Health Benefits of Yoga

by Trisha Lamb Feuerstein

 

Two of the most common inquiries we receive from professional members preparing presentations on Yoga and from journalists and students writing about Yoga are:

 

• What are the health benefits of Yoga?


• How does Yoga differ from conventional exercise?

 

Following are answers drawn from various sources and provided in a succinct format. I wish to especially thank the following three individuals: First, A. Malathi, M.D. (amalathi@vsnl.net), for her presentation in November 2000 on the benefits of Yoga at Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa, California. Her paper “Promotive, Prophylactic Benefits of Yogic Practice in Middle Aged Women” which furnishes research results and explanations for many of the benefits noted below, will be published in the 2001 issue of International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Thanks also to IAYT member Matra Majmundar (matra@post.com) for her presentation on Yoga physiology at the Integrating Yoga Therapeutics into Rehabilitation seminar at San Francisco Memorial Hospital in April 2000. Her book, tentatively titled Physiology of Yoga Therapeutics, is in preparation. I also would like to thank Arpita for his article “The Physical and Psychological Benefits of Yoga,” which appeared in the 1991 issue of The Journal of The International Association of Yoga Therapists. Bibliographic details for these and other references are provided at the end of this article.

 

Health Benefits

 

This information is grouped into three categories—physiological benefits, psychological benefits, biochemical effects—and is based on the regular practice of traditional âsana, prânâyâma, and meditation. Please note that while pulse rate, etc., may increase during the practice of various âsanas, some forms of prânâyâma, and some stages of meditation, but overall benefits to general health are as listed below. For information on the physiological changes that occur during the practice of specific âsanas, etc., please see James Funderburk’s Science Studies Yoga and other resources cited at the end of this article.

 

Physiological Benefits

• Stable autonomic nervous system equilibrium, with a tendency toward parasympathetic nervous system dominance rather than the usual stress-induced sympathetic nervous system dominance
• Pulse rate decreases
• Respiratory rate decreases
• Blood pressure decreases (of special significance for hyporeactors)
• Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) increases
• EEG - alpha waves increase (theta, delta, and beta waves also increase during various stages of meditation)
• EMG activity decreases
• Cardiovascular efficiency increases
• Respiratory efficiency increases (respiratory amplitude and smoothness increase, tidal volume increases, vital capacity increases, breath-holding time increases)
• Gastrointestinal function normalizes
• Endocrine function normalizes
• Excretory functions improve
Musculoskeletal flexibility and joint range of motion increase
• Posture improves
• Strength and resiliency increase
• Endurance increases
• Energy level increases
• Weight normalizes
• Sleep improves
• Immunity increases
• Pain decreases

 

Psychological Benefits

• Somatic and kinesthetic awareness increase
• Mood improves and subjective well-being increases
• Self-acceptance and self-actualization increase
• Social adjustment increases
• Anxiety and depression decrease
• Hostility decreases

 

Psychomotor functions improve:

• Grip strength increases
• Dexterity and fine skills improve
• Eye-hand coordination improves
• Choice reaction time improves
• Steadiness improves
• Depth perception improves
• Balance improves
• Integrated functioning of body parts improves

 

Cognitive function improves:


• Attention improves
• Concentration improves
• Memory improves
• Learning efficiency improves
• Symbol coding improves
• Depth perception improves
• Flicker fusion frequency improves

Biochemical Effects

The biochemical profile improves, indicating an antistress and antioxidant effect, important in the prevention of degenerative diseases.

