Currently, I’m in Los Angeles, California at a 9 week intensive Bikram Yoga Teacher Training with 442 other aspiring Yogis. The motivation behind my decision to embark on this journey came from the many health benefits I continue to witness from patients with chronic conditions who perform yoga.
Time after time, yoga has helped patients with not only musculoskeletal conditions (neck and shoulder pain, lower back pain, sciatica, postural complaints etc) but also those with high blood pressure, menopause, depression and other mental health conditions. Although studies are still being conducted on the benefits of yoga on some of these conditions, results have been impressive enough that investigators expect yoga will soon become part of the standard treatment for a number of disorders.
For this reason, I decided that the time was right to explore and learn about the various limbs of yoga and its practice. Particularly, I chose to study a specific form of Hatha Yoga called Bikram Yoga. Many of you may recognize Bikram Yoga as the “Hottest of the Hot” types of Yoga. However, Bikram Yoga is a type of Hatha yoga which incorporates a series of 26 poses called Asanas, while relying on 2 breathing techniques, referred to as Pranayama. The postures are all performed in a heated room to 105 degrees F. While this may seem ridiculously hot to some, there is a good reason behind this. We’ll get into this in another post (coming soon!).
First, let’s talk about just a few of the many physical benefits of Yoga.
Yoga helps increase strength in very specific muscles. Holding the positions in yoga requires concentration, focus and specific contractions in many muscles of the body. Muscle strength improves by remaining in this postures and remaining mindful of the contraction. Many of the postures in yoga gently strengthen the muscles in the back, as well as the abdominal muscles. Back and abdominal muscles are essential spinal muscles helping the body maintain proper upright posture and movement. When these muscles are well conditioned, back pain can be greatly reduced or avoided.
Stretching and Relaxation
Yoga incorporates not just an element of flexibility but stretching also reduces tension in stress-carrying muscles. Yoga requires that the individual hold gentle poses anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds. Within the pose, certain muscles flex, while others stretch, promoting relaxation and flexibility in muscles and joints.
Posture, balance and body alignment
Yoga poses are meant to train the body to be healthy and supple. Consistent practice and application will result in improved posture, and an increased sense of balance, with head, shoulders and pelvis in proper alignment. Additionally, unlike many other forms of exercise, yoga helps stretch and strengthens both sides of the body equally. Proper body alignment and good posture also helps maintain the natural curvature of the spine – an important part of reducing or avoiding lower back pain.
There are many more benefits to yoga (both physical, mental, spiritual). Some studies have suggested that yoga may have a positive effect on learning and memory and other researchers have been studying whether yoga can slow the aging process or improve energy levels.
At Bikram’s Teacher Training I have met a researcher studying Bikram Yoga’s effect on depression at Harvard’s Research Center at Massachusettes General In fact, they are creating a Bikram Yoga Research Center at Harvard and hope to perform many more studies on the specific effects of this type of yoga on health.
Nevertheless, regardless of clinical trials, there is an abundance of anecdotal claims for the many benefits of yoga. Visit any yoga studio and listen to students after class. Some will even tell you that yoga can help improve marriages and relationships.
The only way to find out what yoga can do for you is to try it for yourself and see first hand the effect it has!
More from Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Fall 2012 to come!
International Association of Yoga Therapists: “Health Benefits of Yoga.”
American Council on Exercise: “ACE Yoga Study.”
Sarley, D. and Sarley, I. The Essentials of Yoga, The Omega Institute and Dell Publishing, 1999.
SFGate.com: “Doctors study the health benefits of yoga.”