Developed in India thousands of years ago, yoga has become an increasingly popular form of exercise in the United States. Whether yoga’s recent rise in popularity stems from an increase in stress levels or the following of a Hollywood trend, yoga delivers many benefits to those who incorporate it into their everyday lives.
“Yoga is a healing system of theory and practice. The purpose of yoga is to create strength, awareness and harmony in both the mind and body,” explains Natalie Nevins, DO, a board-certified osteopathic family physician and certified Kundalini Yoga instructor in Hollywood, California. “As an osteopathic physician, I focus a lot of my efforts on preventive medicine and practices, and in the body’s ability to heal itself. Yoga is a great tool for staying healthy because it is based on similar principles.”
While there are more than one hundred different types, or schools, of yoga, most sessions are typically comprised of breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures(sometimes called asana or poses) that stretch and flex various muscle groups.
“The relaxation techniques incorporated in yoga can lessen chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome,” explains Dr. Nevins. “Yoga can also lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia.”
According to Dr. Nevins, other physical benefits include:
Increased muscle strength and tone
Improved respiration, energy and vitality
The maintenance of a balanced metabolism
Cardio and circulatory health
Improved athletic performance
Protection from injury
Aside from the array of physical benefits, one of the best benefits of yoga is how it helps a person manage stress, which has been known to have devastating effects on the body and mind. “Stress can reveal itself in many ways, including back or neck pain, sleeping problems, headaches, drug abuse, and an inability to concentrate,” says Dr. Nevins. “Yoga can be very effective in developing coping skills and reaching a more positive outlookon life.”
Unlike more traditional forms of exercise, yoga’s incorporation of meditation and breathing help a person improve his/her mental well-being. “Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness; increases body awareness; relieves chronic stress patterns; relaxes the mind; centers attention; and sharpens concentration,” says Dr. Nevins. Body and self-awareness, in particular, are very beneficial, adds Dr. Nevins, “because it can help with early detection of physical problems or ailments and allow for early preventive action.”
Because there are so many different kinds of yoga practices, it is possible for anyone to start. “Whether you’re a couch potato or a professional athlete, size and fitness levels do not matter because there are modifications for every yoga pose and beginner classes in every style,” says Dr. Nevins. “The idea is to explore your limits, not strive for some pretzel-like perfection.”
Yoga can be practiced to enhance overall health, to improve balance, to heal and prevent injuries, to strengthen muscles and to open the body for meditation. “It is a great way to get in tune with your body and your inner self,” says Dr. Nevins. Yoga's increasing popularity is proof that many people value an exercise system that engages the mind, body and spirit in equal measure. If you've never done yoga before, give it a try and see what it can do for you.