A Prescription for Yoga
By: Dr. Amy Whittington, Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician
Yoga is a form of exercise that has come a long way very quickly. It is a centuries old form of exercise in many countries, but in the West, twenty years ago you likely didn’t know what yoga was, and now it is an increasingly popular way to stay fit. Encompassing various forms of stretching and strengthening, meditation, and breathing, yoga was first characterized as a way to increase flexibility. But evidence is mounting that the advantages of yoga go far beyond the benefits of flexibility and even beyond those of fitness. A simple PubMed search (the search engine that researchers and healthcare professionals use to review published studies) reveals more than 1,500 studies on the medical and health benefits of yoga. From decreasing pain to causing improvements in symptoms related to hypothyroidism, the benefits are so vast that physicians should be recommending this form of exercise to many, if not most patients. Should you have a prescription for yoga?
It would be impossible to review every disease and dysfunction that has been researched relative to yoga, and of course every study does not reveal a statistically significant improvement, but the positive research is promising, and the following serve as just a few examples.
The most obvious and popular medical reason for pursuing yoga is to decrease pain. From back pain to fibromyalgia, many patients report improvements, and there is no lack of evidence in this arena. The more intriguing research, however, focuses on systemic issues. For example, a study in the Journal of Nutrition reviewed previous studies involving those with symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome, including hypertension, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar. The conclusion of the review was confirmation that these parameters decrease after the introduction of yoga. Similarly, symptoms associated with hypothyroidism, such as fatigue and foggy thinking, improved with the introduction of yoga, as did symptoms of both anxiety and depression, regardless of the cause.
For menopausal and peri-menopausal aged women, yoga can be especially important to promote bone health. A decrease in bone resorption and increase in bone production have been seen with weight-bearing forms of this exercise. Other menopausal symptoms including sleep disturbance and hot flashes show varying results in study, with improvements in some women, but less change in others. However, any symptomatic menopausal woman will tell you that even if it only works for a few, it might be worth a try. Additionally, for both aging women and men, yoga can help to maintain agility and balance that is essential in later years.
Chronic fatigue, headaches, cardiovascular health, asthma, symptoms associated with pregnancy, and symptoms associated with chemotherapy are just a sampling of other dysfunctions that can often be relieved or improved just by adding yoga to your health regime.
Many of the benefits of yoga can be directly related to any form of exercise that uses your cardiovascular system, and others can be attributed to increased flexibility and balance, but it is clear that other physiological effects must be occurring. These benefits likely include decreasing elevated cortisol levels and thus reducing stress, controlling weight, and improving the immune system. Yoga may also cause neuroendocrine effects (a change in hormone levels), including effects on serotonin and endorphins that lead to decreased stress, less perception of pain, and improvement in general health.
Research and reports regarding yoga are not going to slow down any time soon, and as with any actively studied modality, some will show benefit and others will question an exaggeration of those benefits. The bottom line is that yoga is a great exercise option, which, at the very least, will lead you to a more fit, relaxed, and nimble life, and it just might do a whole lot more, making it an appropriate prescription for us all.
Take Care & Stay Healthy,
Dr. Amy Whittington
Additional Note from Carrie Clarke, 200hr RYT
Although it is highly recommended that you begin your yoga journey with a beginner’s yoga class, even adding a few poses a day can lead to better health.
Here is just a sampling of a few yoga poses aimed at specific areas of focus. Remember to only partake in poses that don’t cause discomfort.
Balasana (child’s pose) is a restful pose that will release tension in the low back as well as through the shoulder blades. From standing, gently drop your knees to the floor, and spread knees slightly wider than your hips, while keeping your toes touching. Bring your belly to rest between your thighs, and your forehead to the floor. Arms can reach forward with palms down, or be placed alongside your thighs, palms up.
Sukhasana (comfortable/happy seat) is a restful pose for stress relief and self-awareness. Come to sitting in a comfortable cross-legged position on the floor, knees bent and with padding under your hips if necessary. Bring awareness to the breath.
Utkatasana (chair pose) strengthens the muscles of the arms and legs, but it also stimulates the diaphragm and heart. Standing with your feet hip distance and parallel, inhale and raise your arms overhead, bringing your biceps right by your ears; your palms should face one another. Exhale and bend your knees, trying to take the thighs as nearly parallel to the floor as possible as if sitting in a chair. Shift your weight slightly back into your heels. Your torso will lean slightly forward over the thighs until the front torso forms approximately a right angle with the tops of the thighs. Hold the pose for 6 to 8 slow, steady breaths. To come out of this pose straighten your knees with an inhalation, lifting strongly through the arms. Exhale and release your arms to your sides.