When some people think of yoga, they imagine having to stretch like a gymnast. That makes them worry that they’re too old, unfit, or “tight” to do yoga. The truth is you’re never too old to improve flexibility.
Most Westernized yoga classes focus on learning physical poses, which are called asanas. They also usually include some form of breathing technique and possibly a meditation technique as well. Some yoga classes are designed purely for relaxation. But there are styles of yoga that teach you how to move your body in new ways. Choosing one of these styles offers the greatest health benefits by enabling you to develop your flexibility, strength, and balance. My wife, Kim, owns and teaches a form of Yoga called Hyp-Yoga which uses traditional and modified yoga poses for beginners and those who are overweight. The last part of the class focuses on hypnotic suggestions for relaxation and to help people fight cravings.
The series of yoga poses called asanas work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use and causes stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. In addition, yoga increases the range of motion in joints. It may also increase lubrication in the joints. The outcome is a sense of ease and fluidity throughout your body.
Yoga stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. And no matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time. In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga. The greatest gains were in shoulder and trunk flexibility.
Yoga and Strength Training
Some styles of yoga, such as ashtanga and power yoga, are more vigorous than others. Practicing one of these styles will help you improve muscle tone. My wife teaches a strength class at her Hp-Yoga Studio her in Omaha. Let me tell you, she is one strong lady. She doesn’t need help opening jars at our house.
But even less vigorous styles of yoga, such as Iyengar or hatha, which focuses on less movement and more precise alignment in poses, can provide strength and endurance benefits.
Many of the poses, such as downward dog, upward dog, and the plank pose, build upper-body strength. This becomes crucial as people age. The standing poses, especially if you hold them for several long breaths, build strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominal muscles. Poses that strengthen the lower back include upward dog and the chair pose. When practiced correctly, nearly all poses build core strength in the deep abdominal muscles.
Yoga for Stress Relief
Even beginners tend to feel less stressed and more relaxed after their first class. Some yoga styles use specific meditation techniques to quiet the constant “mind chatter” that often underlies stress. Other yoga styles depend on deep breathing techniques to focus the mind on the breath. When this happens the mind calms. This is why Kim ends her classes with a meditation/hypnosis session.
Among yoga’s anti-stress benefits are a host of biochemical responses. For example, there is a decrease in catecholamines, the hormones produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Lowering levels of hormone neurotransmitters — dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine — creates a feeling of calm. Some research points to a boost in the hormone oxytocin. This is the so-called “trust” and “bonding” hormone that’s associated with feeling relaxed and connected to others.
Yoga and Heart/Body Illness
Perhaps one of the most studied areas of the health benefits of yoga is its effect on heart disease. Yoga has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. A slower heart rate can benefit people with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Yoga was a key component to the heart disease program designed by Dean Ornish, MD. This was the first program to partly reverse heart disease through lifestyle and diet rather than surgery. On a biochemical level, studies point to a possible anti-oxidant effect of yoga. And yoga has been associated with decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as a boost in immune system function. Most recently at the American College of Cardiology 60th Annual Scientific Session showed benefit for atrial fibrillation with the practice of yoga.
As yoga has become more popular in the West, medical researchers have begun studying the benefits of therapeutic yoga. This is also called integrative yoga therapy or IYT. It’s used as an adjunct treatment for specific medical conditions, from clinical depression to heart disease. Yoga benefits other chronic medical conditions, relieving symptoms of back pain, asthma, and arthritis. Most worldwide clinical studies are happening outside of the U.S. But even the NIH has funded clinical trials on yoga and its health benefits for insomnia and multiple sclerosis.
So this month there is a program called Yoga Rocks the Park. This is sponsored by CHI Health and some local Yoga studios including my wife’s Hyp-Yoga Weight Loss Center and the Omaha Yoga School. I suggest those of you who may be interested in taking up Yoga to give one of these sessions a try. It can only do your body good.