What is Yoga?

“Words fail to convey the total value of yoga. It has to be experienced.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

A 5,000-year-old spiritual, intellectual, and physical discipline, yoga has quickly taken the Western world by storm over the last several decades.  The latest “Yoga in America” study, released by Yoga Journal  in 2008 reports that Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media (DVDs, videos, books, and magazines).  But what’s all the fuss about?  Is all that sweating, bending, folding, and wrapping your limbs in strange positions really worth it?  Read on to get enlightened.

What is yoga?

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj”, meaning “to control or unite” and includes traditional physical and mental practices originating in India.   In the West, yoga is typically seen as a series of physical postures (downward dog, child’s pose, tree pose), but there are actually eight unique yet interconnected aspects of yoga.  The eight limbs of yoga are:

  1. The Yamas:  Ethical guidelines
  2. The Niyamas:  Spiritual observances
  3. Asanas: Physical postures (a.k.a. your downward dog)
  4. Pranayama:  Breathing exercises
  5. Pratyahara:  Turning the senses inward
  6. Dharana:  Concentration
  7. Dhyana:  Meditation
  8. Samadhi:  Blissful absorption

Doesn’t this list look like a great recipe for optimal health and wellness?  Do you ever turn your senses inward when weight-lifting at the gym?  Are you focused on your breathing or meditating during 45 minutes of elliptical training with Lady Gaga blasting through your headphones?  Don’t get me wrong, most forms of exercise are great for the mind and body, but what makes yoga so unique?


Down Dog

What are the benefits?

If you Google search “health benefits of yoga”, you will receive about 358,000 results.  The most common benefits include improved strength, flexibility, posture, breathing, concentration, and mood.  But how do you know if these facts are supported by credible sources.  Let’s look to the research for some clarification:

1.  Yoga reduces stress:

Data from a 2007 study performed in Sweden demonstrate that participants in a yoga group lowered their degree of anxiety, depression and stress, and also increased their degree of optimism.  The participants in the yoga group experienced the practices as a positive event that induced beneficial effects.

2.  Yoga reduces risk factors of chronic diseases:

A systematic review performed by the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Nursing yielded 32 articles published between 1980 and April 2007. The studies found that yoga interventions are generally effective in reducing body weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and high cholesterol, but only a few studies examined long-term adherence.

Another systematic review performed by University of Virginia Health Systems identified 25 eligible studies suggesting beneficial changes in several risk indices for type 2 diabetes, including glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles, anthropometric characteristics, blood pressure, oxidative stress, coagulation profiles, sympathetic activation and pulmonary function, as well as improvement in specific clinical outcomes. They concluded that yoga may improve risk profiles in adults with type 2 diabetes, and may have promise for the prevention and management of cardiovascular complications in this population.

3.  Yoga is beneficial to healthy seniors:

Research from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, OR demonstrates that healthy seniors in a yoga group showed significant improvement in quality-of-life measures (sense of well-being, energy and fatigue levels) and physical measures (timed 1-legged standing, forward flexibility) compared to exercise and wait-list control groups.  There were no effects, however, from either of the active interventions on any of the cognitive and alertness outcome measures.

The majority of research on yoga practice has been conducted by and published in Indian journals, particularly yoga specialty journals.   As the West further embraces yoga, however, research from the U.S. and England has emerged, but additional high-quality randomized control trials are needed to confirm and further illuminate its effects.  With increased popularity of alternative medicine, you can expect to see future research on yoga and its benefits.

How do I get started with yoga?

Once you determine your yoga goals, you can pick from one of several yoga studios in your community.  Most yoga studios offer “beginner” packages, but make sure you ask questions (how big are the classes, what is the emphasis of the class, etc) before you sign up.  The best way to determine which studio and which yoga practice fits your goals is to try it.  And remember, not all of us are meant to balance on our head or contort our limbs – listen to your body and don’t push beyond your comfort zone.

Other than that, find your downward dog…and breathe.


Innes KE, Vincent HK.  The influence of yoga-based programs on risk profiles in adults with type 2 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review.  Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2007 Dec;4(4):469-86.

Kiellgren A, Bood SA, Axelsson K, Norlander T, Saaticioglu F.  Wellness through a comprehensive yogic breathing program – a controlled pilot trial.  BMC Complement Altern Med. 2007 Dec 19;7:43.

McCall, T.  Yoga as Medicine: The yogic prescription for health and healing.  New York, NY: Bantam Dell, 2007.

Oken BS, Zajdel D, Kishiyama S, Flegal K, Dehen C, Haas M, Kraemer DF, Lawrence J, Leyva J.  Randomized, controlled, six-month trial of yoga in healthy seniors: effects on cognition and quality of life.  Altern Ther Health Med. 2006 Jan-Feb;12(1):40-7.

Yang K.  A review of yoga programs for four leading risk factors of chronic diseases.  Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2007 Dec;4(4):487-91.

Yoga Journal Releases 2008 “Yoga in America” Market Study


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