For centuries, yoga gurus have said this ancient mind-body practice can do more than just keep you fit and flexible. In fact, they believe that regularly twisting your body like a pretzel on a sticky mat will yield incredible health benefits — staving off insomnia, extra pounds, even heart disease. Skeptical? We were too, at first, so we did some digging to see if we could track down legitimate research to back up these bold claims. Here's what we found:
Yoga increases the range of motion in your hips, which can reduce lower-back pain, says Loren M. Fishman, MD, coauthor of Relief is in the Stretch: End Low Back Pain Through Yoga (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005). In fact, a small study of older women (ages 44 to 62), presented at the American College of Sports Medicine's annual meeting last year, suggests that yoga increases lower-back flexibility and diminishes pain. A word of caution: People suffering from persistent lower-back pain need a professional diagnosis before embracing yoga, because both backbends and forward bends can exacerbate some back conditions.
Pose Rx: Pigeon
Begin in downward-facing dog, extend right leg behind you, then bend the knee and draw it toward your forehead. Place right knee on floor behind right wrist and right foot behind left wrist; extend the left leg behind you on the floor. Inhale and sit up tall. Exhale and bend forward, extend arms, and rest forehead on the floor. Hold for two minutes; switch sides.
Practicing yoga for an hour and a half three times a week can make your heart healthier in just six weeks, says recent research from the Yale University School of Medicine. The 33 men and women who did just that lowered their blood pressure and improved their blood vessels' ability to expand and contract by 17 percent. "How well the blood vessels dilate is a good indication of how healthy the heart is," says Satish Sivasankaran, MD, author of the study. Researchers speculate that the improvement is due to the stress-reducing benefits of yoga.
Pose Rx: Legs-up-the-wall
Sit with right hip against a wall. Lie back and turn to swing legs up the wall. Allow your chest to gently stretch, increasing the flow of oxygen to your heart. Extend your legs toward the ceiling, keeping them slightly separated. Hold for five minutes, breathing deeply.
Researchers can't say exactly why, but two recent studies show that yoga helps with weight loss and maintenance. After surveying more than 15,000 adults, researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that those who didn't practice yoga gained about 18.5 pounds more over a 10-year period than those who practiced for at least four years. A second study from the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, found that people who practiced yoga and meditation regularly, exercised, and watched their diet lost more weight than those who exercised and ate a healthy diet but skipped yoga.
Pose Rx: Seated spinal twist
Sit on floor with legs extended. Bend right knee, stepping right foot on floor next to left hip. Bend left knee, bringing left foot near butt. Place hands on floor behind you. Sit tall and extend left arm in front of you at shoulder height. Turn torso to right, resting left elbow on the outside of your right knee. Breathe deeply for one minute, twisting deeper on each exhale. Repeat on opposite side. Twisting can aid digestion by helping the absorption of nutrients and the elimination of waste.
Yoga can calm the whirling of the mind, which is helpful for insomniacs, who often have elevated levels of mental and emotional arousal, says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, an instructor in medicine, division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School. He recently published a study which found that a half hour to 45 minutes of daily yoga practice — emphasizing meditation and breathing — helped chronic insomniacs sleep through the night. On average, the subjects increased their overall sleep time by 12 percent.
Pose Rx: Goddess pose
Sit on the floor with soles of feet pressed together, knees out to the sides. Place two pillows on the floor at the base of your spine and lie back. If your knees don't touch the floor, prop them up with pillows. Close your eyes and rest palms on your belly. Focus on the rise and fall of your breath for five minutes; this stimulates the vagus nerve, calming the nervous system.
Anxiety and Depression
Yogic breathing techniques are powerful tools for alleviating serious anxiety and depression and neutralizing the negative effects of stress, says recent research in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. That's because yogic breathing can lower the heart rate and calm the nervous system, says Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, and one of the study's authors.
Pose Rx: Headstand against the wall
Come onto your knees facing a wall, interlace your fingers, and place the knuckles against the base. Place your forearms on floor, elbows shoulder-width apart. Rest crown of head between wrists, tuck toes, and lift hips toward ceiling. Place one foot at a time against the wall and keep thighs together, breathing evenly. Hold for a few minutes, then draw knees toward chest and lower feet. Breathing deeply in this pose increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the pituitary gland, which can relieve mild depression.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, April 2006.