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H is for Health

Can yoga improve your health? Does it contribute to healing? The short answer is “yes, but—”. Read on for the long answer.


Philosophy First

 

Some yoga purists will tell you that yoga is not about improving or “fixing” anything, including your health. They argue that yoga isn’t designed to be a fitness regime, and that there’s too much emphasis on asana. Instead, they emphasize that yoga is about bringing awareness to things as they are, developing self-understanding, and uniting mind, body, and spirit. Yoga teaches us acceptance and non-judgment, of ourselves and others.

 

I agree with all of this, but I wish there weren’t “yoga police” dictating what yoga should be. I balk against dogma and am not a yoga purist. I believe yoga is a practice that can meet people where they are. There are many reasons why people practice yoga, and various benefits and outcomes will be experienced. So does it matter if better health is the goal or a merely a by-product?

 

If you choose to try yoga for health and/or well-being reasons, then I say go for it. Or if you practice for other reasons and gain health or healing benefits, that’s a bonus. For which there is, in the words of my teacher, Paul Grilley: “no extra charge!”


Yoga for Physical Health

 

Yoga practices such as asana, breathwork, and meditation can have positive benefits for your physical health. Depending on the style of yoga, physical poses might improve your strength, flexibility, balance, and agility. It can help improve your mobility and range of movement and may ease pain, depending on the source or cause.


Beyond the muscles and bones, sustained, regular yoga practice can also benefit the brain and nervous system. Research shows that regular yoga practice can create positive changes in brain structure, leading to less fear and reactivity, and greater self-regulation of emotions and behaviors. Yoga can increase positive hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins, and reduce stress hormones like cortisol. (It’s well-documented that excess stress can lead to chronic disease).

 

Yoga practices help us develop our interoception—our awareness of how our bodies feel. Interoception is crucial as it’s how your body communicates with your brain, telling us when we are hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, or need to go to the bathroom.

 

Yoga for Mental and Emotional Health

 

Beyond physiological needs, accurate interoception also tells us how we are feeling emotionally. This leads to better self-regulation of our emotions and making good decisions based on how we feel. Emerging research suggests that good interoceptive awareness can be a useful tool for addressing anxiety and depression.

 

On a personal note, I started practicing yoga for its mental health benefits. Specifically, I wanted to quiet my overthinking mind. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras define the goal of yoga as the ceasing of “fluctuations of the mind,” or this quieter mental state. For some, the movement in dynamic practices allows them to be more present and mindful. For others, stillness practices like meditation or Yin Yoga reduce rumination.

 

But Yoga is Not a Panacea

 

Here is where the buts come in. Yoga is not a cure-all. While it plays a role in contributing to physical and mental health, it’s only one component of the overall picture and is usually not enough on its own.

 

For example, yoga alone—especially if practiced only once a week—is not enough for building comprehensive strength. While it can improve strength, it tends to overemphasize push muscles and underemphasize pull muscles. Some practices stretch more than strengthen muscles. As we age and lose muscle mass, targeted strength programs like weight training or bodyweight exercises are essential.

 

Similarly, yoga alone cannot maintain and improve mobility if you lead a very sedentary life. Movement is vital, so find something you enjoy like walking, swimming, dancing, or running to complement yoga.

 

Yoga practices can assist in developing better mental and emotional health, but on their own have limitations. In some cases of mental health challenges or mental illness, yoga and meditation can even be harmful.

 

Yoga Teachers Need to Stay in Their Lane

 

Yoga teachers are not health professionals (unless they have additional qualifications). If you have a niggle in your body, joint pain, or need support for your mental and emotional health, your yoga teacher is not qualified to diagnose or prescribe. Be wary of dubious health claims on social media: (no, twists do not detoxify your body; your body does that naturally). Seek the opinion of a health professional if you have a specific goal or problem.

 

Think of yoga as part of your allied health team. If your doctor or psychologist suggests reducing stress, your yoga teacher can help you achieve that. If your physiotherapist tells you to strengthen your glutes, your yoga teacher can provide specific poses. If your body tells you to reduce reactivity, your yoga teacher can share tools to assist.


You get to choose 


In summary, yoga offers a multitude of benefits for both physical and mental health, but it's not a one-size-fits-all solution. It can contribute to overall health when combined with other activities and professional advice.


Whether you come to the mat for physical benefits, mental clarity, or spiritual growth, yoga can meet you where you are.


I’d love to know whether you first tried yoga for health reasons or other reasons? Have you experienced any health benefits from your practice? Please share in the comments.


Further reading

 

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