By Matthew Papa, PhD

What if you are one of the 1 million people that are going to die from heart disease this year in the US alone? Can you stop it?

Heart disease, known to the American Heart Association as cardiovascular disease (CVD), does not have to kill you to take your life. It can disable you, cause you to lose your job or other income, and can severely reduce your quality of life overall. It’s not just the United States that is affected, other industrialized nations as well have this horrible killer lurking in their midst.

Of course, our technology has grown by leaps and bounds from where it was 50 years ago, providing effective medical support to many of those suffering from obesity, diabetes and other risk factors for CVD. However, the key to fighting heart disease isn’t just found in the modern technology of today. It resides in the ancient practices as well. There is one in particular that is performed by 15 million people in the United States, it’s inexpensive, side effect free and takes relatively little time when you compare it to other more modern methods.

What is it?

Yoga

With no harmful side effects, very little special equipment, and the fact that it can be done in the privacy of your own home, it’s easy to see why 15 million people all over the US practice Yoga.

Although yoga currently has huge popularity in the Western world, it actually started in India 4000 years ago. Yoga is an exercise of both mind and body, alternating poses known as asanas and deep breathing exercises known as pranayamas.

Hatha, Raja, and Mantra are the three most widely practiced types of yoga within the USA. They have some things in common of course, like the asanas and pranayamas, but they are fundamentally different.

For the most aerobic of all the yogas, one should try Hatha. Not only is it the most popular one throughout the United States, it’s actually the most forceful yoga.

Classical yoga, or Raja, is the second most popular in the United States. Raja yoga focuses on the more meditative type poses, like “Lotus.”

Mantra yoga is used mostly for stress relief rather then just exercise. In Mantra, you concentrate on sounds or chants to ease your trouble mind. (Think Om.)

Yin Yoga is another form of yoga that targets the connective tissues surrounding the joints in the body that normally are not exercised very much in a more active style of asana practice.

Any one of these types of yoga is suitable for just about anyone.

Yoga can be practiced by:

  • The elderly
  • The overweight
  • The out of shape
  • The disabled

It is safe, easy, inexpensive, and can be done at home or anywhere else you chose. But is this a case of “mind over matter” or is there really something to yoga after all? The growing population in the USA who practices yoga is a living testimony that yoga actually improves life.

The Truth About Yoga – A Scientific Review

Dr. Kim E. Innes, from the Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies decided to shine more light on weather yoga is really ‘good for you’, or if it’s ‘all in their head’. Rather than conducting her own study, Kim Innes realized that many studies about this same topic already existed. So she decided to collect all these published studies and compile them into one systematic review.

This review clearly shows that there is a direct correlation between yoga and good health. Yoga can actually reduce stress, heart disease, and Insulin Resistance Syndrome (IRS), a key factor leading to diabetes. IRS is characterized by resistance of cells to insulin, intolerance to glucose, abnormalities in lipids, visceral fat (belly fat) and high blood pressure.

There were a total of 70 studies published in the review, both controlled studies and uncontrolled ones. These studies focused on things such as yoga’s effects on stress, body chemistry (such as triglyderides, cholesterol, glucose and other blood parameters). These studies were completed in a period of 30 days to 12 months. They focused on people of all ages and health ranges and incorporated both asanas (poses) and pranayamas (breathing control exercises).

The studies were broken down as follows:

  • 63% were conducted between 1990 and 2004
  • 18 clinical studies focused on yoga’s effects on heart disease and body measurements
  • 5 studies investigated the effect of yoga on stress relief
  • 51 studies dealt with yoga’s effects on lipids, weight loss, insulin resistance, body composition and blood pressure.

What The Studies Suggest

When all results were combined, there was impressive evidence to show that yoga has many health benefits.

Some of the findings showed:

  • Sensitivity to insulin improved
  • Persons with type 2 diabetes and hypertension showed marked improvement
  • Fasting glucose (sugar) levels were reduced between 5.4% to 33.4%
  • Total cholesterol decreased 5.8% to 25.2%
  • Triglycerides were 22% to 28.5% lower
  • Blood pressure decreased
  • HDL (good cholesterol) was raised
  • LDL (bad cholesterol) fell 12.8% to 26.0%
  • Body weight was reduced 1.5% to 13.6%
  • Sleep improved

Effect of Yoga on Stress

Of course, the above was just a list of the effects of yoga on the physical side of the human body. The benefits of yoga that relate to the mind and especially stress cannot be ignored. The relationship between the mind and body is so strong that the mind can actually affect the body. You may have heard of type “A” personalities; you may even be one. Type A’s are often under extreme stress and are more prone to problems such as heart attacks. Yoga is wonderful at reducing stress, even in type “A” personalities.

Now, constant stress is not good for anyone. It robs the body of precious oxygen and gives rise to an increase in free radicals, which then attack the muscles, cells and genes. However, when yoga is practiced, the oxygen levels actually increase, causing antioxidants in the body to rise and fight the harmful free radicals.

Five studies investigated the effects of yoga on stress, resulting in the following data.

  • stress levels diminish
  • anti-oxidants levels rise
  • coping abilities strengthen
  • free radicals decrease
  • depression lowers
  • anxiety is reduced
  • Anger, tension and fatigue diminishes
  • Sleep improves

Although it is clear that yoga is beneficial, the possible underlying mechanisms have not yet been fully explained.

A possible explanation is that yoga stimulates the Vagus nerve, which innervates the heart, lungs, chest, neck and abdomen. This stimulation positively affects the function of these vital organs. When the Vagus nerve is happy and healthy, then all the other parts are happy and healthy too. This actually improves your mood and causes your energy levels to rise.

In addition, yoga creates an overall feeling of well-being for those who practice it. This by itself lowers the feelings of stress and creates multiple downstream positive effects that strengthen your immune system, lower your blood pressure and enable you to cope with the daily stress of life.

Synopsis

Thirty-four years of published research on the effects of yoga on the mind and body has recently been published as a systematic review by Kim E. Innes.

These studies analyzed factors such as obesity, heart health, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes markers, stress, lipid profiles and respiration.

These findings came from 70 studies and were very promising:

  • Respiration and heart rate went from ‘racing’ to functioning healthier
  • Cortisol (a stress hormone that causes you to gain weight) levels normalized
  • Catecholamine (anxiety causing hormones) levels decreased
  • Blood-pressure lowered
  • The heart became stronger
  • The ability to cope more easily with stress increased

Looking at these results, spanning 34 years of yoga studies, one can appreciate the potential health benefits of yoga. And compared to joining a gym, going on medication or surgery, yoga might be a feasible, affordable and effective solution for many.

About the writer:
Matthew Papa

Twice awarded research grants by American Heart Association for his work on cardiovascular disease, Matthew Papa, PhD, is fascinated by recent findings in the fields of yoga as an alternative treatment for obesity and heart disease. In his website www.weightlosstriumph.com , he publishes weight management program reviews and offers a Medifast diet promotion code for a diet program recommended by doctors and supported by clinical research.

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