Yoga is almost synonymous with healthy lifestyle. It’s the new jogging. Before you spend the time and money on a regular yoga practice, you want to know whether it will actually do you any good.
The answer largely depends on two factors: what you’re doing now and what you want from yoga. If you are mostly sedentary, any exercise, including yoga, will improve your health. On the other hand, if you are already reasonably active, you might have to think more specifically about what you want. If you’re a competitive gymnast, for example, a yoga practice might not do much for you but if you’re a runner, yoga will improve your balance and flexibility.
There is a reasonably large body of research on the health benefits of yoga, but whereas studies involving drugs or specific exercise protocols are relatively easy to standardized, there is a huge variety of yoga practices. Even if a study finds unequivocal improvement in, say, blood pressure, there’s not guarantee that the yoga you practice at the local studio will be at all similar to the yoga used in the study.
That said, studies on yoga commonly show similar types of improvements. Participants usually show improvements in balance and proprioception, or awareness of their bodies in space. This is typically said to be of benefit to the elderly, who are at greater risk from falls, but anyone who has smacked his knee on the corner of the bed can appreciate the value of better proprioception.
Yoga has also been found to relieve back pain. Training the core muscles helps to stabilize the spine and relieve pressure. It’s worth noting some caveats, however. Headstands may be dangerous if not practiced correctly. Our necks aren’t designed to support our body weight. Back pain expert Stuart McGill has been critical of the spinal bending and twisting incorporated in most yoga practices, but many yoga practices also include some spine stabilization exercises that McGill advocates, exercises such as planks and “bird dogs.”
Many yoga practices also incorporate breathing techniques called pranayama. Some of these techniques have been shown to have health benefits and are often easier to replicate than a full yoga practice. A simple technique, sometimes called “square breathing” is when you breathe in for four seconds, pause for two seconds, breathe out for four, then pause for two. Square breathing has been shown to quickly relieve anxiety and lower heart rate.
There are also health benefits peripheral to yoga practice. Practicing first thing in the morning can help establish a healthy routine, especially if it forces you to be out of bed at the same time every day. Joining a class can also be a good form of social support, which improves health outcomes and life expectancy.
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