Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 13

Yoga may be even healthier than you thought

What if there was an easy way to enhance your brain function, reduce stress, boost your mood, and protect yourself against a host of health conditions — and anyone could do it, even you?

Science says it’s not too good to be true: Recent research has linked yoga to all these benefits and more. Evidence is piling up that yoga has therapeutic effects on a wide range of conditions and diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, Parkinson’s, irritable bowel syndrome, and menopause. Research shows it can improve heart health, flexibility, and strength. It’s also been shown to reduce anxiety and stress and help treat depression.

Granted, any exercise is good for your health, but yoga is uniquely accessible. While it can be intense, it can also be made safe for people with limited mobility or joint problems. In folks with osteoarthritis, yoga may improve knee function and pain, and in older adults with frailty markers, it may boost walking speed and lower-body strength. “Unlike traditional workouts that often focus on pushing the body, sometimes to its limits, yoga encourages gentler movements and mindful awareness,” said Donna Noble, a yoga instructor and author of Teaching Body Positive Yoga. “I like to describe yoga not as a workout, but a ‘work-in.'”

Yoga combines movement with breathing and meditation – a unique fusion that may explain its wide-ranging benefits. Unlike, say, jogging a familiar route or performing a weightlifting routine, following a yoga flow and guided meditation tends to require more focus. That makes it a workout for both body and mind. “Yoga activates many regions of the brain, and it’s attention training,” said Helen Lavretsky, MD, a psychiatry professor at UCLA who studies integrative mental health using mind-body interventions. “You pay attention to your breathing or practice visualization.” Just as curling a dumbbell flexes your biceps, yoga works your brain, increasing blood flow and encouraging new growth.

In a small study co-authored by Lavretsky last year, women with self-reported memory loss and risk factors for Alzheimer’s did a gentle form of yoga combining breathing techniques, chanting, and visualization every day for 3 months. By the end of the study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans revealed improved connectivity in subregions of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. The women also reported less stress and forgetting.