Physical and Mental Benefits of Yoga: How it Could Save Your Life

About two weeks ago, my roommate expressed interest in trying yoga to help with his flexibility and alleviate shoulder issues while rock climbing. He asked if I wanted to try it with him and I thought, “Sure, why not?” Given the overt bro-mantic connotation if this endeavor, we dubbed this yoga session Bro-ga (Brah-maste). We decided to check out Yoga Agora in Astoria, a popular yoga studio down the street from our apartment. It’s also one of the cheapest yoga studios in New York City, offering classes for a donation or $10 fee. Not bad.

The day before my first class, I must have spent about 20 minutes at Modell’s trying to figure out which yoga mat I should buy. I didn’t want to spend too much on one just in case I decided yoga wasn’t for me, but I also didn’t want to purchase a piece of junk. I settled on this Gaiam yoga mat since it advertised that it was no-slip. Perfect, because I get sweaty no matter what kind of exercise I’m doing. Even peeling a grapefruit will make my forehead glisten.

The Yoga Experience

On a snowy Saturday afternoon, my roommate and I took our mats and headed to the studio. Good thing we showed up 15 minutes early because that place got PACKED. We were so on top of each other (pause) that sometimes it felt like the class was going to turn into a giant game of Twister. I held it together and performed the poses and stretches to the best of my ability, focusing on my breathing as instructed. This was a Vinyasa yoga class which emphasizes continuous flow of movement of postures while incorporating breathing and relaxation techniques. Though my no-slip mat was no match for my sweaty palms, causing me to slip and slide with every downward-facing dog, I came away from the class feeling relaxed and invigorated. It was only my first yoga class, but it wouldn’t be the last. I’d heard about the psychological and physiological benefits of yoga, but I couldn’t help but wonder, what does clinical research say about it? In this article, I’ll discuss exactly that – what the research says about the potential psychological and physiological benefits of yoga.

Stress Relief

First, yoga has been proven to reduce stress. A study by Gaskins et al. published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy conducted a study in which they asked 19 college students, 5 men and 14 women, who participated in the study to attend 75-minute long Vinyasa yoga classes twice per week for 8 weeks1Why college students? Because college students tend to experience extremely high stress and don’t do much physical activity despite the fact that it has been shown to reduce stress. Before and after each session, participants filled completed a mood and stress assessment in the form of a questionnaire. After nearly every class, participants demonstrated significant improvements in mood and stress with the most dramatic improvements occurring during the first few sessions. What’s more is that improvements appeared to continue after after the 8 weeks, showing that there may be some positive long-term effects.

Depression Treatment

At the expense of stating the obvious, we all know that the stress doesn’t necessarily begin or end with college, nor is stress the only psychological and emotional ailment one might experience. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression is a serious medical illness that affects 1 and 20 Americans over the age of 12. Luckily there is an existing body of evidence which shows that yoga can help decrease depression, as it does with stress. Uebelacker et al. looked at Vinyasa yoga as a potential treatment for depression because a) it promotes mindfulness, which is proven to reduce depression because it decreases rumination and activates behavior,  b) it focuses on good mental health rather than “fixing” the problem, and c) it is widely available and relatively affordable2.

The participants, 11 women and 1 man, had mild-to-moderate depression and were taking anti-depressants without plans to stop taking them within the next 2 months. Additionally, they were “yoga naive”, meaning that they’d had minimal experience with yoga in the past. Participants were encouraged to attend 1.5 classes per week over an 8-week period and would be given 12 more free sessions if they attended more than 12 classes over that 8-week period. The results? All participants expressed that they experienced significant decreases in depression and increases in mindfulness. They even said they wished they had attended more classes than they did.

Neck Pain Relief

Not depressed or stressed out? You may be experiencing some type of physical pain, most likely in your back and/or neck. According to the American Osteopathic Association, 65% of Americans age 18 – 34 experience neck pain. At this point, you probably know where I’m going with this…Yes! Research shows that yoga can help decrease chronic neck pain! Dunleavy et al. took 88 adult participants who experience mild-to-moderate neck pain and divided them into a yoga group, a pilates group, and a control group3. Their neck pain was measured using the Neck Disability Index. Participants attended 12 sessions of yoga or pilates, depending on which group they were assigned. After the end of the 12-week period, they all demonstrated significant decreases in neck pain. I would be remiss not to mention in this yoga-centric article that the pilates group actually experienced more improvement that the yoga group (Damn, pilates are stealing yoga’s thunder right here!). I’ll save the pilates talk for another day, though.

Prescription Drug?

There are a ton of scholarly articles that discuss the potential physiological and psychological benefits of yoga. The evidence provided by these studies makes me wonder if medical professionals should recommend yoga to their patients more often, especially for those who might be feeling stressed and/or depressed. The CDC estimates that the economic burden of depression was $210.5 billion in 2010. Given what I’ve read and experienced about yoga after only a handful of classes, yoga seems like a great preventative measure that doesn’t cost a ton nor require pharmaceuticals. What would happen if our doctors wrote us prescriptions for yoga sessions and if the cost of those sessions could be subsidized by our health insurance? This type of preventative treatment requires a lot of motivation and effort on the part of the patient, but many health insurance companies will already reimburse you for going to the gym as an incentive to get you to go. Why not do the same for yoga? I encourage you all, dear readers, to try out yoga if you haven’t already (especially you dudes). It could save your life somehow!

Sources

  1. Gaskins, Ronnesia B., et al. “Acute And Cumulative Effects Of Vinyasa Yoga On Affect And Stress Among College Students Participating In An Eight-Week Yoga Program: A Pilot Study.” International Journal Of Yoga Therapy 24.1 (2014): 63-70. Alt HealthWatch. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.
  2. Uebelacker, L.A. ( 1 ), et al. “Open Trial Of Vinyasa Yoga For Persistently Depressed Individuals: Evidence Of Feasibility And Acceptability.” Behavior Modification 34.3 (2010): 247-264. Scopus®. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.
  3. Dunleavy, K., et al. “Comparative Effectiveness Of Pilates And Yoga Group Exercise Interventions For Chronic Mechanical Neck Pain: Quasi-Randomised Parallel Controlled Study.” Physiotherapy 102.(2016): 236-242. ScienceDirect. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

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