If you think yoga is only for uber-healthy types who love leggings, think again. A growing body of evidence shows the wide-ranging benefits of yoga for physical ailments, mental illnesses and emotional distress. If you have a diagnosed health problem, yoga may help. With the International Day of Yoga taking place on June 21, this is a great month to explore how yoga could benefit you.
Yoga views the body and mind as part of an integrated system, functioning best in a state of balance. This mind-body equilibrium is achieved through a series of poses, breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation. Various styles of yoga apply different combinations of these three elements to improve health.
Always consult your doctor or health care practitioner before implementing a yoga program if you have a health condition or are pregnant. Seek advice on which type of yoga is best for your individual state of health and fitness level. (Gentle, restorative yin yoga? Fierce flow yoga?)
Yoga for the body
Pain is complex, and a mind-body approach is central to standard treatment—consistent with principles of yoga. Yoga has been linked to less frequent or intense pain, and regular practice can make day-to-day functioning easier and boost mood. Benefits span a range of conditions, including back pain, headache, arthritis and general muscle soreness.
Pregnancy and labor
Prenatal yoga is a popular specialized yoga therapy, and recent research shows that more yoga poses are likely safe during pregnancy than previously thought. During pregnancy, gentle physical activity, like hatha yoga, is thought to help relieve stress and manage symptoms including mood swings, discomfort and weight gain.
The benefits of yoga while expecting may extend to the delivery room. Prenatal yoga is linked to reduced pain, a shorter labor and fewer complications (like low birth weight and gestational hypertension).
Breathing exercises are central to yoga, and developing slower, deeper breathing patterns can be part of therapy for respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Breathing exercises may also be helpful for those with asthma: yoga may reduce airway hyper-reactivity, lead to fewer attacks and enhance quality of life.
Yoga for the mind
Generalized anxiety disorder is a common condition linked to a highly activated nervous system response to the bustle of everyday life. Through meditative inward focus, yoga reduces cortisol, a hormone linked to the stress response.
Exercise and mindfulness are key components of yoga and have been used successfully to help treat depression. A recent meta-analysis of eight studies noted that hatha yoga in particular may be beneficial and could promote positive thoughts and self-acceptance in people who are depressed.
High levels of physical and mental stress can lead to a restless night. Just 30 minutes of gentle yoga that emphasizes breathing and meditation can help us wind down. For chronic sleep disorders like insomnia, yoga may increase total sleep time, reduce awakenings through the night and improve overall sleep quality.
Start gentle, progressing to more advanced techniques. If you find the mindfulness part of yoga difficult, don’t be discouraged—if you continue to practise the physical poses and breathing, you will eventually learn the benefits of meditation as well. You might even learn to love the leggings.