Yoga is not a single practice. Rather, it is a family of mind/body practices that have been adapted in the West from ancient traditions developed thousands of years ago in India. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that signifies “union” or “connection”. The forms of yoga best known in the United States emphasize a series of stylized poses (asanas), held for varying lengths of time.
Many of these poses flow smoothly from one to another. Attention to the breath is an important aspect of most yoga practices, and practitioners (or yogis), are encouraged to connect every movement with the inflow and outflow of the breath. Yoga is typically practiced to improve both mental and physical health.
Breath as Energy
This un-Western-like focus on the deliberate coordination of movement and breath creates a powerful sense of calm and ideally engenders feelings of deep relaxation. There is much talk of “mindfulness” these days. Yoga is arguably one of the earliest known practices to purposely embrace the ever-present-in-the-moment concept of mindfulness.
To be clear, various forms of yoga emphasize different aspects of the practice, and may include physical, mental and spiritual disciplines. Western versions of yoga, which Americans are most likely to encounter at local studios, typically emphasize physical poses. A widely practiced form of yoga that includes a system of postures combined with pranayama, or attention to the control of the breath, is called Hatha Yoga. Other traditional aspects of yoga may include meditation (dhyana), chants (mantras), and wisdom teachings (sutras).
In Sanskrit, pranayama means “extension of the breath (or life force)”. This characterization of the breath as a literal manifestation of the “life force” is a distinctly Eastern philosophical concept. But it is arguably an important one. To ancient and modern yogis alike, the breath is not simply air taken into and expelled from the lungs. Rather, it is life-force energy itself. It’s difficult to say how this belief affects health outcomes among yoga practitioners, but it may account for some of them. The simple mental exercise of envisioning taking in pure, reinvigorating energy with every breath—and expelling negative energy with each exhalation—may have psychological benefits that Western minds are inclined to dismiss out of hand.
In any event, Western scientific investigations into the potential benefits of yoga surged around the year 2000, and have increased rapidly since 2007. According to an article published recently in the International Journal of Yoga, more than 200 new research articles have been published annually since 2007.
Benefits—Proven and Potential
Metaphysical considerations aside, there is no question that yoga is a highly beneficial practice that has been linked to objectively documented health improvements. Modern science has evaluated the potential benefits of yoga for a wide range of conditions and diseases.
An exhaustive list, published recently in the journal, Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, included pregnancy, prenatal and postpartum depression; stress, PTSD, anxiety, and obesity; cardiovascular conditions including hypertension; pain syndromes including arthritis, headaches and low back pain; autoimmune conditions including asthma, type 2 diabetes and multiple sclerosis; immune conditions including HIV and breast cancer; and aging problems, including balance, osteoporosis and Parkinson’s.
While the effectiveness of yoga for improvements in some of these diseases and conditions remains to be confirmed, virtually all regular yoga practitioners would agree that yoga can improve flexibility, reduce pain and anxiety, and promote relaxation, regardless of any further medically-relevant improvements that might be experienced. What’s more, yoga appears to confer additional benefits beyond those typically encountered when doing simple physical exercises.