When you think of yoga, do you picture nimble people in special positions that require great flexibility? Or is your image one of people deep in meditation, chanting, “OM” or some other mantra?
For centuries, yoga has been alleged to bring diverse health benefits, but with little “proof”. Research quality is still limited, but in recent years has been documenting measurable effects of yoga on health. This year’s annual meeting of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics included a presentation by Sat Bir S. Khalsa, PhD, on the state of current yoga research.
Here is the first section of my interview with Dr. Khalsa, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, in which he clarifies what he says are some common misconceptions about yoga.
(Email subscribers, you’ll need to go to the Smart Bytes® blog to view the interview.)
I don’t currently practice yoga, but I’ve become intrigued with the growing research supporting longstanding claims about how it may impact health. Before we go on to look at what these health-related studies are finding, it may be helpful to first clarify some basic background on yoga.
Misconception #1: Yoga always puts people in challenging physical positions that require great flexibility.
Dr. Khalsa notes that although the media tends to choose photos of people in positions that would be extremely difficult for most of us to perform, yoga can actually involve a wide range of positions. These can include those suitable for the elderly, children and those with diseases or excess weight that people might assume to be obstacles to yoga practice.
Misconception #2: Yoga is a form of meditation; it doesn’t impact physical health.
Yoga is, indeed, more than physical postures, involving meditation and focused breathing. However, research suggests this combination may have positive health effects. So far, the conditions that most often respond to yoga are those that include some aspect of stress response, but this list is longer than you may think. It includes insomnia, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Some research is looking at whether it may be helpful to improve quality of life for cancer survivors.
Misconception #3: The effects of yoga occur primarily while you are doing it.
Actually, yoga’s effects on health have potential to extend throughout the day. It promotes a mindfulness and an ability to regulate your own internal state of relaxation or anxiety. Both of these can in turn affect your awareness of and desire for non-hunger eating that might otherwise occur out of boredom or as a way to cope with stress.
In his lecture at the conference, Dr. Khalsa talked about “default mode” as a state in which we may be prone to ruminating in ways that lead to a lot of dysfunctional thoughts. Regular yoga practice seems to decrease the amount of time people spend in this negative mode.
What’s more, some research suggests that within a few months, yoga can actually change brain structure. Check back for the next portion of my video interview with Dr. Khalsa, in which he talks about this phenomenon, known as “neuroplasticity”. It’s pretty amazing! Meanwhile, if you’ve tried yoga, please comment below and share what your experience has been.
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