Yoga Health Benefits: Ancient Practice Can Improve Health, But Also Be Dangerous

Yoga is a huge physical activity and a large money-making business in this country. The spiritual aspects of yoga are frequently discussed, and deep thinkers and gurus have lauded its practice over many centuries.

Yoga has a tremendous following in America. The 2012 Yoga Journal indicates that more than 20 million people practice the discipline, up from 16 million in 2008. Currently, practitioners are spending upwards of $10 billion annually, and it was just $6 billion in 2008.

The evolution of yoga in the U.S. began in the 1890s with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. In the 1960s, there was a surge of interest in the discipline relating to mind-body therapy. Today, yoga is considered a form of exercise, and the spiritual aspects of the practice have been abandoned. The practice is generally taught at YMCAs, health clubs, and yoga centers. Additionally, hospitals employ yoga disciplines as part of general disease prevention and management programs.

References to yoga can be found in Sanskrit, making it nearly 2,000 years old. Traditionally, yoga is a complete lifestyle providing a path to spiritual enlightenment. A tree with eight branches is commonly used to describe the discipline. The branches are: breathing, postures, restraint, healthy observances, sensory withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and higher consciousness.

Scientists aren't sure about how yoga works to improve one’s health. Some say it reduces stress like other mind-body therapies by releasing endorphins, natural painkillers, and mood elevators from the brain. Studies show that yoga can decrease heart rate and blood pressure, increase muscular relaxation, and increase breathing capacity.

All branches of yoga have three techniques: breathing, healthy exercise and posture, and meditation. Breathing increases blood circulation and reduces oxygen consumption. Posture provides a gentle to intense workout that enhances strength, flexibility, and balance. Meditation quiets the mind resulting in physical and emotional relaxation. This can reduce blood pressure, chronic pain, anxiety, and cholesterol levels.

Yoga usually benefits practitioners in other ways as well. It will increase coordination, improve posture, increase concentration, and improve sleep and digestion. Used with conventional therapies, yoga is frequently practiced by people with arthritis, asthma, cancer, back pain, depression, diabetes, heart disease, migraines, and bowel disorders. It is not a cure for any disease.

The advertised benefits of yoga make it an attractive alternative and/or supplement to traditional physical activities. It is worth a try, especially since the costs are relatively modest. The principal expense is lessons with a yoga teacher. Other costs are yoga wear, if style is important to you, and a yoga mat, on which most activities are conducted.

The yoga mat is the only real piece of equipment affiliated with yoga. There are very simple and inexpensive mats available. The most common problem with mats is that they slide around. There is one mat, which addresses this problem called “Stillmotion” manufactured by Sequence. If you are interested in reading more about this innovative product and possibly buying it, click here.

Yoga can be stressful on your body, so you should not practice it without the guidance of a qualified instructor. Some yoga instructors like Glenn Black say, "Yoga is for people in good physical condition ... it really shouldn't be used for a general class [of practitioners]."

Demographic factors have heightened the risk of injury from practicing yoga. Indians, from India, have traditionally squatted and sat cross-legged. Yoga was an "outgrowth" of this practice. Americans who sit in chairs may find that many of the poses put great stress on their legs and many other parts of their bodies. A lack of flexibility and other physical problems could exacerbate injuries from yoga.

Black says, "Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people." There is a high potential to inflict "blinding pain."

Many of the poses commonly taught are "inherently risky." Excessive head movements cause injuries to the head and neck. A major artery in the vertebral areas is sometimes impacted and can produce clots. This same artery feeds important parts of the brain that sustain respiration and eye control.

Once again, working with an experienced yoga master is highly recommended.