Yoga is a spiritual discipline with its roots in India. The word ‘yoga’ is found in India’s earliest known scripts, the Vedas, which date from the Vedic period which began in 1500 BCE. Composed in Sanskrit, the Vedas are the oldest writings of Hinduism.
The word ‘yoga’ is most commonly translated as meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to bind’. For many years, yoga was more of a notion of meditation and a religious practice as opposed to the postures (asanas) we typically associated with it in current Western society. It was around the 5th century that yoga became an established practice among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Importantly, these ancient versions of yoga were spiritual practices with the primary aim of yoga asana being to prepare the body for an extended period of meditation. During the medieval period (500-1500AD), different schools of yoga emerged. Hatha yoga appeared in Buddhist texts around the 8th century; a combination of asana, breathing and meditation and possibly the closest to what we, in the Western world, most commonly associate with yoga today.
Much more could be written about the origins of Yoga – we haven’t even mentioned Patanjali, Swami Vivekananda or the eight limbs of yoga… perhaps a deeper exploration is warranted within another blog post at another time. For now, suffice to say that yoga itself absolutely and undeniably sprang from roots of an intensely spiritual nature. We shall bear in mind yoga’s roots as a spiritual discipline as we explore its physical and emotional benefits above and beyond exercise in this blog post.
A systematic review due for release next month (Larson-Meyer, August 2016) has looked at the energy cost and metabolic intensity of yoga. Seventeen studies were reviewed, concluding that few yoga sequences/poses, including Surya Namaskar, meet the criteria for moderate to vigorous-intensity activity in accordance with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) physical activity guidelines. Our fear here at the Minded Institute is that these results may inhibit medical professionals from recommending yoga to their patients, which could certainly be the case if yoga is viewed in a one-dimensional way as an exercise practice aimed at achieving the daily recommendations for moderate- or vigorous-intensity physical activity. As we hope will become clear as we move through this article, yoga as a physical, psychological, and spiritual discipline is so very much more that this and has a wealth of benefits above metabolic intensity to offer.
A growing body of research suggests that yoga has the potential to improve both physical and mental health through a range of mechanisms, including the down-regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) nervous system (SNS). Physical and/or psychological stressors trigger the HPA axis and SNS resulting in a range of physiological, behavioural, emotional, and psychological effects, primarily as a result of the release of stress-related hormones including cortisol. Such a response leads to the classic ‘fight or flight’ response which, over time when repeatedly stimulated, can cause a state of hypervigilance leading to a dysregulation of the system and, ultimately, health challenges including anxiety, depression, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular disease to name just a few. It is also particularly worthy of note that yoga has been found to increase brain GABA levels, which are associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. In research by Chris Streeter and colleagues in 2010, for example, a 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically matched walking exercise.
Given yoga’s clear benefits to physical and psychological health, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is often viewed purely as an exercise practice by people in the Western world. Indeed, some yoga classes in gyms do not allow the spiritual elements of yoga to be part of the programme, forbidding elements such as chanting. Interestingly, in research involving the health benefits of yoga, exercise is the most common intervention used as a comparison. Ross and Thomas (2010) conducted a review of studies on yoga and exercise and found twelve studies comparing the effects of yoga and exercise, nine of which focused on adults and three on seniors. 597 of the 873 subjects who participated in the twelve studies were women. Exercises used as a comparison included aerobics, walking, running, dancing and cycling. Overall, in these reviewed studies, yoga was found to be equal or superior to exercise in relieving symptoms associated with diabetes, multiple sclerosis, menopause, and kidney disease. Yoga was found to have beneficial effects on blood glucose levels in people with diabetes and other chronic health conditions, on oxidative stress, and on cholesterol. Furthermore, yoga was found to be relieve the symptoms of mental illness including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. Comparing yoga and exercise groups, yoga groups often score significantly better than exercise groups on social and occupational functioning, and psychological, social and environmental measures of quality of life, suggesting that yoga has something to offer above and beyond exercise. In research exclusively on healthy individuals, yoga has been shown to be as effective as or superior to exercise on nearly every outcome measured
Why is yoga able to offer additional benefits to exercise such as aerobics, walking and jogging? The answer is both simple and clear. Yoga is an embodied practice of mindful movement, incorporating movement with the breath. By bringing attention to and coordinating the breath with the movement of the body, a profound sense of embodiment can be fostered which can facilitate improved emotional health and a transcendent sense of self. In Patanjali’s yoga sutras, asana is described as ‘Sthiram Sukham Asanam’, meaning that which gives steadiness, stability and joy. Yoga is a practice for unifying body, mind and spirit. Meditation, which is a limb of yoga, also provides additional spiritual, physical and psychological benefits which have been highlighted extensively in the mindfulness literature in particular.
From a physical perspective, exercise stimulates the SNS, raising plasma levels of ‘stress’ hormones such epinephrine and norepinephrine. Yoga on the other hand, has been shown to lower sympathetic stimulation, significantly lowering levels of plasma norepinephrine and epinephrine. Given its linkage to the breath, yoga can also be thought of as a ‘training ground’ for the nervous system; whilst the sympathetic nervous system may be stimulated by the asanas (particularly in more arousing forms of yoga like Vinyasa or Kundalini), balance can then be restored by marrying the movement with long, deep, mindful breathing. In this way, yoga can teach us how to regulate the nervous system in a way that other forms of exercise cannot.
It is undeniable that exercise can have profound benefits for physical and emotional health. This is without question and not the argument being presented here. Rather, the desire is to highlight the additional benefits that yoga can have for both mental and physical health over and above what exercise can offer us, whilst keeping in mind that yoga is not, at its core, an exercise practice but a spiritual discipline. It is important to educate medical professionals about the additional benefits of yoga, who may otherwise simply view it as a practice synonymous with typical exercise and fail, therefore, to make a particular recommendation of yoga to their patients.
We would additionally like to highlight that people uninterested or even adverse to the spiritual facets of yoga can indeed engage in yoga as a purely physical practice should this be their desire at the current time. It is also worthy of mention that people sometimes come to the spiritual aspects of yoga ‘through the back door’ so to speak, perhaps signing up to their first yoga class in order to increase flexibility or decrease body mass, only to find so very much more. Here at the Minded Institute, we meet every person at the stage of their journey they are at, whether their desire be to improve their physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual health or, in our opinion, optimally, all of these.
Larson-Meyer, D. (2016). A systematic review of the energy cost and metabolic intensity of yoga. Medical Science Sports Exercise, 48(8), 1558-1569.
Ross, A. &, Thomas, S. (2010). The Health Benefits of Yoga and Exercise: A Review of Comparison Studies. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 16(1), 3-12.
Streeter, C. et al. (2010). The effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomised controlled MRS study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11), 1145-1152.