Many Americans are exploring the rhythmic breathing, stretches, and sometimes demanding postures of yoga as a form of alternative medicine. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that yoga was one of the most popular types of alternative medicine among adults, and that its use had grown by roughly 3 million people since the previous survey in 2002.
What Is Yoga?
According to the American Yoga Association, yoga unites physical activity, meditation, and controlled breathing. The word “yoga” comes from an ancient phrase meaning “to join,” which refers to the mind and body coming together. The first written instructions regarding yoga poses date back to more than 2,000 years ago, but yoga is thought to have been practiced centuries before then.
The type of yoga practiced most often in the United States is Hatha yoga, which emphasizes particular poses while paying careful attention to breathing techniques. There are more than 100 other different schools of yoga, which originated in Indian philosophy. These various schools incorporate some or all of the eight foundations, or limbs, of yoga practice.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, yoga’s benefits as a form of alternative medicine may include:
- Relieving stress
- Relaxing and strengthening muscles
- Enhancing mood
- Lowering blood pressure
In addition, researchers are examining the use of yoga to help treat a number of specific conditions.
Physical and Emotional Benefits of Yoga
Yoga views the body as the most important tool humans have, one that should be treated with the utmost care and respect. The following are just a few of the possible ways that yoga may improve your overall health:
- Stress and anxiety. In a study of more than 100 Australians with mild to moderate levels of stress, participants engaged in either weekly relaxation or Hatha yoga sessions for 10 weeks. The researchers found that the yoga sessions provided similar improvements in stress, anxiety, and health status to the dedicated relaxation sessions.
- Cancer. A recent study of 24 people with cancer examined the effects of Iyengar yoga — a form of yoga focused on correct body alignment and the use of props. The participants took 90-minute yoga classes for 10 weeks. The study demonstrated marked improvements in participants’ mood, overall quality of life, and sense of spiritual well-being.
- Pain. Research has found that the regular practice of yoga may be associated with reduced pain. In one study, people with chronic lower back pain who participated in weekly yoga classes for four months experienced substantial reductions in pain and disability compared with subjects who were assigned to a non-yoga group.
The Risks of Yoga
If you’re considering yoga, keep in mind that certain yoga poses may not be appropriate for people with particular medical conditions including:
- Spinal problems
- Blood pressure disorders
- History or risk of blood clots
- Eye problems like glaucoma and retinal disorders
If you have any underlying health problems, discuss the possible risks of yoga with your doctor beforehand. Also, make sure you know the demands a particular class will place on your body before you enroll. If you do take a class, inform your yoga instructor of any health concerns that may affect your ability to perform certain poses.