Yoga: Physical and Mental Health

Those of you who read this blog regularly might remember that in July I decided to take a more active role in addressing the neck and back pain that is a regular part of my life. I started taking a yoga class. In August, I added a second one. I was all set last week to write my blog article on yoga; then Seth offered to write the week’s entry. I’m glad I waited. You see, I have just learned that September is the first official National Yoga Month, so designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Now, I can even make a contribution to the observance by a timely blog entry.

Yoga means union. When we think and talk of the postures that are part of the practice of yoga, we are talking about asana, one of the eight limbs of yoga.  While most of the limbs relate to moral and spiritual development, asana and pranayama are very much physical.

Prana means life/breath. Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga focused on the use of breath control to cause relaxation and alteration of mental state. Those of us who have utilized the teaching of progressive relaxation methods as an adjunct to psychotherapy know that the effect of cleansing breath on mental state is real. Diminishing anxiety and depression so a client can take action on life problems is one of the observed benefits of deep breathing, but the effect of breathing deeply is not just on mental state. Fully oxygenating the blood and relaxing the muscles adequately for the blood to circulate properly speeds healing, reduces stress, and increases the acuity of thinking. 

Recently published researchdemonstrates significant emotional and physical benefit from the practice of Iyengar yoga among a group with chronic lower back pain. quotes the researchers as saying that “low-back pain is the largest category for medical reimbursements in the US, accounting for 34 billion dollars of medical costs every year.” Diminishing the cost of this care could have significant impact on our health care expenditures. This is one case where the use of complementary/alternative medicine can save all of us some bucks while simultaneously increasing the sense of personal responsibility and mastery for the patient.

Iyengar yoga is one of many schools or styles of yoga practice. It focuses on alignment of the body and balance, two crucial requirements for symptom relief. Practitioners utilize props to facilitate the various yoga postures. The use of chairs and blocks and straps to assist getting into and maintaining the positions makes it possible for just about anyone to practice the Iyengar style of yoga. The study found that those who practiced Iyengar yoga had less pain, less disability and less depression than those who did not. Over the longer term, they also used less medication than those who used traditional medical treatment.

My personal experience is that even minimal (twice a week) practice of yoga has had significant effects on my experience. I have chronic lower back pain, neck and shoulder pain. Practice of yoga has resulted in much improved physical and mental well-being.

  1. The focus on posture and lengthening of the spine has resulted in a day-to-day, minute-to-minute awareness of how I am holding my body. The  positions in which I put myself in my chair at my desk, standing talking to a colleague, having a telephone conversation all result in muscle tightening. Using proper posture allows the muscles and bones to work as they were designed.
  2. My twice a week classes have resulted in considerable strengthening of my muscles. While I bicycle each weekend, my upper body and core muscles get very little workout. The yoga classes take care of that. The core muscles that are crucial to proper alignment of the spine are getting strong enough to do the job adequately.
  3. The focus totally on the physical gets me out of my head for two hours a week. The workout tires the muscles getting me into the ideal state to benefit from the deep relaxation at the end of the class.
  4. I am gaining control over my physical comfort. I had come to a feeling of helplessness to control my pain. That is gone. I now have a much better sense of what I must do and how I must feel to minimize my pain.

While yoga may not be the ideal method of exercise for everyone, it is a wonderful tool that can be used by many. Why not consider exploring some of the benefits for yourself?

Talk with us about your experience with yoga. Your comments are always welcome.

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