How yoga benefits both body and mind

( 11 February 2016 )

Thanks to high-profile devotees like Madonna, millions of westerners are now exploring the health benefits of yoga and finding it an effective antidote to physical and mental stress.

One of the great things about yoga is that unlike most physical sports or disciplines you can start at any age. You don't need to be physically fit or active to take up yoga. And there are no worries about competition or incurring physical injuries.

Another appealing aspect about yoga is that you can take from it whatever you want. Pierre Bibby, Chief Executive Officer of the British Wheel of Yoga says, "You can choose to take yoga to any level. You can just stick to the physical exercises or follow it more deeply and it can become a way of life."

Almost every adult education programme or local sports centre will have at least one yoga class, and many offer a range of yoga disciplines and levels.

Related: Find out more about the different types of yoga

The health benefits of yoga

Yoga is a means of enhancing physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. In health terms, yoga can help develop flexibility, suppleness and muscular strength without causing strain, increase energy levels and help to tone the body. Bibby says that yoga is particularly beneficial in helping older people fight the lost of suppleness and flexibility that comes with ageing.

Research carried out by exercise specialist and MSc student Dawn Blake showed that yoga improved the handgrip strength in women over 50. Over a trial period of 10 months, she observed that women who practised yoga regularly achieved more gripping strength than control groups who practised pilates or did nothing. In particular, women with rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis or repetitive strain injury noticed a real increase in handgrip strength. Blake attributes this to the gentle movements of yoga that help build up endurance, strength and flexibility. However, real benefits became evident after around eight months of regular practice.

Gentle yoga exercises may also be more helpful and effective in dealing with lower back pain than conventional exercise according to a trial conducted at the Group Health Cooperative's Center for Health Studies in Seattle.

Related: Self-help tips for lower back pain

Volunteers with lower back pain were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group attended 12 weekly, 75-minute classes to learn yoga and practiced at home. The second group attended 12 weekly, 75-minute sessions of aerobic, strengthening and stretching exercise, in addition to practicing at home. The third group received only a self-help book on back pain.

Results at the end of the 12-week course showed those in the yoga group were better coping with daily activities involving the back than the patients in either of the other two groups. And after 26 weeks, fewer people in the yoga group used painkillers and had better back-related function and suffered less pain.

So making yoga a part of your regular exercise routine is well worth the effort and practise.

Another widely recognized benefit of yoga is that it's also good at reducing stress and anxiety. By focusing on mental relaxation, it can lead to better sleep, concentration and awareness. And, most importantly, a sense of spiritual wellbeing.

Related: 10 surprising ways to lift your mood

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