 

• Glucose decreases
• Sodium decreases
• Total cholesterol decreases
Triglycerides decrease
• HDL cholesterol increases
• LDL cholesterol decreases
• VLDL cholesterol decreases
• Cholinesterase increases
Catecholamines decrease
ATPase increases
Hematocrit increases
• Hemoglobin increases
• Lymphocyte count increases
• Total white blood cell count decreases
• Thyroxin increases
• Vitamin C increases
• Total serum protein increases


Yoga Compared to Conventional Exercise

 

Yoga Exercise

Parasympathetic nervous system dominates Sympathetic nervous system dominates
Subcortical regions of brain dominate Cortical regions of brain dominate
Slow dynamic and static movements Rapid forceful movements
Normalization of muscle tone Increased muscle tension
Low risk of injuring muscles and ligaments Higher risk of injuring muscles and ligaments

 

Low caloric consumption Moderate to high caloric consumption
Effort is minimized, relaxed Effort is maximized
Energizing (breathing kept natural or controlled) Fatiguing (breathing is taxed)
Balanced activity of opposing muscle groups Imbalanced activity of opposing muscle groups

 

Noncompetitive, process-oriented Competitive, goal-oriented
Internal awareness (focus is on the breath and External awareness (focus is on
the infinite) reaching the toes, reaching the finish line, etc.)

Limitless possibilities for growth in self-awareness Boredom factor

Select General References

 

Anantharaman, V., and Sarada Subrahmanyam. Physiological benefits in hatha yoga training. The Yoga Review, 3(1):9-24.

Arpita. Physiological and psychological effects of Hatha yoga: A review of the literature. The Journal of The International Association of Yoga Therapists, 1990, 1(I&II):1-28.

Bhole, M. V. Some neuro-physiological correlates of yogasanas. Yoga-Mimamsa, April 1977, 19(1):53-61.

Cole, Roger. Physiology of yoga. Iyengar Yoga Institute Review, Oct 1985.

Corby, J. C., W. T. Roth, V. P. Zarcone, Jr., and B. S. Kopell. Psychophysiological correlates of the practice of Tantric Yoga meditation. Archives of General Psychiatry, May 1978, 35(5):571-577.

Davidson, Julian M. The physiology of meditation and mystical states of consciousness. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Spring 1976, 19:345-379.

Delmonte, M. M. Physiological concomitants of meditation practice. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 1984, 31(4):23-36.

___________. Physiological responses during meditation and rest. Biofeedback Self Regulation, Jan 1984, 9(2):181-200.

___________. Biochemical indices associated with meditation practice: A literature review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Winter 1985, 9(4):557-561.

Dostaleck, C. Physiological bases of yoga techniques in the prevention of diseases. CIANS-ISBM Satellite Conference Symposium, Hanover, Germany, 1992: Lifestyle changes in the prevention and treatment of disease. Homeostasis in Health and Disease, 1994, 35(4-5):205-208.

Ebert, Dietrich. Yoga from the point of view of psychophysiology. Yoga-Mimamsa, 28(4):10-21.

Elson, Barry D., Peter Hauri, and David Cunis. Physiological changes in yoga meditation. Psychophysiology, January 1977, 14:52-57.

Engel, K. Meditation, Vol. 2: Empirical Research and Theory. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1997.

Funderburk, James. Science Studies Yoga: A Review of Physiological Data. Honesdale, Penn.: Himalayan International Institute, 1977.

Gopal, K. S., O. P. Bhatnagar, N. Subramanian, and S. D. Nishith. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacy, 1973, 17(3):273-276.

Jevning, R., R. K. Wallace, and M. Beidebach. The physiology of meditation: A review. A wakeful hypometabolic integrated response. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Fall 1992, 16(3):415-424.

King, Roy, M.D., and Ann Brownstone. Neurophysiology of Yoga meditation. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 1999, 9:9-17.

Kuvalayananda, Swami. Some physiological aspects of meditative poses. Yoga-Mimamsa, 1928, 3(3):245-250.

___________. Physiology of pranayama. Kalyana-Kalpataru, 1940, 7(1):219-228.

Majmundar, Matra. Physiology of Yoga Therapeutics (working title). Forthcoming.

Malathi, A., Neela Patil, Nilesh Shah, A. Damodaran, and S. K. Marathe. Promotive, prophylactic benefits of yogic practices in middle-aged women. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, forthcoming 2001, no. 11.

Motoyama, Hiroshi. A Psychophysiological Study of Yoga. Tokyo: Institute for Religious Psychology, 1976.

