Yoga for health: uniting body and mind

Yoga is an eastern tradition which is becoming increasingly popular in Western societies. Although the spiritual elements of this ancient Indian practice have partially disappeared in its westernised form, the practice still remains a holistic and multi-dimensional approach to maintaining good health and wellbeing (de Manincor et al., 2015). This is reflected in the meaning of its Sanskrit name: ‘to unite’ or ‘to attain what is previously unattainable’ (Uebelacker et al., 2010). Its main elements include physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana) (Uebelacker et al., 2010). The emphasis on these elements differs between styles, e.g. Iyengar yoga focuses on the alignment of the body in asanas, whilst vinyasa teaches to link breath with movement. In addition, yogis promote positive values and attitudes, as well as lifestyle. Research has shown that it can help with health problems ranging from mental health difficulties to musculoskeletal ailments.

So, is yoga really effective and beneficial for our health and if so, what is its secret?

Meditation is one of the core elements of yoga.
Meditation is one of the core elements of yoga.

Randomised controlled studies of yoga have shown that it can reduce pain and improve functional outcomes for individuals with physical problems such as lower back pain and fibromyalgia (Ward et al., 2013). Some evidence indicates that yoga can not only manage, but also reduce some musculoskeletal problems such as scoliosis – a condition in which the spine curves laterally (Fishman et al., 2014). Scoliosis patients who performed a pose known as the ‘side plank’ for an average of  90 seconds a day, most days of the week for seven months, showed a decrease in the lateral spine curvature by around 32%. The more conscientiously the patients practiced the side plank, the more their spine improved. The authors of the study emphasise the importance of performing the pose on the convex side of the spine only (do not try this without a consultation with a specialist). Such asymmetry of the exercise might achieve its effect by strengthening the weaker side of the vertebral column. The results of this study are very encouraging, however randomized controlled trials with a longer follow-up period are needed to substantiate these findings.

Although other forms of physical activity, such as stretching, can be equally effective in improving daily functioning, in some cases yoga has been shown to be superior to physical therapy. Specifically, when it come to improving quality of life and reducing depression, which often accompanies physical illness (Ward et al., 2013). Indeed, yoga has been shown to help those with mood disorders, including women with postnatal depression (Buttner et al., 2015).

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It can however be difficult to draw clear conclusions from research which examines yoga for health. Specifically because the type of yoga, the intensity and length of practice vary greatly among studies.  Is it possible to formulate a ‘prescription’ yoga practice that would provide clear evidence of its effectiveness? Some yoga experts suggest that, in order to help reduce depression and anxiety, yoga practice not only needs to include certain key elements, but also avoid some of other components (de Manincor et al., 2015). For example, both depression and anxiety might be alleviated with breath regulation, however depressed individuals benefit more from the focus on the inhalation, whilst those with anxiety from lengthening the exhale and ‘humming bee’ (bhramari) technique. Anxious yoga students should avoid rapid breathing techniques, as well as heated and crowded yoga rooms. It is suggested that students with mental health problems should practice for 30-40 minutes 5 times a week for 6 weeks. However, frequency of practice is more controversial among teachers of yoga for musculoskeletal conditions, predominantly because unsupervised yoga sessions can be harmful to those with no previous yoga experience (Ward et al., 2014). However, experts in both areas agree that yoga practice that aims to help with specific problems should be integrated, personalized and taught by those with sufficient experience and training, specifically relating to the condition of their students.

The active ingredients of yoga are thought be mindfulness and physical activity (Uebelacker et al., 2010). Both of these elements are important in other approaches to treating health problems. One of the advantages of yoga, however, is its holistic focus on reaching one’s full potential rather than reducing the symptoms of illness, as well as its emphasis on uniting the mind and body and building self acceptance (Uebelacker et al., 2010). Although it can be difficult to meet the exact requirements for yoga as a treatment for physical and mental health problems, i.e. frequency of practice and structured personlised classes, it still remains a promising adjunct therapy. So, let us hope that the growing popularity of ‘attaining what is previously unattainable’ might increase the access and diversity of classes.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek

References:

Buttner, M. M., R. L. Brock, M. W. O’Hara, and S. Stuart, 2015, Efficacy of yoga for depressed postpartum women: A randomized controlled trial: Complement Ther Clin Pract, v. 21, p. 94-100.

de Manincor, M., A. Bensoussan, C. Smith, P. Fahey, and S. Bourchier, 2015, Establishing key components of yoga interventions for reducing depression and anxiety, and improving well-being: a Delphi method study: BMC Complement Altern Med, v. 15, p. 85.

Fishman, L. M., E. J. Groessl, and K. J. Sherman, 2014, Serial case reporting yoga for idiopathic and degenerative scoliosis: Glob Adv Health Med, v. 3, p. 16-21.

Uebelacker, L. A., G. Epstein-Lubow, B. A. Gaudiano, G. Tremont, C. L. Battle, and I. W. Miller, 2010, Hatha yoga for depression: critical review of the evidence for efficacy, plausible mechanisms of action, and directions for future research: J Psychiatr Pract, v. 16, p. 22-33.

Ward, L., S. Stebbings, D. Cherkin, and G. D. Baxter, 2013, Yoga for functional ability, pain and psychosocial outcomes in musculoskeletal conditions: a systematic review and meta-analysis: Musculoskeletal Care, v. 11, p. 203-17.

Ward, L., S. Stebbings, K. J. Sherman, D. Cherkin, and G. D. Baxter, 2014, Establishing key components of yoga interventions for musculoskeletal conditions: a Delphi survey: BMC Complement Altern Med, v. 14, p. 196.

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