people took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months while a control group maintained their normal daily activities.  At the end of three-month period, the subjects who took yoga, reported improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, and well-being.

Another 2005 study, at a New Hampshire psychiatric hospital, examined the effects of a single yoga class on in-patients.  The in-patients suffered from bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia.  After the class, it was determined via the Profile of Mood States— a 65-questionnaire— that in-patients’ levels of tension, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and fatigue dropped.  Additional controlled trials of yoga practice have demonstrated improvements in mood and quality of life for the elderly, people caring for patients with dementia, breast cancer survivors, and patients with epilepsy.

Why it’s Relaxing and Strengthening
But how does holding a physical posture like sun salutation neurobiologically relax one’s body while at the same time strengthen the mind and the physique?  Practicing yoga changes the firing patterns of the nerves and the body’s chemical makeup of fluids and blood gases that trigger the relaxation response.  Using specific poses and concentrated movements, and holding those poses while practicing deep breathing, shifts the body into a state of biochemical arousal and tension that calms and relaxes.  The practice of relaxing and settling into a yoga pose while engaging in deep breathing lowers the brain’s response to threat.  The body in response turns off arousing nerve chemicals, like adrenaline and halts fatty acids and sugar from going into the blood stream for brain, muscle, and motor energy.  In addition, sodium leaves the body’s cells, slowing down the rate of nerve firing, further relaxing your brain, heart, and muscles.  This state of biochemical relaxation oxygenates the blood, restores blood acidity and alkalinity balance, and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and motor activity.

Eye of the Hurricane
Intense endurance workouts and obstacle races are enjoying immense popularity, right now, and yoga can be taken to an extreme level as well.  Yoga practitioners can get fixated on the idea of pushing their limits in attempts to master high level poses.  But for Bogle and many others, this 5,000-year-old practice is the perfect remedy to our sedentary yet fast pace lifestyle.  “I’m the eye of the hurricane around me,” explains Bogle on how mindfulness helps her deal with the chaos of life.

“We do, do, do, do, do— that’s how we live our lives and approach exercise,” she states.  Yoga slows everything down, making people more aware and mindful of their actions right down to every breath they take.



Categories: Features, Health News