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Health Matters: Many health benefits to yoga

Conway McLean, DPM, Journal columnist

The diet and lifestyle choices of many Americans is less than optimal from a health perspective. These preferences have resulted in an epidemic of chronic diseases, particularly obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, as well as cancer. These conditions can be attributed, at least partially, to three components of health, all of which have changed dramatically over the last century. One is obviously a marked reduction in physical activity. Another is the foods we consume, which are often nutrient-poor, with excess calories and saturated fats. The third is stress, a consistent product of modern society. To alter this path, to reduce the incidence of chronic disease, we need to change our behaviors. Achieving this goal will not be easy.

Many diverse approaches are being utilized to improve our health and well-being. Various dietary regimens are recommended, too numerous to count. Gym membership were at an all-time high, while meditation techniques are available via a handy app. How best to address all three goals? Perhaps not everyone’s first guess, yoga should be. It is an ancient practice, with numerous variations and interpretations. Maybe more important, yoga has proven itself able to provide numerous health benefits.

Yoga is an amalgamation of practices, both physical, mental, and spiritual. It originated in ancient India, leading to a variety of schools and practices developing over time, with varying goals in mind. The word is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’, meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’. According to ancient Yogic scripture, the practice of Yoga is intended to lead to an eventual union of one’s consciousness with that of Universal Consciousness, even harmony between the body and the mind. As to an origin of yoga, the story goes a special wisdom was revealed to the great wisemen of India, “the supreme science of life,” several thousand years ago. Yoga was the result.

Traditionally, the practice of yoga was quite rigorous, and demanded lifelong devotion to the practice. Many new forms of yoga have been created to accommodate Western tastes and preferences. In modern times, yoga teachers have modified the practices, the philosophy, the techniques, often minimizing the spiritual/religious aspects.

The practice of yoga includes low-impact physical activity, various postures, breathing techniques and meditation. The physical poses performed are familiar to most people but yoga can involve so much more. The spiritual component is an essential part of yoga for many. And research provides ample evidence the health benefits are significant. Yoga seems to be beneficial for many chronic health conditions, and many population groups.

The fundamental, over-arching purpose of yoga is to foster harmony within the body, the mind, and the environment. In addition, yoga can help to align the energy channels of the body, as espoused by Indian philosophy. Yoga can induce a state of calmness that should reduce the physical dangers of stress. But there are many benefits to physical health provided by the regular practice of yoga. For example, rheumatoid arthritis affects approximately 1.3 million Americans, with the majority being women. Yoga seems to help with the pain and stiffness of several arthritis-type diseases, improving range of motion, and increasing strength. Regular practice reduces the fatigue of multiple sclerosis and aids those with peripheral neuropathy. Yoga can help to strengthen bone as well as improve flexibility.

Yoga is considered the ideal form of exercise for those who are sedentary. One can practice yoga and get all the benefits without being in peak physical condition. It can even be performed while seated since many of the poses can be modified to suit the individual and the situation. Chair yoga is now a real thing and has been shown to safely get your heart rate up and even stimulate endorphin release.

Since yoga improves core stability and postural strength, it reduces a person’s risk of falls. Yoga helps to provide a feeling of safety, which is believed to improve focus on the movements themselves. Scientists believe this enhances the meditative component, reducing stress further. Exercise has been recognized as a key component in cardiac rehabilitation. Yoga, when added to the usual components of cardiac rehab care, has been shown in studies to be significantly better than the usual approach, as determined by various markers of blood chemistry and systemic inflammation.

Yoga, an ancient discipline, is designed to bring balance and health to the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of an individual. Certain yoga disciplines require a lifetime of dedicated practice. In many cultures, the practice has been passed on from generation to generation. But yoga practice can be modified, altered, and tailored in numerous ways. These and other facets of yoga have made it increasingly popular. Westerners, hungry for a healthier lifestyle, have flocked to the meditative and spiritual aspects of yogic practice, as well as the physical, in the 21st century.

Yoga techniques are being utilized in health programs, substance abuse programs, and a host of differing diseases including coronary heart disease, anxiety disorders, cancer, depression, and AIDS. Yoga has withstood the test of time, there can be no doubt about that. The regular practice of yoga appears to foster good health, wellness, even spiritual whole-ness. It might be safe to say yoga is good medicine. How about a prescription for yoga as part of the treatments for your chronic disease? Sounds like a prescription you can live with.

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