Many people may seem outwardly well, but scratch the surface and there is often disharmony, sadness and self-loathing. The practice of yoga, which unites mind and body, could pave the way to a healthier, happier life.
How do you define the state of being healthy? Does it mean having smooth skin, a trim waistline and a within range BMI? Or is it better defined by a calm mind, a kind disposition and a happy attitude? Perhaps it’s one or a combination of these things. The cut-and-dried perspective of ‘do my numbers look okay at my yearly check-up?’ is one way of measuring it. Yet this doesn’t get at the emotional, sublime aspect of health: your own intuitive sense of well-being. Despite many attempts to find a litmus test for health, at least in the Western medical world, we still haven’t found one simple gold standard to measure it.
Inward and Outward Health
I’m a medical doctor who has been an emergency physician for more than 14 years. I’ve seen my fair share of both acute and chronic disease. I’ve met many people who, at first glance, might fall under the category of unhealthy. People who come to me because their kidneys are not working effectively, or they have chest pain, or they can’t breathe well. Yet, as I delve deeper into their spirit and work with them, I see a whole other face of health. Despite having renal, heart or lung disease, the person in front of me is calm and happy with a legacy of accomplishments.
On the flip side, though, every day in the store, at the post office or at the bank, I see an outwardly healthy person with no obvious medical list who is full of sadness and self-loathing. They don’t have an inner peace and become infuriated if delayed by only a few moments in a queue while an assistant counts out their change. I bring up these juxtapositions to illustrate the point that health must first and foremost come from a place of the unity of mind and body, a place of perspective.
This intuitive awareness, cultivated through yoga and other mindfulness practices, offers the ability to pause, take note and reflect on how you feel, behave and react to a situation – and how you make choices. With this groundwork in place, you can make effective choices in all aspects of life – from the foods you eat, the exercise you take, the sleep with which you restore yourself – and move towards a healthy, long and rewarding life.
The Research is In
As well as emergency medicine, I’ve been practicing yoga for more than 25 years. As a certified Yoga Medicine instructor, I focus on the fusion of anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics with the traditional practice of yoga. In practicing and teaching yoga, I’ve felt the synergy of the yoking of mind and body and the deep calm and happiness that have come as a result of my dedicated practice. Many of my students have had similar experiences. Can yoga help us to be healthier? Anecdotally, I say yes but, as a scientist, I also say, ‘let’s turn to the literature…’
A 2009 study in BMC Pulmonary Medicine, by Vempati et al, looked at 57 adults with mild to moderate asthma. Twenty-nine of these participants were randomized to a yoga group and 28 to a non-yoga group. The yoga group showed statistically significant improvement in pulmonary function, a decrease in exercise-induced broncho-constriction and overall improvement in the quality of life.
A review in Preventative Medicine in December 2017, by Thind et al, analyzed a group of studies assessing the effects of yoga on lowering blood sugar in participants with Type 2 diabetes. In addition to the yoga group showing an improvement in blood sugar metrics, they also showed improvements in lipid profile, blood pressure, body mass index, waist/hip ratio, and cortisol levels.
In April 2017, in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Chu et al looked at the effect a 12-week yoga programme had on heart rate variability (HRV) – a marker of parasympathetic tone – and depressive symptoms in clinically depressed women. Thirteen women were included in the yoga group and 13 in the non-yoga group. The yoga group completed a 12-week yoga programme where they participated in twice-weekly, 60-minute yoga classes. Each session consisted of breathing exercises, a yoga pose practice, and supine meditation and relaxation.
The control group was instructed not to engage in any yoga practice and to maintain their usual level of physical activity during the course of the study. All participants’ HRV, depressive symptoms and perceived stress were assessed at baseline and post-test. As a result, authors found that the 12-week yoga programme was effective in increasing parasympathetic tone and reducing depressive symptoms and perceived stress in women with elevated depressive symptoms.
Greater Acceptance of Yoga
This small sampling of studies suggests yoga promotes good health. But in what way? The truth is that this area of research is in its infancy. The sizes of many of the studies are small, some of the methods are less than robust and because there’s so much variability of yoga styles and practice, it’s difficult to make a direct correlation between yoga and improvement in health outcomes. But there is great momentum and it’s likely that more robust studies will emerge in the near future.
Over the past 40 years, the medical community has begun to acknowledge the overall positive benefits of yoga, and mindfulness practices have also been increasingly accepted. Many researchers are interested in growing the body of knowledge that explains what it is about these practices that makes people healthier. In fact, the University of Massachusetts Medical School recently created a new division dedicated to the academic study of mindfulness. Such a designation allows for long-term, better-funded, focused research.
Back to anecdote… I’ve dealt with many things that were out of my control to fix in my years as an emergency physician. I have experienced the joy of bringing people back from the brink. Yet many times all I can say is: ‘I don’t know’. The stress, trauma, jubilation, and sadness that are all parts of my job are hard to manage for many. Especially those who have the privilege of caring for the very sick. I’ve continually turned to my practice to give me the mental flexibility I need to make quick decisions.
My practice has given me the perspective to realise that when I’m feeling tired or sad or defeated, this feeling will not be forever and I will learn and grow from the experience. In my times of complete physical and mental exhaustion, it has been my salvation – a place to find physical strength, mental balance and a state of ‘reset’. In essence, my practice has made me a better doctor and healthier person.
I’ve seen similar spaciousness grow in the hearts, minds and bodies of my students. As their practices have unfolded and they have developed a sense of peace, non-reactivity, physical strength, flexibility and mobility, many have made major life changes. They have repaired relationships. Made fulfilling career decisions. And said no to things that weren’t working in their lives. They are happier, healthier and whole. The vibe in my studio is one of inclusion where much of the goodness occurs in the lobby with students sharing, laughing, connecting. This is the essence of health.
To find a Yoga Medicine certified instructor in your area, visit Yoga Medicine’s Find a Teacher directory.