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Love it or hate it, when it comes to yoga emotions tend to run hot or cold. For enthusiasts, there seems to be little yoga can’t do, from curing the blues and getting rid of back pain to whittling away excess weight. But for those less enthusiastic, yoga’s mind/body approach doesn’t have the same appeal as a tough set on the squat rack or treadmill.
Yoga is reputed to be over 5,000 years old, yet there’s little consensus on its benefits. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been thoroughly studied: there’s research exploring its benefits on kids, seniors, post-menopausal women, cancer patients, back pain and arthritis sufferers, athletes, high school and university students, new moms and moms-to-be.
Most study results suggest different individuals benefit from different components, so there’s no guarantee that your yoga practice will offer the same gains as those published. Compounding the issue is that yoga is hard to pigeonhole. There are classes that focus on mindful practices like breathing, relaxation and meditation as well as those dedicated to more physical components like strength and flexibility. And there are plenty more options incorporating both mind and body elements, each to a different degree.
Yet yoga enthusiasts don’t need any scientific endorsement. A survey of more than 2,000 yoga practitioners in the United Kingdom reported that yoga was helpful in managing a wide range of health conditions, including mental and physical health.
“Yoga is used in the UK to manage health conditions and support well-being and has further potential to support self-care of debilitating and costly health disorders,” the research team said.
A similar conclusion in an American study reported that a desire to improve general wellness and/or disease prevention were motivating factors, with back pain, stress and arthritis the top three health conditions for which people practice yoga.
It’s the therapeutic aspect of yoga that keeps people coming back, with yoga enthusiasts reporting not just better health but also a boost in energy, happiness, sleep and an increased sense of control over their health. Yet despite the overall satisfaction with the powers of yoga to improve wellbeing, there’s little to suggest that yoga’s impact on health is superior to any other form of exercise. Also not known is whether one style of yoga has a more positive effect on health than its many iterations.
So far, the evidence is strongest that yoga is helpful in reducing low back pain, stress and anxiety, balance and range of motion, though the mechanics of exactly how it impacts mental and physical health is unknown. What’s a little less clear is yoga’s impact on weight loss and overall fitness. Despite its popularity, the number of injuries attributed yoga seem to be few and relatively minor. The UK study reported that 67.6 per cent of yoga enthusiasts were injury-free. Among reported injuries, the back (24 per cent); knee (13.1 per cent); shoulder (12.5 per cent); neck (7.5 per cent); wrist (six per cent) and foot/ankle (3.4 per cent) are the most common, with the greatest percentage of injuries occurring during unsupervised home practice.
Well-educated white women are mostly likely to practice yoga, according to statistics gathered in the UK and American studies. But an influx of online classes started because of the pandemic has made yoga more accessible. A mat and maybe a couple of yoga blocks is the only gear needed.
Ideally, a first foray into yoga is with an instructor who can gently lead you through some of the more common poses while offering corrections or modifications. Once you get to know the poses, it’s easy to do yoga at home with the help of an app or online video.
Before you sign up for a class or start checking out online options, take a few minutes to determine what type of yoga best suits your goals. There are energetic, fast-paced practices featuring poses that demand strength and advanced levels of balance, as well as slower-paced practices that hold poses longer and allow more time to transition from pose to pose. There are therapeutic-based practices that focus on specific ailments or medical conditions and more spiritual practices that incorporate meditation, relaxation and/or breathing exercises.
Like any exercise program, take a gradual approach if you’re new to yoga. And don’t be shy to try out plenty of styles until you land on one that feels right. It’s all about the process, not the end result, so find a practice that hits all the right spots and enjoy.