The Hindu sage Patañjali started to codify the ancient, meditative rituals practised in India at some point between the 1st and 5th century CE. In 196 manuals called the Yoga Sutras, he documented techniques almost as old as Indian civilisation itself.
In attempts to achieve a state of pure consciousness, these texts described yoga as the ‘yoking’ or restraining of the mind from concentrating on external things. Over time, from gymnastics and wrestling, yoga came to integrate physical elements.
There are a number of approaches to modern yoga today, but most still retain the three main components of the practice of Patañjali: physical postures, breathing exercises, and spiritual reflection.
It is generally accepted that this combination of physical and mental activity has a rare range of health benefits. Such as increasing strength and flexibility, enhancing the function of the heart and lungs, and improving psychological well-being.
But what has been shown by recent studies about the advantages of this ancient tradition? It’s difficult to make clear statements about the benefits of yoga, despite attempts by several researchers. Its unusual combination of actions makes it difficult to decide which factor produces a particular health benefit.
In addition, limited sample sizes that lack diversity are mostly presented in yoga studies, and the strong emphasis on self-reporting makes findings subjective. There are some health advantages, however which have more solid scientific evidence than others.
Let’s begin with versatility and power. Twisting the body into the physical postures of yoga stretches several groups of muscles. Stretching will adjust the content of water in these muscles, ligaments and tendons in the short term to make them more elastic.
Regular stretching activates stem cells over time, which then differentiate into new muscle tissue and other elastic collagen producing cells. Frequent stretching often decreases the normal reflex of the body to constrict muscles, enhancing the pain tolerance for flexibility feats.
Researchers have not noticed that flexibility is improved by any one type of yoga more than another, so the effect of particular postures is uncertain. But like other low-impact workouts, in healthy populations, yoga consistently increases fitness and flexibility.
The practice has also been shown to be a therapeutic instrument that is potentially effective. Yoga has been more effective in reducing discomfort and improving mobility than other types of low-impact exercise in research involving patients with a number of musculoskeletal disorders. Adding yoga to an ongoing routine of exercise will enhance strength and flexibility.
Yoga’s combination of physical activity and regimented breathing has been equally therapeutic for difficult-to-treat conditions such as chronic lower back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoporosis.
Lung disorders such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma shrink the passageways carrying oxygen for lung protection, thereby weakening the membrane that carries oxygen into the blood. Yet breathing exercises, such as those used in yoga, relax the muscles that constrict those passages and increase the diffusion of oxygen.
Increasing the oxygen content of the blood is particularly beneficial for those with poor heart muscles who have trouble pumping adequate oxygen across the body. And this practice will lower blood pressure for those with healthy hearts and minimize risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
The most widely celebrated advantage of Yoga could be the hardest to prove: its psychological impact. There is no definitive research about how the practice impacts mental health, despite the long-standing correlation between yoga and psychological wellness.
One of the strongest arguments is that yoga improves symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression. Since the diagnosis of these conditions varies widely, as does their cause and severity, the effect of yoga is difficult to measure.
There is evidence, however, to indicate that yoga, as well as meditation or relaxation, can help reduce the symptoms of stress. Research is still progressing on the impact of yoga. We will need broader research in the future, involving multiple people, which can assess the effect of yoga on heart attacks, cancer rates, cognitive performance and more.
But as a way to exercise, think, and relax, yoga can continue its ancient tradition for now.