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The health benefits of yoga

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Yoga is a practice of the mind and body, and it brings about health and happiness benefits through its direct influence on our nervous system.

Yoga is a practice of the mind and body, and it brings about health and happiness benefits through its direct influence on our nervous system.

 

Central to yoga is bringing awareness to our breath, also known as the “ujjayi pranayama,” the breath of fire. Deep breathing, like the kind cultivated in yoga, activates the vagus nerve, the large branch of nerves that begins at the top of the spinal cord and stimulates activation in the vocal apparatus, muscles that move the head and eyes, heart, respiration, digestive organs, and gut. Elevated vagal tone is good for a host of bodily functions, like digestion and immune function.

 

Some forms of slow yoga breathing involve contracting the glottis muscles in the throat, which improves the heart’s capacity to efficiently regulate blood pressure, and there’s some evidence that practicing yoga can reduce blood pressure.

 

In a recent study, 29 participants were randomly assigned to a four-month training program of either stretching or yoga respiratory exercises (ujjayi breath). During that time, the yoga group improved their inspiratory and expiratory pressures, the low/high-frequency ratio of heart rate variability, 200hr yoga teacher training and heart rate variability itself—all markers of better cardiovascular and respiratory function. Simply stretching didn’t have the same effects.

Given these shifts in the cardiovascular and nervous systems, it makes sense that yoga is good for our health. A regular practice can help loosen the muscles and connective tissues around the joints, which in turn can reduce aches and pains. In one recent study, 75 rheumatoid arthritis patients were randomly assigned to an eight-week yoga program or a waitlist. Rheumatoid arthritis, a painful condition that involves tender, swollen joints, is estimated to affect 54 million Americans each year and cost the health care system $19 billion. The patients who practiced yoga saw significant improvements in their experiences of physical pain, general health, vitality, and mental health, and these reductions in pain lasted nine months after the study ended.

 

According to other studies, practicing yoga can help reduce people’s stress, anxiety, and depression—perhaps better than traditional medication if you practice daily for over a month. Yoga has also been found to be an effective way to help people overcome addictions. In light of these findings, it’s not surprising that regular practitioners of yoga report being happier.

 

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