Yoga Health Benefits

yoga health benefits

Many yoga health benefits include increased cardiorespiratory capacity, musculo-skeletal strength, and improved endocrine and neurological functioning. Photo by George Doyle c/o Photos.Com.

There’s a growing list of yoga health benefits being gathered from both medical research and common yoga experience. Recent statistics show that perhaps as many as 15 million Americans have tried yoga at one time or another, while about 8 million of those have participated in some form of yoga in just the preceding year. More people are reinvigorating their health using yoga meditation techniques.

The health benefits of yoga can be witnessed on both the macroscopic and the microscopic scale. Beyond the obvious benefits you’d expect from just the relaxation and stretching effects, there are more fundamental improvements to health that develop through regular yoga practice. These health improvements impact the whole body, including the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system, the musculo-skeletal system and the glandular/endocrine and the digestive systems. Different styles of yoga practice tend to emphasize greater benefits for some organ systems over others, but the entirety of your body is impacted positively no matter what style of yoga you practice. Let’s look at some body systems individually and learn how yoga meditation benefits each one.

Musculoskeletal System:

Yoga builds strength and endurance into your musculoskeletal system, despite what casual observation might suggest. Most yoga styles (with the possible exception of Bikram and Ashtanga which tend to be the most intense) focus on fluid movement, breathing awareness and holding poses for longer periods of time. On its face, most yoga doesn’t seem particularly aerobic. From an anaerobic (think weight resistance) perspective, you’re only supporting your body weight at the most. Yet, numerous studies have demonstrated increases in muscular strength and endurance. This is believed to be related to an increased ability to clear lactate (the stuff that causes the anaerobic burn when lifting weights) and an increase in muscle mass and efficiency in utilizing oxygen. It’s now thought that the stretching of the muscle fibers themselves is largely responsible for these changes. More intense yoga adds an extra layer of these benefits on top of what you get with regular practice using more gentle styles.

There’s an equally important component of the musculo-skeletal system that comes along for the ride, and that’s your skeleton. Naturally your bones and muscles work together as a unit. As your muscles become stronger, so also do your bones for the simple reason that they respond to stress (increased force) by adding bone density and bone mass. Think of this as an anti-osteoporosis effect. We were designed to operate within a constant unrelenting gravity field, and when the normal stresses and weight bearing activities we routinely encounter increase, our bodies adapt accordingly.

I’ll mention here that all of those extremely fit astronauts we send into earth orbit for extended periods of time on the ISS have to exercise a set number of hours per week on a treadmill or stationary bicycle while on board the ISS to slow down the rapid loss of bone and muscle mass they would experience in zero gravity. Without something like gravity to work against constantly, our bodies, in all of their efficiency, would reabsorb all of the bone and muscle to downsize because it uses less energy. Beautiful but dangerous. When you reflect on this bit of biology you’ll realize that any tendencies you might have toward osteoporosis might possibly be slowed down or even reversed by doing regular yoga exercises. It serves to usefully stress your bones and muscles in a good way and lets your body know that it still needs them to stick around.

Before starting out with any yoga program you should first get yourself examined by your primary care provider just to make sure you don’t have any predisposition to bone fractures. Once you have the green light, the best thing to start out with would be the gentlest yoga style you feel you can do.

Nervous System:

The brain and peripheral nervous system are truly amazing in their design. The physical nervous system is our link between the divine eternal consciousness to which we are always connected and the reality of the physical in which we are (for the moment) immersed. Basically, it’s a biological interface that lets us play the seemingly “real” video game we like to refer to as “life.” That being said, from a simple neurological perspective, all those billions of neurons touching and talking to one another via literally trillions of chemical and electrical connections is what makes consciousness in 3D reality seem so — real! That’s also how you get something that outperforms a (ginormous) Cray supercomputer to fit inside the (small) volume contained withing the confines of your skull.

Our nervous systems are extremely “plastic”, meaning that neurons (nerve cells) develop, connect and then many times die off on a fairly regular basis. This plasticity gives your brain the ability to remodel itself on a cellular and regional circuit level, thereby letting it adapt to the latest set of circumstances it needs to deal with. For all intents and purposes, we each have a biological computer inside our heads that continually upgrades its hardware and software to best suit its operating environment. This is medical science’s most current understanding of what goes on inside our heads. It was previously thought that you had only so many neurons bestowed on you at birth and you’d better use them wisely. It’s now understood that this neuron birth, connection and death cycle is largely what enables learning and adaptation. When this process goes awry is when bad things can start happen, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or even certain neurological illnesses such as MS or Parkinson’s disease.

