Yoga: A Holistic, Healthy Option
Yoga has long been known for its benefits to our mind and body. There is extensive research touting the benefits of yoga. As a physical therapist there are a few aspects of yoga that are of particular interest to a large portion of our patient populations. We are particularly interested in yoga’s ability to improve balance, flexibility, core stability, and mind/body connection.
As vestibular therapists we know the value of training and improving your balance to prevent falls and improve function. Yoga, as a form of balance training, is an excellent way to challenge your vestibular and somatosensory systems. Yoga requires frequent changes of position of both your head and body. When you move your head in novel ways while also requiring your body to maintain or change positions you are directly challenging or improving your vestibular function. For example, try standing on one leg while looking straight ahead. Then try standing on one leg while looking up towards the ceiling. Most people have more difficulty when looking up because we less frequently try to balance in this environment; usually, we look straight ahead at the horizon. Because this is a novel task, it will require practice and will challenge and improve the function of your vestibular apparatus. In yoga, the poses often place your head and body in positions we do not assume during our daily activities therefore challenging your systems. Another benefit to your balance systems is the frequent changes of your center of gravity over your base of support. You will change the width and position of your base of support and be required to maintain your center of gravity over your base of support as you do so. This challenges your balance systems in new ways while simultaneously engaging your core muscles.
When we talk about core strength or stability in physical therapy we typically refer to the ability for your abdominal muscles to actively stabilize your spine. This is beneficial in providing proximal stability to allow distal mobility, meaning, we want to have a stable base from which we can perform tasks with our arms/legs. Yoga is well known for addressing and improving core stability. Exercises commonly found in yoga that address the core typically require the participant to hold or sustain different positions that activate the abdominals. This could include bridging, boat pose, bird dogs, or planks among others. These exercises are particularly helpful in activating your multifidi and transverse abdominis or deep core stabilizers without putting your lumbar spine in harm’s way. Because they do not place a lot of shear forces on the spine, they are safe and effective in helping to improve your abdominal strength while reducing low back pain.
In physical therapy we often encourage initiation or continuation of flexibility exercises for many different joint pathologies. Flexibility exercises can be sustained or dynamic. Yoga addresses both. Yoga can combine flexibility exercises for a full body stretch oftentimes focusing on the spine, shoulders, and hips. It dynamically stretches your body while increasing blood flow to problem areas. It addresses flexibility deficits in a continuous class structure which oftentimes takes the boredom out of stretching. And it includes a lot of exercises you likely have already learned in physical therapy while adding new stretches as well. This is the reason we often recommend patients to incorporate yoga into their rehabilitation or utilize yoga after being discharged from physical therapy.
When it comes to yoga, improving the mind-body connection may be its most useful benefit. Yoga utilizes a mix of movement, breathing, and meditation to improve your ability to relax and connect with your muscles. It promotes mindfulness which is defined as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present. It can calm down your sympathetic nervous system (also known as your fight or flight mechanism), reduce activation of your adrenal gland, release endorphins, and calm down inflammatory responses. These effects improve both pain and stress in your body. Additionally, they can lead to improvements in your blood pressure and bodily control of your heart rate. If you can temporarily reduce pain and stress in your body while promoting gentle movement, over time you can actually improve your brain’s perception of your pain. You can also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your body’s movement patterns and activate appropriate muscle groups at the appropriate times.
Written by" Courtney Dedda PT, DPT OCS, Vestibular-certified Specialist
Riley KE, Park CL. How does yoga reduce stress? A systematic review of mechanisms of change and guide to future inquiry. Health Psychology Review. 2015;9(3):379-396. doi:10.1080/17437199.2014.981778.