The benefits of this ancient system go beyond physical fitness, strength and flexibility, says Divya Kanchibhotla
Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means “union” or “coming together.” The powerful practice which dates back to more than 5,000 years, creates synergy in the mind-body complex. This synergy is important to maintain a happy, healthy and harmonious life. Yoga is more than just a physical workout and it is anything but gymnastics or contortionism.
In fact, the yogic postures or asanas — the most well-known aspect of yoga are only a small portion of the vast practice. Yoga asanas, together with breathing exercises, meditation and knowledge of ethical living practices can transform our physical, mental and emotional health and help fight against an omnipresent phenomenon that affects people from all nationalities, ages, genders and races — stress.
Today stress is synonymous with all human experiences. It can be triggered by an unpleasant conversation with a co-worker, an impending deadline, traffic, family pressures, worrying about the future or just by listening to or reading the news. Chronic low-level stress has become a way of life for most adults.
Chronic stress keeps the sympathetic nervous system active and depresses the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight-or-flight response of the body. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, relaxes the body and enables the ‘rest and digest’ functions. This constant firing up of sympathetic and suppression of parasympathetic systems means that the body constantly feels under threat and danger. This leads to a multitude of stress-related disorders like insomnia, high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, obesity, mood disorders, digestive disorders and even cancer.
According to a WHO report, these non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for 41 million or 71 per cent of all deaths globally every year. The NCDs are difficult to manage or cure with just Western medicine. More and more people are now turning towards holistic techniques for well-being and yoga is the most popular among them. In 2015, the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 21 million or 9.5 per cent of American adults used yoga as a complementary health approach. This number has grown since thousands are discovering the benefits of yoga each day.
The benefits of yoga are innumerable and go from the visible (on the level of the body) to the subtle (mind and emotions). Here are six ways in which yoga can change your life:
Yoga reduces stress: Yoga has been shown to increase Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Increased HRV is a sign of increased relaxation and reduced stress. Yoga has also been shown to reduce cortisol, the hormone indicator for stress. The components of stretching, deep breathing and meditation relax the body and calm the mind. They bring you to the present moment and moderate the incessant flow of the thoughts that create stress. Pranayama and breathing techniques like Sudarshan Kriya have been shown to reduce stress significantly.
Yoga helps you sleep: With the constant pressure to manage responsibilities and to be “on” at all times, most of us have trouble sleeping. Many illnesses and health problems are associated with insomnia, including cancer, chronic pain conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia and depression. Several studies have been conducted on impact of yoga on sleep, including at Harvard Medical School. Yoga has been shown to improve sleep, impacting its onset, duration and quality. Simple techniques like Shavasana and Yoga Nidra are highly beneficial for sleep.
Yoga makes you younger: A recent study published in JAMA Dermatology showed that practising face yoga postures for 20 weeks made the participating women look three years younger. The good news is that yoga also makes you younger at a level deeper than your skin. It has been shown to reduce inflammation and improve circulation. This reverses the aging process in the body.
Yoga makes you happy: It makes you happy and not just because you did something to make you feel psychologically calm and peaceful. It also physically impacts the neurochemical pathways of happiness. Researchers at the Boston University Medical School found higher levels of the amino acid GABA in people who had practiced just one hour of yoga, as well as after regular practice. People who suffer from depression and anxiety have very low levels of GABA in their bodies. Yoga also releases oxytocin — the hormone essential for social bonding and happiness. When oxytocin levels are high, we feel a greater sense of connect with others and ourselves. A study in India showed yoga also increases levels of serotonin: the hormone responsible for feeling happy and regulating mood. The regimen impacts our brain in wonderful positive ways and makes us healthy and happy!
Yoga keeps you mentally and physically healthy: The amazing thing about yoga is that it is highly customisable. There are postures and breathing techniques specific to help with different conditions like diseases, pregnancy and even increasing creativity and focus. A good yoga teacher can help you tailor your practise to focus on areas that are important to you. Current research has also found yoga to be an effective tool to reduce depression and anxiety. It also increases endurance to pain. Numerous studies have shown its benefits in managing lifestyle diseases like diabetes, obesity, blood pressure and even cancer. In an increasingly stressful world, Yoga is an easy, effective and economically viable way to keep healthy.
Yoga makes you smart and creative: Vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in our body and is the command central for parasympathetic nervous system. Stress and anxiety suppresses vagus nerve activity. When the vagus nerve is not active we tend to react rather than respond and act from a fearful, “fight or flight” state. We tend to make more mistakes and take rash decisions. Yoga activates the vagus nerve, allowing us to access the parts of the brain responsible for creativity, higher cognition and logical thinking. Yoga relaxes the body and the brain, allows to us to take actions from a calm space and brings forth the hidden talents in us.
— The author is an international meditation trainer and director, Sri Sri Institute of Advanced Research