Possibly the most well-known benefit of yoga is flexibility. After just one practice, many people feel a reduction in joint and muscle stiffness. After a few weeks, real transformation is often seen. But why is this? There’s a fascinating science behind yoga.
The positions in each practice have very real, biological effects on your body. All of which contribute to your overall health and wellness. Our resident Yoga expert, Sarah Heap, talks us through how Yoga acts on different parts of your body.
The way you sit at work, walk, run, even the way you sleep at night can cause posture problems. The spinal disks (shock absorbers) between the vertebrae can herniate and compress nerves. By practising asanas (Hatha Yoga postures) with backbends, forward folds and twists, you’ll help keep your disks supple.
Joint cartilage is like a sponge. It receives fresh nutrients only when old fluid is squeezed out, leaving space for a new supply to be absorbed. Neglected areas of cartilage eventually wear out, exposing underlying bone. Like a worn brake pad on your car. Twisting, bending asanas give your cartilage doses of nutrients to help mitigate disability and prevent conditions such as degenerative arthritis.
Your Circulatory System
Yoga gets your blood flowing and helps your circulation, especially in your hands and feet. Inverted poses, like headstands (Shirshasana) and shoulder stands, encourage blood from the legs and pelvis to flow back to the heart and lungs, where it can be freshly oxygenated. If you’ve practised yoga before, you might be familiar with Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana). This posture is great for increasing circulation to your lower body. Yoga also boosts levels of haemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues.
Your Lymph Glands
When contracting and stretching your muscles coming into and out of yoga postures, you’re also moving your organs. By doing this you increase the drainage of lymph (a fluid rich in immune cells). This helps the lymphatic system fight infection and disposes of any toxic waste products of cell functioning (free radicals).
Your Adrenal Glands
Yoga lowers cortisol levels. Cortisol is a steroid produced by your adrenal gland when your body is in fight or flight mode. If your cortisol levels stay high even after a crisis (as can happen in cases of chronic stress) it can cause serious health issues. Increased cortisol has been linked to a compromised immune system, can be a cause of depression, increases insulin resistance, and is even associated with osteoporosis because it extracts calcium and other minerals from bones.
To counteract this, I recommend Legs Up Wall Pose (Viparita Karani). It slows your heart rate and reduces the nerve input into the adrenal glands by stimulating the baroreceptors (your blood pressure sensors) in your neck and upper chest.
Studies have found that by practising yoga which increases your heart rate into the aerobic range, you can lower your resting heart rate, increase endurance and improve your maximum intake of oxygen during exercise. All this can reduce your risk of a heart attack. While not all yoga has this effect, during Vinyasa (also known as Power) flow or Ashtanga classes, your heart rate can get into the aerobic zone.
Whilst yoga is often perceived as a ‘stretching’ exercise the benefits are vast and stretch across Physiology, Neurobiology, Stress Response, Mindfulness and Meditation, Psychoneuroimmunology, Psychophysiology and Mental Health along with Biomechanics and Physical Fitness.
Yoga really is a multifaceted practice, and its benefits can vary among individuals. Consulting scientific literature and seeking guidance from qualified yoga instructors or healthcare professionals can help you better understand the specific scientific evidence related to your interests or specific health needs.