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Between work, raising a family and coping with an uncertain economy, stress has become a "normal" part of daily life for most people. That could explain why so many Americans -- about 16 million at latest count -- have started taking yoga classes or doing yoga at home. This ancient practice, which started in India more than 4,000 years ago, connects mind and body through a series of postures, breathing exercises and meditation. By stretching and toning the muscles, flexing the spine and focusing the mind inward, yoga helps reduce stress. That can impact your overall health since stress plays at least some role in many illnesses. Studies show that chronic stress doubles the risk of heart attack, for instance.
How yoga may promote health Research into the health benefits of yoga is still in its infancy. But recent pilot studies point in promising directions. Yoga has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, which can help reduce a person's risk of heart disease. There may be other heart benefits, too: A 2006 study found that yoga helped lower cholesterol levels and improve circulation in people who have cardiovascular disease. Some hospitals have incorporated yoga into their post-cardiac rehabilitation programs.
While the evidence of yoga's success in reducing a person's body mass is mixed, one study did find that yoga can help people lose weight by leading them to a healthier lifestyle. The study reported that people who regularly practiced yoga started eating less, eating more slowly, and choosing healthier foods. They also showed fewer symptoms of eating disorders.
Many people report that yoga gives them an overall feeling of wellbeing. But research shows that it may also help alleviate specific kinds of pain, including migraine headaches, lower back problems, arthritis and pain during childbirth. Researchers are not sure what mechanism is at work, but one theory is that the yoga postures work like the way massage works. When a yoga posture places pressure on a nerve fiber, the signal for "pressure" is sent quickly to the brain via myelinated (insulated) nerve fibers, while the signal for "pain" reaches the brain more slowly via less myelinated nerve fibers. The signal for "pressure" closes the receptor gate and shuts out the "pain" stimulus. Another theory is that yoga causes an increase in serotonin, the body's natural anti-pain chemical.
While more research is needed into these areas, people who practice yoga have also reported that they experience less insomnia and better digestive health. Pregnant women in particular seem to have an easier time sleeping when they do yoga. They are also less likely to develop high blood pressure or deliver prematurely.
Calming the mind Since yoga involves the mind as well as the body, it's not surprising that it may help reduce anxiety and depression, especially in people whose anxiety is related to an illness like cancer. More research is needed to learn exactly how yoga affects mood, but a 2007 study may provide a clue: It found that in experienced yoga practitioners, a 60-minute yoga session increased levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA. Low levels of GABA have been linked to depression and anxiety disorders. Another pilot study suggests that yoga may influence depression by increasing the alpha waves in the brain. Alpha waves are associated with relaxation. Yet another possibility is that yoga reduces the amount of cortisol, a hormone that the body releases in response to stress. Some scientists think chronic high levels of cortisol may be tied to depression, as well as impaired immune function.
If the potential health benefits of yoga aren't enough to make you want to try it, consider this: Yoga can also make you look more toned and fit and help you move with greater ease, especially as you grow older. A 2007 study of the Hatha yoga style showed that it increased muscular strength, flexibility and endurance. It's no wonder that many athletes use yoga to cross-train.
Getting started You don't need a lot of expensive equipment or to be in tiptop shape to start practicing yoga. All it takes is loose clothing, a mat (some classes will provide mats) and the desire to learn.
There are several different styles of yoga. Most use a series of postures designed to stretch and strengthen muscles and also use controlled breathing to quiet your mind. The most popular style in the U.S. is Hatha yoga, a relatively slow-moving, gentle style. Other styles such as Ashtanga (also known as power yoga) are more vigorous. Find out about the different kinds of yoga that are offered at classes in your area. Choose the style that fits your goals and level of fitness. You can also get started by using a good instructional book or DVD at home, although it's useful for beginners to start with a class. If you are pregnant or have any serious health conditions, talk to your doctor before you begin. Once you start a class, let your teacher know about any injuries or health issues.
Whichever style of yoga you choose, take it slowly at first. Don't try to force yourself into difficult poses at the beginning. After a while, you will develop more flexibility, strength and stamina. Your teacher shouldn't push you to do poses that aren't comfortable. If your teacher is going too fast, talk to him or her, or look for a class that is a better fit.
While yoga won't cure everything that ails you -- or make your boss nicer -- it will help you deal with stress better. And that could make a big difference in your overall health.
Learn more about the benefits of exercise:
TheVisualMD.com: Get Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise
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