Dr. Vivek Baliga B. is a consultant physician and cardiologist, and director of Baliga Diagnostics in Bangalore. He is a keen advocate of patient education and loves to blog about all things health related. Learn more about him at drvivekbaliga.com.
Yoga is an ancient discipline that has been around for centuries. It is designed to bring balance and wellness to the various dimensions of an individual that include physical, emotional, spiritual and mental health. Metaphorically, yoga has been depicted in the form of a tree that has got eight limbs - yama (universal ethics), niyama (individual ethics), asana (physical postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (control of the senses), dharana (concentration), dyana (meditation) and samadhi (bliss).
There is now a plethora of research that supports the belief that certain types of yoga can improve both physical and mental health by working through the nervous system and regulatory brain center of the body called the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis.
Normally, this axis is triggered by stress and can lead to the release of numerous hormones such as cortisol and glucagon, all of which can elevate blood sugar levels and blood pressure and worsen atherosclerosis. In addition to this, stress can also stimulate a part of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. Stimulating this system leads to an increase in the heart rate and increased thickness of the blood. This can again increase blood pressure and increase the chance of developing blood clots within the heart arteries, leading to heart attacks. In simple terms, stress can be rather debilitating and can have several negative effects on our body.
It is for this very reason that yoga has now gained notoriety as an excellent way of handling stress. Now let us take a look at how yoga has numerous health benefits if performed regularly.
1. Physiological benefits
In this section, I will talk about how yoga helps alter the human physiology and makes changes that promote the betterment of health. Firstly, yoga can alter the functioning of a part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system. By doing so, it can help regulate blood pressure a lot better, lower the heart rate, lower the breathing rate and improve the overall health of the heart. Breathing exercises that form a part of regular yoga can help build up immunity within the lung and can improve the smoothness of breathing, the quantity of air that is exchanged within the lung and breath holding times.
If one were to look at the digestive function, regular yoga (certain asanas) can help improve and normalise gastrointestinal function. The flexibility of the joints and tissues also improves as time passes. An individual can maintain a better posture and will also notice a reduction in joint aches and pains when they perform yoga regularly. As a part of a weight reduction strategy, adding yoga to cardiovascular exercise routines can greatly help in losing that additional weight you are having difficulty getting rid of. Finally, regular yoga can also improve sleep and allow your body to get the rest it requires for your daily activity onslaught.
2. Psychological benefits
The most important psychological benefit that is seen in yoga is an improvement in mood and an enhanced sense of well-being. Many individuals reach a state of self-acceptance and self-actualisation. Those who are struggling with anxiety and depression may find elevated mood levels and an improvement in symptoms. Hostility towards others reduces and so does anger.
If one were to look at cognitive benefits, regular yoga has been found to improve attention spans and increase concentration levels. Memory also improves, and the efficiency of learning is increased manifold, making yoga an essential part of an exercise routine even for younger, budding minds.
3. Biochemical effects
Some studies have found that regular yoga can improve the antioxidant effects and lower stress effects on certain parameters within the blood. For example, yoga can reduce blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes. A lower level of bad cholesterol i.e. LDL and an improvement in HDL (good cholesterol) levels have been found. In women, regular yoga may enhance oxytocin levels and increase the levels of prolactin as well. Certain other hormonal imbalances may be corrected through yoga alone.
4. The best asanas
There are numerous asanas that can provide benefit in a variety of ways. It is usually worthwhile seeking the advice of a yoga instructor who can help guide you on how to perform each of these asanas.
As is clear, there are numerous benefits to performing regular yoga. Make sure you include it in your regular exercise routine!
This article originally appeared in the TeacherTribe Magazine September 2020 edition.