While Eastern cultures have long recognized yoga’s healing benefits, Western medicine is just catching on. Some American medical schools are starting to teach yoga and meditation as a means of stress reduction, and well-known cardiologist Dean Ornish, MD, now prescribes yoga, along with diet and exercise, as part of his plan for preventing and reversing heart disease. Studies have shown that yoga can help reduce high blood pressure (which can be partly stress-induced). It can also help reverse depression, which is more common among people with diabetes than the general population.
Exactly how yoga may relieve depression is not known, but it may work in several ways at once. According to Beryl Herrin, a yoga instructor based in Philadelphia, “Yoga gets energy moving in the body. It gives you breath awareness, which helps you to stay in the moment, rather than be consumed with worries.” Exercise is known to naturally increase your brain’s “feel-good” chemicals, and meditation, it seems, can have the same effect. Studies show that the increase in slower-frequency alpha and theta brain waves (both of which are associated with a state of relaxation) that occurs during and after yoga meditation corresponds with an increase in dopamine, a chemical that produces feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. And yoga may also help relieve depression simply by burning glucose, since high blood glucose itself can contribute to feelings of depression. However, yoga alone cannot treat major depression; people experiencing severe depression should seek professional help.
A style for everyone
There are many types and styles of yoga, some accentuating the physical component of yoga, others its spiritual or calming aspects. Hatha yoga is considered the “basic” yoga style and the root of most other variations. Combining physical poses and breathing exercises to increase body awareness, fitness, and flexibility, a beginner hatha yoga class is a good option for people trying yoga for the first time. Beginners and people with physical limitations might also look for classes labeled “gentle yoga,” in which classical hatha postures are modified so that students can proceed comfortably at their own pace and level of ability.
For people who already have some degree of fitness, ashtanga yoga may be a good choice. Students perform a series of postures in quick succession to get a rigorous aerobic workout while increasing strength and flexibility. Sometimes called power yoga, this style is catching on in gyms and health clubs.
Another popular style is iyengar, a slower, more technique-focused method that uses props such as belts, blocks, and chairs to help students achieve precise alignment in breathing exercises and poses. Poses are usually held much longer than in other types of yoga. The use of props allows students at all levels to progress safely and comfortably, although some people may find this style too exacting.
Kundalini yoga focuses more on the meditative side of yoga. Kundalini incorporates Sanskrit chanting, muscular contractions, meditation, and guided visualization to tap into a dormant energy force (pictured as a coiled serpent, the kundalini) at the base of the spine.
Integrative yoga therapy (not to be confused with integral yoga, which is described here) is practiced in some hospitals and rehabilitation centers as a complement to standard Western medicine. Tailored to the individual, it uses yoga exercises to strengthen the mind–body connection and help people meet specific goals such as pain management, weight loss, recovery from surgery, smoking cessation, or spiritual growth.