Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means “union” or “coming together”. Dating back more than 5,000 years, it is a powerful practice that can create synergy in the mind-body complex. This synergy is important to maintain a healthy, happy life. Yoga postures or asanas are the most well known aspect of yoga, but it also consists of breathing exercises, meditation and knowledge of ethical living practices. Together, all these can help with mental and physical well-being.
In today’s world, if there is an omnipresent phenomenon that affects people from all nationalities, ages, gender and races, it is stress. Stress has slowly become a part of the current human experience. Stress can be triggered by an unpleasant conversation with a co-worker, an impending deadline, traffic, family pressures, worries about the future or just by listening to the news. Chronic low level stress is a way of life for most adults. Chronic stress keeps the sympathetic nervous system active and depresses the parasympathetic nervous system. This imbalance creates a multitude of health problems like insomnia, high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, obesity, mood disorders, digestive disorders and even cancer. According to a WHO report, these non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for 41 million deaths, which is 71% of all deaths globally. The NCDs are difficult to manage or cure with just Western medicine. More people are now turning towards holistic techniques for well-being, and yoga is amongst the most popular. In 2015, the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 21 million or 9.5% of all adults in the US used yoga as a complementary health approach. This number has grown since then as thousands of people are discovering the benefits of yoga each day.
Here are six ways in which yoga can change your life:
YOGA REDUCES STRESS
Yoga has been shown to increase heart rate variability (HRV). Increased HRV is a sign of increased relaxation and reduced stress. Yoga has also been shown to reduce cortisol, the hormone indicator for stress. The components of stretching, deep breathing and meditation relax the body and calm the mind. They bring one to the present moment and moderate the incessant flow of the thoughts which creates stress. Pranayama and breathing techniques like Sudarshan Kriya have also been shown to reduce stress significantly.
YOGA HELPS YOU SLEEP
With the constant pressure to manage responsibilities and be “on” at all times, most of us have trouble sleeping. Many illnesses and health problems are associated with insomnia, including cancer, chronic pain conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, and depression. Several studies have been conducted on the impact of yoga on sleep, including one by Harvard Medical School. Yoga has been shown to improve sleep, impacting its onset, duration and quality. Simple techniques like savasana and yoga nidra can be highly beneficial for sleep.
YOGA MAKES YOU YOUNGER
A recent study published in JAMA Dermatology showed that practising face yoga postures for 20 weeks made women look three years younger. The good news is that yoga also makes you younger at a deeper level. Yoga has been known to reduce inflammation and improve circulation in the body which slows the aging process.
YOGA MAKES YOU HAPPY
Yoga can boost feelings of happiness not only by making you feel like you did something good for yourself, but by also impacting the neurochemical pathways of happiness. Researchers at the Boston University Medical School found higher levels of the amino acid GABA in people after practising yoga for just one hour. People who suffer from depression and anxiety have very low levels of these amino acids in their bodies. Yoga is also shown to release oxytocin, which is an essential hormone for social bonding and happiness. When oxytocin levels are high, one feels a greater sense of connection with others and themselves. A study in India showed that yoga also increases levels of serotonin, the hormone responsible for making one feel happy and regulating mood. Thus, yoga impacts the brain in wonderful, positive ways and makes us healthy and happy!
YOGA KEEPS YOU HEALTHY MENTALLY & PHYSICALLY
An amazing thing about yoga is that it is highly customisable. There are postures and breathing techniques specifically for conditions like diseases and pregnancy and for purposes like increasing creativity and focus. A good yoga teacher can help you tailor your practice to focus on areas that are important to you. Current research has also found yoga to be an effective tool to reduce depression and anxiety. Yoga can also increase endurance for pain. Numerous studies have shown its benefit in managing NCDs like diabetes and obesity. In an increasingly stressful world, yoga is an easy, effective and economical way to keep oneself healthy.
YOGA MAKES YOU SMART AND CREATIVE
Yoga has been shown to activate the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in our body and the command central for the parasympathetic nervous system. Stress and anxiety suppresses vagus nerve activity, which makes us react rather than respond, in a state of fear, fight or flight, and make more mistakes and rash decisions. Yoga activates the vagus nerve, allowing us to access parts of the brain responsible for creativity, higher cognition and logical thinking. Yoga relaxes the body and the brain, allowing us to take actions from a calm space and bringing forth hidden talents.
A beautiful and effective combination of yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation can be found in the Art of Living Happiness Program. Taking a few minutes to practise these effective yet easy techniques can truly transform your life!
The author is a senior meditation teacher and the Executive Director, Sri Sri Institute for Advanced Research.