Murphy, M., and S. Donovan. The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research with a Comprehensive Bibliography 1931-1996. 2d ed. Sausalito, Calif.: The Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1997.

Pero, G., and G. Spoto. Study on the anatomy of yoga asana and their neurological effect: A comparative study. Yoga-Mimamsa, 1985, 24(3):17-18.

Roney-Dougal, S. M. On a possible psychophysiology of the yogic chakra system. Journal of Indian Psychology, Jul 1999, 17(2).

Sahu, R. J., and M. V. Bhole. Effect of 3 weeks yogic training programme on psycho-motor performance. Yoga-Mimamsa, 1983, 22(1&2):59-62.

Santha, Joseph, K. Shridharan, S. K. B. Patil, M. L. Kumaria, W. Selvamurthy, and H. S. Nayar. Neurohumoral and metabolic changes consequent to yogic exercises. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1981, 74:120-124.

___________, K. Shridharan, S. K. B. Patil, M. L. Kumaria, W. Selvamurthy, N. T. Joseph, and H. S. Nayar. Study of some physiological and biochemical parameters in subjects undergoing yogic training. Indian Journal of Medical Research, July 1981, 74:120-124.

Schell, F. J., B. Allolio, and O. W. Schonecke. Physiological and psychological effects of Hatha-Yoga exercise in healthy women. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 1994, 41(1-4):46-52.

Selvamurthy, W., H. S. Nayar, N. T. Joseph, and S. Joseph. Physiological effects of yogic practices. NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences of India) Journal January, 1983, 1(1):71-79.

Singh, R. H., R. M. Shettiwar, and K. N. Udupa. Physiological and therapeutic studies on yoga. The Yoga Review, 1982, 2(4):185-209.

___________, and K. N. Udupa. Psychobiological studies on some hatha-yogic practices. Quarterly Journal of Surgical Sciences, 1977, 13(3-4):290-293.

Udupa, K. N., R. H. Singh, and R. M. Shettiwar. Studies on physiological, endocrine and metabolic responses to the practice of ‘yoga’ in young normal volunteers. Journal of Research in. Indian Medicine, 1971, 6(3):345-353.

___________. Studies on physiological and metabolic response to the practice of yoga in young normal volunteers. Journal of Research in Indian Medicine, 1972, 6(3):345-353.

___________. Physiological and biochemical changes following the practice of some yogic and non-yogic exercises. Journal of Research in. Indian Medicine, 1975, 10(2):91-93.

___________. Physiological and biochemical studies on the effect of yoga and certain other exercises. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1975, 63(4):620-625.

___________. A comparative study on the effect of some individual yogic practices in normal persons. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1975, 63(8):1960-1971.

___________, R. H. Singh, and R. A. Yadav. Certain studies on psychological and biochemical responses to the practice of hatha yoga in young normal volunteers. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 1973, 61(2):231-244.

Wallace, Robert, and H. Benson. The physiology of meditation. Scientific American, February 1972, 226:84-90.

Wenger, M. A., and B. K. Bagchi. Studies of autonomic functions in practitioners of Yoga in India. Behavioral Science, 1961, 6:312-323.

West, Michael A. Physiological effects of meditation: A longitudinal study. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, June 1979, 18:219-226.

Woolfolk, Robert L. Psychophysiological correlates of meditation. Archives of General Psychiatry, Oct 1975, 32:1326-1333.

 

For additional references, see the extensive bibliography “Psychophysiological Effects” at the IAYT website, www.iayt.org/biblio.html.

 

To view abstracts in the Medline database for some of the cited articles, go to http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed and in the search box enter the complete title of the article. If this generates too many hits or no hits, try entering the names of the article’s authors using the following format: Delmonte MM (no comma, no periods following the initials, and no space between the initials; if there is more than one author, separate the names by comma, e.g.: Corby JC, Roth WT, etc.; capitalization is not required).

 

Copyright (c) 2001, 2003, 2004 Trisha Lamb Feuerstein. Reprinted from Yoga
World (Jan-Mar 2001) with permission of Yoga Research and
Education
Center
, www.yrec.org.