When we experience chronic emotional stress, stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin and glutamate go into the circulation. These enter the central nervous system and interfere with the nerve cell regeneration process. Over long periods of time, this in turn can lead to a net decrease in the number of new neurons being generated and their interconnections with each other. So, over time, a cumulative de-wiring effect can lead to certain mental illnesses such as, for instance, depression. Healing the brain involves getting it to regenerate those neurons and their connections. This is actually how those anti-depressant medications really work. Forget about all of that “chemical imbalance” stuff. So what does all this have to do with yoga’s health benefits to the nervous system? Well, regular yoga practice decreases the expression of all those bad stress hormones. It also encourages production of factors that promote neuron interconnection and remodeling. People afflicted by depression, anxiety, and even strokes have experienced improvements in their conditions by practicing yoga. Stroke victims in particular have recently been seen as benefiting from practicing yoga meditation as a part of their recovery and rehabilitation program.

Cardiovascular System:

We’ve all heard that if it isn’t aerobic, it isn’t cardiovascular exercise. Stressing our cardiovascular system on a regular basis by elevating our heart rates trains it to use and deliver oxygen to our tissues most efficiently. Many have said that yoga doesn’t get your heart rate up high enough for it to be aerobic, maybe with the exception of Bikram and Ashtanga. Yet, many who regularly practice yoga derive a cardiovascular fitness benefit over and above what would be expected from simple heart rate elevation. Numerous researchers now believe that simple muscular stretching alone can sufficiently increase a muscle’s ability to take up oxygen and to even increase it in size and mass. Gently stressing the circulatory network through the asanas (poses) encourages a redistribution of blood flow in different patterns, again adapting the cardio-circulatory system to be able to do more work and carry more oxygen to all tissues and organs of the body.

Respiratory System:

From a respiratory standpoint, yoga’s focus on breathing lets the lungs and heart deliver increased amounts of oxygen to all tissues. Yoga also increases the lung’s capacity to take in and push more oxygen into the circulation while at the same time eliminating more CO2 and waste products. Increased endurance (see above) also impacts the ability of muscle tissue to take up more oxygen and to use it more efficiently once it gets to there. In the end, the blood in circulation has greater levels of oxygen bound to red blood cells for delivery to the tissues that need it.

Digestive System:

Yoga improves the quality and efficiency of the digestion process and also the regularity of bowel functioning. Some would assert that yoga aids and normalizes digestion because many who practice it regularly are also vegetarian. I can’t argue this point, because I would tend to agree with them. Many who practice yoga adopt the philosophy ahimsa (do no harm) and as a result avoid meat or at least significantly de-emphasize it in their daily diets while increasing the amount of plant-based foods they eat. These dietary changes alone are medically well documented to improve the digestion substantially. Going vegan just takes it even further and eliminates all animal derived sources of nutrition. This improves bowel regularity and functioning as well as reducing the levels of toxic byproducts an animal-based diet produces.

Glandular/Endocrine Systems:

Yoga asanas apply gentle pressure to glands around and within all areas of the body, improving body functioning by enhancing glandular secretions and helping to better regulate hormone levels. One notable improvement would be that of sexual functioning, with many reported improvements in sexual energy and libido. Yoga also helps to improve blood sugar control in diabetics. Regular yoga practice in healthy individuals seems also to decrease the likelihood of developing metabolic disorders such as diabetes.

Yoga health benefits embrace and the entirety of the human body. With regular practice, all organ systems seem to improve their vitality. Just remember that yoga alone is no substitute for sound medical advice or appropriate medical treatment. If you have an illness already that requires regular follow up care, see your doctor or regular medical provider and have it looked after. Make sure that you talk with your provider and let them know you want to start a yoga exercise regimen. Make sure they tell you it’s safe to do and if they have any limitations on what kinds of yoga you should not do. Yoga is no substitute for established medical treatment for chronic health conditions requiring close medical monitoring. Once you get the OK from your doctor, start introducing yoga into your exercise program. You’ll be healthier for it in the long run.