Noyes News and Events

October 9, 2017

Yoga – Ancient Practice Meets Modern Medicine

I am what you call a Tigger.  You know - the bouncy one in Winnie the Pooh.  I like to move, generally have lots of energy, and talk a fair amount.  For these reasons and more, I have written off yoga for years. One, I thought you had to bend like a pretzel (and be super toned, young, and beautiful). Two, I assumed some sort of chanting was involved (I’m not exactly a chanting kind of gal). Three, I could not imagine myself calming down for a half hour or more.  However, research reports supporting the practice of yoga continued to pour across my desk. I decided it was time to try yoga for myself.  Research indicates this ancient practice may indeed be more than a good stretch and time to get in tune with oneself.  It may be an integral part of future preventive and healing medicine.    

While there are several different types of yoga, the modern yoga I attended was based on Hatha yoga, the most commonly practiced in the United States and Europe.  It emphasizes postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama).  For one hour, I concentrated on breathing deeply, holding, and moving through various yoga positions.  My mind was engaged in the process the whole time and amazingly enough did not wander.  Afterwards, I felt refreshed and relaxed.  For someone who likes to work out and push herself, yoga proved to be both relaxing and challenging.  More Americans than ever are trying yoga.  According to the Yoga in America Survey, over 20 million citizens of all ages are practicing yoga on a regular basis.   

The reasons people choose to incorporate yoga into their lives varies but most center on physical well-being and stress relief.  The top five reasons for practicing yoga according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance are: flexibility (61 percent), stress relief (56 percent), general fitness (49 percent), improve overall health (49 percent), and physical fitness (44 percent).  Continued yoga will definitely improve all those categories.  In addition, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (a department of the National Institutes of Health) reports that science now has at least some proof that yoga may in the future be part of a treatment plan for lower back pain and more.  

Here is what the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports to date:

  • Current research suggests that a carefully adapted set of yoga poses may reduce low-back pain and improve function. Other studies also suggest that practicing yoga (as well as other forms of regular exercise) might improve quality of life; reduce stress; lower heart rate and blood pressure; help relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia; and improve overall physical fitness, strength, and flexibility.

  • One NCCIH-funded study of 90 people with chronic low-back pain found that participants who practiced Iyengar yoga had significantly less disability, pain, and depression after 6 months.

  • In a 2011 study, also funded by NCCIH, researchers compared yoga with conventional stretching exercises or a self-care book in 228 adults with chronic low-back pain. The results showed that both yoga and stretching were more effective than a self-care book for improving function and reducing symptoms due to chronic low-back pain.

  • Conclusions from another 2011 study of 313 adults with chronic or recurring low-back pain suggested that 12 weekly yoga classes resulted in better function than usual medical care.

However, studies show that certain health conditions may not benefit from yoga.

  • A 2011 systematic review of clinical studies suggests that there is no sound evidence that yoga improves asthma.

  • A 2011 review of the literature reports found that few studies looked at yoga and arthritis. Those that did were inconclusive. The two main types of arthritis—osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis—are different conditions, and the effects of yoga may not be the same for each. In addition, the reviewers suggested that even if a study showed that yoga helped osteoarthritic finger joints, it might not help osteoarthritic knee joints.  Further research is required to determine the potential benefits for arthritis.

Furthermore, there are side effects and risk associated with certain conditions.

  • Yoga is generally low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor.

  • Overall, those who practice yoga have a low rate of side effects, and the risk of serious injury from yoga is quite low. However, certain types of stroke as well as pain from nerve damage are among the rare possible side effects of practicing yoga.

  • Women who are pregnant and people with certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, glaucoma (a condition in which fluid pressure within the eye slowly increases and may damage the eye’s optic nerve), and sciatica (pain, weakness, numbing, or tingling that may extend from the lower back to the calf, foot, or even the toes), should modify or avoid some yoga poses.

  • Always speak with your physician before starting any new exercise.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville.  For article suggestions, questions, or comments, contact Lorraine at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.