Different Theories on How it Works
In the Yogic view, disease is the result of imbalance. Yoga approaches dis-ease by restoring ease. To understand the benefits of Yoga its helpful to first look at one of the roots of dis-ease-stress. Sometimes in the absence of an identifiable cause of a condition, we assume it must just be stress. But the effects of chronic stress are quite specific and in a very real way lead to illness if unchecked.
What is stress? The stress response (fight-or-flight) is a survival mechanism that enables us to respond quickly to dangerous situations. In the face of a perceived threat, a cascade of physiological events takes place that prepares the body to get itself out of trouble. Stress hormones are released, heart rate and breathing rate increase, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure increases, muscle tension increases, resting processes such as digestion and repair cease, immune function is impaired, fats and sugars are released into the bloodstream, and insulin production increases. Fight-or-flight is carried out by the sympathetic nervous system, part of the autonomic nervous system.
Ideally when the emergency is resolved, the body returns to its natural state of balance. But because the stress response is nonspecific, it may be set off by events, thoughts and feelings on a daily basis. Without relief, without restoring balance, the state of stress can become a chronic condition and we become vulnerable to illness.
The body, in its infinite wisdom, has its own counterbalance to the stress response. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, M.D. (who later established the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School), studied people in meditation and described the physical changes he observed as the relaxation response. The relaxation response decreases metabolic rate, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and muscle tension. In this state, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and orchestrates the resting processes of digestion, growth, repair and immunity. Only in the state of relaxation can the body devote its energy and resources to healing.
The techniques of Yoga-stretching, diaphragmatic breathing, guided relaxation and meditation-induce the relaxation response and have other profound restorative effects.
|Postures/stretching: releases muscular tension; relieves constriction/adhesion of the connective tissue; increases overall flexibility; lubricates and eases movement of the joints; brings suppleness to the spine; improves posture; improves general circulation; massages and increases circulation to the internal organs and glands; stimulates the lymphatic system; balances and tones the nervous system.|
|Guided relaxation: releases muscular tension; allows the body to rest deeply; promotes healing.|
|Deep, diaphragmatic breathing: detoxifies and energizes the system; oxygenates the blood efficiently; reduces coronary workload and increases blood flow to the heart; increases lung capacity; gently massages the abdominal organs; aids in assimilation and elimination; brings circulation to the spine; inspires a sense of overall well-being; calms the mind.|
|Meditation: develops clarity and concentration; provides perspective; focuses and steadies the mind; cultivates a sense of connection.|
Conditions it Works Best For
Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual practice that promotes general health and well being. It is particularly beneficial as a way of managing stress and stress-related illness. In small studies, medical research has shown some benefit of Yoga practice for asthma, anxiety, pain management, musculoskeletal disorders, arthritis, epilepsy, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and other conditions.
Federally funded research studies are currently being conducted on the use of Yoga for ulcerative colitis and in pregnant asthmatics. In addition, clinical experience has indicated that Yoga may be helpful in the recovery from acute illness or trauma or to those living with chronic illness. Yoga is also a restorative practice for caregivers and health care providers. Many women find Yoga to be an important part of their prenatal and postpartum care.