By Allison Garvin
Although the origins of the practice of yoga date back to approximately 4,500 years ago, yoga has become increasingly more popular within western societies. The U.S. Center for disease control and Prevention, as well as the National Institutes of Health indicate that 10% of the U.S. population is actively practicing yoga for health purposes, which a remarkable 50% increase in prevalence from a previous 2007 survey. In fact, more than approximately, thirty million people, all over the world practice yoga! Yoga is quickly becoming a more popular therapeutic alternative. Both yoga and meditation have the potential to help with anxiety, depression, distress, stress, overall mood, quality of sleep, reduction of fatigue, improving immunological function and reduction of stress, in people with cancer or other chronic health conditions. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive benefits of practicing yoga on patients with fibromyalgia, other forms of pain, fatigue, arthritis, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, psychological conditions, physical conditions, and lung diseases.
Pushing through difficult positions in yoga and learning to breathe through the discomfort is a skill an individual can carry with them even once off of the mat. When one experiences discomfort whether physical or mental, they know that they can breathe through it, despite whatever may arise. There is a freedom in letting go and giving up the need to control. It is often the resistance to something, and not the actual discomfort (pain) itself, that causes us to suffer most. So, while yoga may not take the pain, discomfort or specific diagnoses away, it will provide a patient with tools to help one learn to become more attuned with their own bodily sensations. This can be helpful in predicting a symptom flare and knowing when to scale back in order to save energy. Yoga helps to slowly build strength that is generally lacking in most patients with chronic illness and disease.
Many physicians, physical therapists, private therapists, coaches, and chiropractors are recommending yoga as a complement to other treatment(s), for injuries. Yoga’s well rounded approach fosters both physical and mental wellbeing in patients. While the use of yoga as a complimentary therapy within modern health care systems, is still not considered mainstream, there are indications that collaborations between eastern and western medicine are becoming more common. For instance, Mayo Clinic, Phoenix campus has an integrative medicine department that offers many services. Some of the alternative therapies offered there are medical massage, reiki, acupuncture, and modified versions of yoga for those struggling with difficult diagnoses and treatments. Recent research on yoga, routinely indicates that there are numerous health benefits that come from the consistent practice of yoga. For example, physical characteristics such as flexibility, balance, and coordination are improved. In addition, overall immunity and quality of sleep are improved. Respiratory characteristics including breathing capacity, volume and gas exchange are also positively affected as well.
One of the many health benefits of a consistent yoga practice is its effect on the regulation of the breath. The intentional awareness that is placed on the breath (pranayama) helps to initiate the relaxation response, which then allows the body to begin to balance the bodily systems and heal itself. Many chronically ill patients, as well as those suffering from terminal diseases such as cancer benefit from yoga and meditation. The biggest benefits may not happen through relief of symptoms, but help the patients to better cope with their circumstances. Here are four reasons to start a yoga practice while struggling with health challenges. 1) It provides an individual with a coping technique that is always with them and available for them to utilize anywhere, and at any time. 2) It helps to reduce brain fog. Many individuals with chronic health conditions complain of cognitive issues referred to as brain fog. According to several research studies, consistent yoga and or meditation practice can improve focus and attention, which subsequently often leads to better memory recall as well. 3) Yoga allows an individual the space to process their emotions, be with their feelings and not get carried away by them. “The practice can give space to the individual to sit with the worry and the concern and the reality of something changing and shifting in their lives”. (Domonell, 2017, p. 4) And, 4) Yoga enables an individual to own their emotions and be okay, however one may feel at any particular moment. Over time, patients begin to learn that while practicing yoga, it is alright not to feel “okay”, in some asana positions. But, the students learn to breathe through even the most challenging asana poses, and sit with their discomfort. This ability to sit with whatever they may be feeling in the moment and push through it, greatly influences resiliency not just within yoga, but in life as well.
The isometric exercises practiced during yoga can help to alleviate pain and lessen muscle spasms. Yoga improves awareness of an individual’s habitual body posture and muscle tension. This increased awareness can begin to allow for change in patterns that add to increased pain and muscle tension. Yoga reduces stress, body weight, blood pressure, and hyperlipidemia. Because yoga can improve cardiovascular ability, and lung capacity, it improves the overall fitness of the individual. After practicing yoga consistently for a number of weeks during symptomatic flares, patients often find that they are able to mentally focus their mind on other things and feel mentally stronger despite how their body is feeling in the moment. It is very empowering for these patients who, up until then, felt a lack of control over their own body. The patients practicing yoga learn to be okay with whatever they are experiencing and know that the moment (good or bad) will not last indefinitely.
Practicing yoga and meditation appear to be moderately effective in reduction of anxiety and stress, while simultaneously improving depression, mood imbalances and a sense of peace or well-being. In addition to the psychosocial benefits of yoga, there are physical changes that occur as well. A regular yoga and meditation practice gradually affects the way in which the mind and body function. Some of the physiological changes that occur are: 1) The reduction of cognitive, emotional and behavioral stress responses (e.g. negative self-talk, obsessing, emotionally reactive responses). 2) The reduction of the autonomic nervous system stress response (e.g. inflammation, tense muscles and pain responses). 3) Facilitation of reflexes originating from the spine (e.g. motor function).
Yoga positions that are more intermediate or advanced would not be suitable for patients struggling with health issues. When deciding what type of yoga to practice, be sure to discuss your plans with your doctors and select a certified yoga instructor who can help to guide you through your practice safely and effectively. Yoga classes are inexpensive and can be found online. Start slow and with very gentle classes for a while, until you feel stronger. For patients who have difficulty coming into the studio, a knowledgeable yoga teacher can even come to the privacy of your own home and provide 1 on 1 yoga routines tailored to your specific individual needs. As you can see, there is strong evidence to support the idea that yoga can be used as an effective complementary and integrative therapy for chronic disease or illness. When comparing chronically ill patients who consistently practiced yoga with chronically ill patients who did not practice yoga, those patients that practiced yoga had better overall health and quality of life ratings. The patients that practiced yoga and had a chronic disease or illness, scored better on all parts of the quality of life aspects of the testing, when compared with patients who did not practice yoga. It is clear that patients who suffer from chronic diseases, and consistently practice yoga, experience many positive impacts that come as a result of the practice.
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