William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.
In this Article
- What is yoga?
- Who invented yoga?
- How does yoga work?
- What are the types of yoga?
- Who's doing yoga?
- What about kids and yoga?
- What about seniors and yoga?
- What about prenatal yoga?
- Is yoga just another fitness fad?
- What are the health benefits of yoga?
- What equipment and props are needed for yoga?
- How does a yoga class work? What can I expect?
- What should be worn during yoga?
- Where can I try yoga?
- How much does yoga cost?
- How do I go about getting started with yoga?
- Is it safe to do yoga?
- What resources are available for people interested in yoga?
What about prenatal yoga?
Although I am not aware of studies to prove how yoga can help expectant women, prenatal yoga is popping up all over the place; in classes, books, and exercise videos. Ads for prenatal yoga claim that expectant moms can alleviate symptoms associated with pregnancy, such as sciatica, fatigue, swelling, and problems with digestion, and that the asanas will prepare them for labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery. On the spiritual side, claims are that prenatal classes will inspire mothers to deeply connect with their babies and prepare them for their new journey together. Whether any of this is true or not is hard to say, but it certainly does make sense that conditioning the muscles and connecting with your body in anticipation of labor and delivery could have a positive effect. If you're pregnant and your doctor approves of yoga, then I think a prenatal class where the teacher is trained and knowledgeable could be a great thing to do.
Is yoga just another fitness fad?
I don't think so. It has been around for thousands of years, and its popularity worldwide and in the U.S. continues to grow.
What are the health benefits of yoga?
Studies of the benefits of yoga are only beginning to accumulate and so the evidence is not overwhelming or conclusive at this point. One of the problems with the studies is that they are done with small numbers of subjects and so may not represent the general population, and many are conducted in India and published only in foreign medical journals, making it difficult to know what rigorous standards the journals place on the researchers. However, this is not to say that yoga isn't good for you, and the studies that have been done may indicate a trend toward, or possibility of, benefit. Below is a brief review of some of the available yoga research.
- High blood pressure (hypertension): Many people believe that practicing yoga can help lower blood pressure by teaching breathing techniques and reducing stress. It is true that lifestyle changes like regular physical activity and stress management can help lower and manage blood pressure, but it doesn't do so in all cases. As for yoga, there hasn't been enough research to make firm claims. The American Heart Association Report on Prevention, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure does not mention yoga even once. However, there is some indication that yoga can help. In one study, small but significant reductions in blood pressure were shown in just three weeks of daily yoga, and in another study, one hour of daily yoga for 11 weeks revealed that both medication and yoga were effective in controlling hypertension. In one of the best quantitative studies, systolic blood pressure (the top number) decreased from 142 to 126mmHg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) decreased from 86 to 75mmHg after 40 days of a yoga regimen. These results do not mean that you should stop taking your blood pressure medication if you start practicing yoga (you should never go off medication without the approval of your doctor).
- Mood: After just one yoga class, men reported decreases in tension, fatigue, and anger after yoga, and women reported fairly similar mood benefits.
- Diabetes: There is some evidence to suggest that yoga may lower blood glucose. After just eight days of yoga in 98 men and women 20-74 years of age, fasting glucose was better than at the beginning of the study, but subjects in this study were also exposed to dietary counseling and other lifestyle interventions, and so it's difficult to know if the yoga on its own was responsible for the changes.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: Individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome who did yoga twice a week for eight weeks had less pain in their wrists than people with carpal tunnel who wore a splint. The effect may be due to improved grip strength in the yoga subjects.
- Strength and flexibility: In one of the most persuasive yoga studies, men and women 18-27 years of age who participated in two yoga sessions per week for eight weeks increased the strength in their arms by 19% to 31%, and by 28% in their legs. Their ankle flexibility, shoulder elevation, trunk extension, and trunk flexion increased by 13%, 155%, 188%, and 14%, respectively!
- Asthma: There is some evidence to show that reducing symptoms of asthma and even reduction in asthma medication are the result of regular yoga. Again, this doesn't mean that you should stop taking your asthma medication if you start practicing yoga, but it does suggest that there could be some positive result, and you should ask your doctor if you have a question about it.
Independent of studies, I think it's fair to say that the majority of people who practice yoga regularly enjoy it and find it beneficial. The preliminary data from the studies reviewed seems to indicate that there is benefit from the regular practice of yoga. If your interest has been piqued and you have chronic medical problems, discuss adding yoga to your medical routine with your primary care physician.
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