"Warning: Yoga has been known to cause health and happiness.” - Anonymous
Why are you not doing yoga? Set aside your litany of excuses for a moment and hear this -- practicing yoga is not just an exercise choice; it’s a commitment to changing your life. In fact, it literally changes you. We’re not talking about your new adorable fitness fashion or weight loss. Doing even low intensity and frequency of yoga physiologically changes your genes, your blood and your brain for the better. But wait, there’s more. It’s also cultivating your mindfulness, which has its own myriad of health and well-being benefits.
Changes to your Body
The science is in. . . yoga leads to better overall health including lowered blood pressure and sugar levels, muscle tone, flexibility and increased bone mass. It also leads to better overall mental well being through better stress management, and diminished anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. It helps cancer patients recover, helps soldiers manage PTSD and increases your pain tolerance.
How does it manage to do all this? First off, it changes your genes. More specifically, it changes telomere length, which matters because telomere shortening happens with age. Shorter telomeres are less effective at their job, which is to preserve and protect chromosomes against the ravages of aging. Longer telomere length is associated with a, “delayed onset of age-associated diseases and increased lifespan.”
Secondly, it changes your blood. Practicing yoga has been proven to shift levels leptin, adiponectin, C-reactive protein, lipid profiles, glucose tolerance and so much more. This has implications for diabetic patients and people suffering from chronic inflammation.
Finally, let’s talk about your brain. Doing yoga increases the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the body and brain, which helps to regulate nerve activity. It also increases Nerve Growth Factor, a protein that is key in protecting brain neurons. These nerve healing and boosting properties of yoga have implications for improving Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Depression.
Changes to your Mind
So the physical benefits of yoga are well proven. What does yoga do for your mind? Or better yet, your mindfulness? Mindfulness has its own litany of scientific benefit, mostly in terms of boosting well being. Mindfulness can be cultivated in many ways -- in a daily practice of gratitude, general awareness, quiet time and, yes, yoga.
“Yoga class is a great laboratory for becoming more mindful, because it’s rife with conditions that are beyond your control. On any given day the traffic noise might be uncomfortably loud, you may feel bored or restless, your neighbor’s sweat might drip on your mat, your hamstrings may feel tight. Armed with mindfulness techniques, you can re-frame these conditions so that you get more out of your yoga class and feel less reactive about things that you usually find irritating and distracting.”
Yoga offers an opportunity to shift the mind toward a kind of silence that allows, not only reflection or awareness, but peace. Yoga is about tuning in to both the body and an extended mind-body experience. When we do yoga, we reconnect with an energy, which practitioners called prana, that extends and connects body and mind. Cultivating a stillness and mindfulness of this connectedness is a main source of the greater well being found among those who practice yoga.
So as you go forth in your own yoga practice, understand that you’re not just exercising. You’re undergoing physiological changes that have proven health benefits and you are also connecting body with mind to enhance mindfulness. For over 2000 years, yoga has been so much more than exercise. It is a ritual of well being for the body, mind and soul and an awareness of how those elements come together for optimal health.