Yoga Can Change The Heart — But We’re Not Just Talking About Blood Pressure.
Why do people do yoga?
Marlynn Wei, MD, JD – Harvard-trained Psychiatrist, Certified Yoga Teacher, Author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga
More than 90 percent of people come to yoga for flexibility, stress relief, health, and physical fitness. But, for most people, their primary reason for doing yoga will change. Two-thirds of yoga students and 85 percent of yoga teachers have a change of heart regarding why they do yoga — most often changing to spirituality or self-actualization, a sense of fulfilling their potential. Yoga offers self-reflection, the practice of kindness and self-compassion, and continued growth and self-awareness.
Yet the health benefits are very real. Yes, yoga can increase your flexibility, improve your balance, and decrease your cholesterol. A recent review in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology shows that yoga reduces the risk of heart disease as much as conventional exercise. On average, yoga participants lost five pounds, decreased their blood pressure, and lowered their low-density (“bad”) cholesterol by 12 points. There is vast growing body of research on how yoga improves health problems including chronic pain, fatigue, obesity, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and more.
As a psychiatrist, I am also naturally interested in the brain. While most people intuitively get that yoga reduces depression and anxiety, most people — even physicians and scientists—are typically surprised to find out that yoga changes the brain.
A May 2015 study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain to show that yoga protects the brain from the decline in gray matter brain volume as we age. People with more yoga experience had brain volumes typical for much younger people. In other words, yoga could protect your brain from shrinking as you get older.
The protection of gray matter brain volume is found mostly in the left hemisphere, the side of your brain associated with positive emotions and the relaxation response. Emotions like joy and happiness have exclusively more activity in the left hemisphere of the brain on positive emission tomography (PET) brain scans. The left hemisphere is also linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” network responsible for relaxation.
This “neuroprotective” effect of yoga has also been found in brain imaging studies of people who meditate. In some regions of the brain, 50-year-old meditators were found to have the gray matter volume of 25-year-olds. These changes to the brain can occur within a few months. One study found brain changes after only eight weeks of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The regions of the brain responsible for learning, memory, cognition and emotional regulation showed growth. In contrast, the areas of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress shrank.
But the truth is that the practice of yoga is not about changing the brain, body, headstands, or even about gaining greater happiness and joy. If it were, it’d be just like taking a spinning class or doing a set of lunges at the gym. Yoga aims toward transcendence of all those things. In a culture in which we rush from one day to the next, constantly trying to change our health, our body, or our emotions, or to plan our future, yoga opens up the possibility of connecting to what we already have — to who we already are.
When people tell me that they want to try yoga but don’t because they aren’t “flexible enough,” I tell them yoga isn’t about attaining the perfect pose. Use as many blocks as you need. Modify the pose to feel comfortable in your own body. It’s not about being “good enough” or “right”: Yoga is about removing any judgment and letting us be present to who we are now.
As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron explains:
“Practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are.
We recognize our capacity to relax with the clarity, the space, the open-ended awareness that already exists in our minds. We experience moments of being right here that feel simple, direct, and uncluttered.”
So, why do I practice yoga? The answer can be complex and personal, but it can also be simple and universal: Because I want to be present. Because I want to be present not just on my mat but also to myself and other people, the community around me.
Smartphones, laptops, desk jobs, slouching on the couch and long commutes to work can all contribute to making you look like you’re chronically hunched over. Not only is this unattractive, it can also be painful, as it often causes people to feel tight, achy and sore around the neck, shoulders, and upper and lower back. Fixing your posture with yoga requires that you do poses that open your chest and shoulders, allow you to gently bend your back, lengthen your spine, and allow you to experience what a steady, balanced, posture feels like.
Studies have shown that yoga exercises help improve bad posture and even reverse hyperkyphosis, the age-related posture issue also known as dowager’s hump. Even more than that, yoga creates numerous health benefits for body and mind, ensuring that you don’t just improve posture, but also increase well-being, get relief from stress, and even enjoy soime of the many other health benefits yoga offers.
Our posture is an important dimension of health, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Your posture influences the alignment of the spine and thereby the overall health of your body. The spine is the central channel of the nervous system, and when your spine is healthy, the pathways of the nervous system are strong and clear, and vital energy flows unimpeded, creating maximum vitality and well-being.
New research is making it clear that posture is an important dimension in staying healthy throughout life.
Benefits of Improving Posture
Feel Better. People with a good posture and healthy, strong back are generally happier, more confident, and have more energy; they may even be less prone to worry, depression, and anxiety.
Prevent Chronic Pain. Keeping your back flexible and correcting posture imbalances can be more effective prevention and treatment for back pain.
Live Longer. People with deteriorated, hunched posture (hyperkyphosis or dowager’s hump) are more prone to fractures and more likely to lose balance and function as they age. A chronic, hunched posture restricts breathing, creating shortness of breath. In the elderly, this is associated with increased anxiety and depression, and is considered a main factor of general health deterioration in elderly. Older men and women with a forward hunched posture have higher death rates; as much as 44% higher.
Yoga Exercises Improve Posture
Taking steps to improve your posture will not just help you prevent back pain and joint stiffness. As you increase the health of the back by building holistic strength, increasing flexibility, and improving alignment, the health of your entire body will benefit. As vital energy flows more freely, you will experience more energy and vitality and greater well-being.
Research has shown therapeutic yoga exercises improve posture and overall back health and can be tremendously effective. Yoga for posture increases flexibility and strength, and in addition offers relaxation and stress management.