by Crystal J. Feng
Yoga practitioners often tout the health benefits of yoga: better body alignment and posture, stronger muscle strength, increased self-awareness, greater flexibility, lower blood pressure, and more resilient mental and physical capacities. Indeed, yoga has become to be regarded as a cure-all for whatever ailments one may have, but what claims can be substantiated? What preventative benefits does yoga offer?
Due to the rapid growth in the popularity of yoga — going from relative obscurity in the western world to near ubiquity in almost 30 years — one must scrutinize the many popular claims of the health benefits or the mainstream interpretations of yoga. Toni Mar, a yoga instructor at UC Berkeley, explains that due to inexperienced yoga instructors, partially attributed to the rapid rise in yoga’s popularity, yoga can be very different experiences for different people. While the experiences and styles of yoga instruction vary widely, what can be held constant in properly taught classes are the health benefits of yoga. Deep and regulated breathing, known as the “ujjayi breathing”; correct posture and back alignment; and mindfulness are all actions that have positive downstream effects on our health.
Additionally, Dr. Marlon Maus, a former physician, current assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and longtime yogi, explains that yoga provides lifelong tools individuals can use to combat chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes that manifest as a person grows older. He also explains that yoga can strengthen cognitive function by providing a sense of community and socialization through group-led activities. Through these practices, yoga can help ameliorate the growing epidemic of obesity and technology-driven social isolation that plagues today’s society.
While these features are attractive, they are certainly not exclusive just to yoga. Other forms of physical activities, such as swimming or other exercise classes, also provide these benefits. However, one of the remarkable aspects of yoga is that anyone can participate in it. Dr. Maus explains, “You can adjust the level, the intensity of yoga, depending on age and capacity, [which] is very important. Someone that’s in great physical health will still benefit from yoga because it helps keep them in that [health], but someone with disabilities or limitations can also build very much from yoga because it helps improve the resources that they already have, and uses those resources to improve it.” Indeed, this sentiment of universality is echoed by Mar as well, who explains that yoga provides the preventative measures for healthy individuals to protect against disease while also providing “the prescription for someone who does have a problem or health condition.” “You’ve got the same principles that you should be practicing anyway,” Mar says.
Another differentiating component of yoga is its holistic assistance in wellbeing; aside from physical benefits, yoga also provides mental and even spiritual benefits. Although less studied, there is emerging evidence that yoga can provide mental health benefits, such as stress and anxiety control. According to Dr. Natalie Nevins, osteopathic family physician and certified yoga instructor from the American Osteopathic Association, “Stress can reveal itself in many ways, including back or neck pain, sleeping problems, headaches, drug abuse, and an inability to concentrate.” Yoga can help manage that stress by “developing coping skills and reaching a more positive outlook on life” in an individual, elaborating that “regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness; increases body awareness; relieves chronic stress patterns; relaxes the mind; centers attention; and sharpens concentration.”
Note that while there are studies attesting to the mental benefits of yoga, these are preliminary; Dr. Maus cautions that there needs be more studies before conclusive statements can be made at a population level. However, certain mental habits from yoga can be said to benefit overall wellbeing. A clear example is the increase in “body- and self-awareness” that can, as Dr. Nevins states, “help with early detection of physical problems and allow for early preventive action.” Another, as mentioned by Dr. Maus, is the use of mediation as a “way of dealing with your daily routine … [by] learning to be in the moment, something that helps you with everything else in life, whether it’s teaching or doing research or doing surgery.”
Indeed, yoga provides a unique holistic activity — lifestyle even — that does not discriminate based on physical ability. However, before rushing off to sign up for the nearest yoga class, Dr. Maus cautions that “yoga is still a physical activity: before you embark on doing yoga, you have to be sure that you are capable of doing it.” Yoga is not a risk-free activity and injuries can occur when it is improperly done. Those who are new to the practice, recommends Dr. Maus, should inform the instructor of any “physical problems or disabilities that they should be aware of so [the instructor] can tailor the exercise to you.”
Yoga has a rich history reaching back more than 5,000 years. However, it is only recently that this ancient practice has reached Western consciousness. Whenever individuals roll out their yoga mat and twist their body into different poses, they are also reaping countless health benefits. Practicing yoga is not just a routine; it’s a rich recitation of history, a cultivation of mental and physical resiliency, a revisiting of intimate spirituality — all contained in the four corners of a yoga mat.