Vital Signs: Medical yoga can enhance physical and mental wellness

Posted: Sunday, June 26, 2016

Within the past decade, yoga has infiltrated not only Western culture, but also Western medicine. That’s because the more we learn about this ancient practice, the more we realize its benefits go far beyond flexibility and muscle toning.

Multiple studies have shown that yoga can impact the body positively in many ways, including helping to regulate blood glucose levels and keeping the cardiovascular system in tune. It’s also an effective tool for managing such conditions as depression and anxiety. Some healthcare providers are responding to these positive findings — as well as the growing patient demand for alternative approaches to wellness — by incorporating medical yoga into their practices.

Prescription: yoga

Medical yoga is defined as the use of yoga practices for the prevention and treatment of medical conditions. Beyond the physical elements of yoga, which are important and effective for strengthening the body, medical yoga also incorporates appropriate breathing techniques, mindfulness and meditation in order to achieve the maximum benefits.

For example, if you are diagnosed with anxiety, a physician trained in medical yoga may prescribe specific breathing techniques (pranayamas) and calming postures (asanas) that can quiet the mind.

Mindfulness and meditation are ways of training the mind so that you are not distracted and caught up in its endless churning thought stream. In meditation, you are fully awake and alert, and are able to be fully aware of your emotions and accept them without judgment. These practices can help you cope with stress and manage potential triggers for anxiety. They also can promote self-reflection that uncovers the source of your anxiety. If necessary, anti-anxiety medications and/or psychotherapy may be used in tandem; medical yoga is considered complementary and not necessarily a replacement for traditional medicine.

Short- and long-term benefits

As with many forms of exercise, yoga increases muscle tone and flexibility. It helps prevent cartilage and joint breakdown, and it improves respiration and circulatory health by increasing blood flow. But there are other benefits as well.

Yoga has been shown to increase multiple different neurotransmitters in the body, such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin (sometimes referred to as “happy hormones”). In addition, yogic practices can decrease the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, autoimmunity, irritable bowel syndrome and depression. Medications may achieve the same results, but yogic practices help the body to respond naturally.

 

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