"Yoga, the New 'Old' Medicine" By Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President and CEO

Yoga, the New “Old” Medicine

March 15, 2011 - Yoga has been practiced for at least 5,000 years.

The word itself seems to radiate peace and tranquility, maybe because of its etymology. “Yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Yuj,” which essentially means to join or unite. The goal of yoga is for the individual to “unite” with physical and mental disciplines.

About 11 million Americans have been enjoying its benefits, which include flexibility, strength, posture, breathing, stress relief, improved concentration, cardiovascular improvement, positive effects on medical conditions and possibly improved memory.

Yoga is ageless; anyone at any age can participate. Most likely, the earlier you start the better you will be at completing some of the activities and gaining even greater benefit.

Only recently have we examined why people feel so good after yoga. It's because of brain chemistry.

Neuroscientists now know the release of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is clearly demonstrated in those who participate in yoga.

GABA functions as an inhibitor of nerve impulses particularly in the cerebral cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for thinking and sensing. Higher levels of GABA are associated with a relaxed feeling and keener mental awareness.

Neuroscientists have measured GABA in two different studies comparing the levels of yoga participants versus similar groups who did either walking or reading for the same one hour period. The results were impressive. Brain MRIs showed a 27% increase in GABA in yoga participants compared to the group that did just quiet reading.

GABA also lowers beta waves, which contribute to a state of anxiety, nervousness, and hyperactivity. Some mental health counselors recommend yoga as a treatment for chronic anxiety and stress.

Our long-ago ancestors who succeeded at hunting or foraging had a better chance of survival. Higher GABA levels gave these survivors the calmness needed to be patient while waiting for prey to come along. (Many of yoga's positions have primitive names and postures associated with these hunting behaviors. )

Here in modern times, yoga's many benefits embrace those of us whose chief “hunting” activity is for a parking spot at the mall.

Flexibility. Stretching your muscles releases lactic acid which builds up as you exercise. You are never too old to stretch and you don't have to be able to do a “pretzel” pose but only gradually improve on your current condition. Taking your joints through a range of motion helps to lubricate their surfaces—and that's beneficial. The soft tissues, namely the tendons, ligaments and sheaths, can be gradually elongated and made more flexible over time. One study showed that only eight weeks of yoga improved flexibility markedly for the trunk and shoulders.

Strength. Various styles of yoga focus on maintaining poses. That can really be a challenge even though at first it looks and feels easy. Holding the pose correctly for an appropriate period of time can gradually improve muscle tone and strength. Building core strength helps avoid back problems, tones the tummy, and generally contributes to good posture, which is the next attribute.

Posture. In this information age, many of us are working at a keyboard, sitting in meetings, and generally being sedate. All that contributes to poor posture. Yoga is one good antidote. I have avoided discussing yoga positions and postures because I am an absolute neophyte. But concentrating on developing core strength, balance, and flexibility offsets some of the inherent forward curve or stooped posture so common as we grow older.

Breathing. Good yoga includes deep, mindful breathing, which improves lung function. This helps with sports performance, endurance, and helps create a general sense of well-being. Better breathing helps maintain a higher level of oxygen in the blood steam which, in turn, supports the brain and other vital organs. Controlling breathing also helps to manage stress.

Stress relief. Most beginners notice they feel less stressed and more relaxed even after their first yoga class. People who take classes regularly have decreased levels of catecholamines, which are the hormones produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Deep breathing also acts as a stress reliever since your mind focuses on a relaxing activity. With yoga, there is also a boost in oxytocin in your system. Oxytocin—also known as the “hormone of love”—is normally produced in modest quantities in the brain and is associated with trust and bonding. So there is some speculation that romance may start in a yoga class, but that has not been studied objectively. However, if you are looking for a partner . . .

Concentration and mood. These attributes are hard to pin down objectively, but yoga participants report that they feel happier and more content after class than before. This post-exercise feeling is common and I believe very important, or almost no one would be “hooked” on exercise. Personally, I feel a whole lot better after a workout of any type than I do at the beginning of the activity.

Cardiovascular benefits. Yoga objectively lowers blood pressure and slows the heart rate. As with breathing, the mind can be focused on certain bodily functions for beneficial effects. Yoga has been a key component of many famous medical and spa regimens. There have been some associations of yoga with a boosting of the immune system as well as decreased cholesterol and triglycerides, which are the fats in the blood.

Other medical conditions. Less well studied but intriguing is the use of yoga for chronic medical conditions such as asthma, back pain, arthritis, insomnia, and multiple sclerosis. Yoga alone is not going to be curative for many chronic conditions but is a safe adjunct for generally accepted therapies. All the benefits above would help anyone with almost any disease, with little risk.

Memory and learning. Having focus while in a yoga class may carry over to other activities of daily living, including those dependent on memory and learning. The physical disciplines of yoga probably contribute to better learning ability—holding a pose, controlling breathing, and concentrating on relaxing rather than being overwhelmed with immediate problems.

Side effects? There are few if any when you participate in a yoga class, and almost anyone can start as a beginner.

Both of the NCH Wellness Centers offer many classes each week ranging from “gentle yoga” to multilevel. Also, there is a Friday 5:30 PM candle lit class to end the work week right.

Although some of its positive effects could use more objective evidence, yoga has been practiced for centuries and continues to grow around the world.

I say, go for the benefits. Maybe we'll see each other one day soon in a class.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.