Aquarius talks to Dubai-based yoga instructor Elaine Kelly, who conducts the annual yoga fest at Dubai Internet City, about the benefits of this ancient art form.
Can yoga balance the body’s hormonal system?
“Hormone imbalance can affect a women at any stage in her life, but the time when this is most likely to happen, and have prolonged side effects as a consequence, is during menopause. As the body prepares for this change, the endocrine system, which produces and regulates the hormones in the body, can become erratic, sending the body on a roller coaster ride. This is when the women will experience menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, mood swings, and irregular periods.
“Yoga is considered one of the most effective techniques for balancing hormone levels because of the close relationship it has with the endocrine system and the organs and glands that are a part of it. Yoga has an immediate effect on the endocrine system and the hormonal and glandular changes that take place. The poses, or asanas, encourage fresh blood flow to all the glands, causing them to be gently pressurised and depressurised. This is the movement that has a positive effect on the endocrine system. The practice of yoga, and the way in which it incorporates controlled movements, controlled breathing and an aspect of meditation allows this to happen.
“Additionally, yoga allows your mind and body to feel relaxed and de-stressed. When a woman is stressed the adrenal gland produces a stress hormone called cortisol which has a direct impact on the levels of estrogen and progesterone that are produced, causing the imbalance of hormones to be made worse. Alleviating stress from your life through yoga will prevent this from happening.”
What are the physiological benefits of yoga?
“Physicians and scientists are discovering brand-new health benefits of yoga everyday. Studies show it can relieve the symptoms of several common and potentially life-threatening illnesses such as arthritis, arteriosclerosis, chronic fatigue, diabetes, AIDS, asthma and obesity.
Asthma Studies conducted at yoga institutions in India have reported impressive success in improving asthma. It has also been proved that asthma attacks can usually be prevented by yoga methods without resorting to drugs. Physicians have found that the addition of improved concentration abilities and yogic meditation together with the practice of simple postures and pranayama makes treatment more effective. Yoga practice also results in greater reduction in anxiety scores than drug therapy. Doctors believe that yoga practice helps patients by enabling them to gain access to their own internal experience and increased self-awareness.
Respiration problems Patients who practice yoga have a better chance of gaining the ability to control their breathing problems. With the help of yogic breathing exercises, it is possible to control an attack of severe shortness of breath without having to seek medical help. Various studies have confirmed the beneficial effects of yoga for patients with respiratory problems.
High blood pressure The relaxation and exercise components of yoga have a major role to play in the treatment and prevention of high blood pressure (hypertension). A combination of biofeedback and yogic breathing and relaxation techniques has been found to lower blood pressure and reduce the need for high blood pressure medication in people suffering from it.
Pain management Yoga is believed to reduce pain by helping the brain's pain centre regulate the gate-controlling mechanism located in the spinal cord and the secretion of natural painkillers in the body. Breathing exercises used in yoga can also reduce pain. Because muscles tend to relax when you exhale, lengthening the time of exhalation can help produce relaxation and reduce tension. Awareness of breathing helps to achieve calmer, slower respiration and aid in relaxation and pain management. Yoga's inclusion of relaxation techniques and meditation can also help reduce pain. Part of the effectiveness of yoga in reducing pain is due to its focus on self-awareness. This self-awareness can have a protective effect and allow for early preventive action.
Back pain Back pain is the most common reason to seek medical attention. Yoga has consistently been used to cure and prevent back pain by enhancing strength and flexibility. Both acute and long-term stress can lead to muscle tension and exacerbate back problems.
Arthritis Yoga's gentle exercises designed to provide relief to needed joints had been Yoga's slow-motion movements and gentle pressures reach deep into troubled joints. In addition, the easy stretches in conjunction with deep-breathing exercises relieve the tension that binds up the muscles and further tightens the joints. Yoga is exercise and relaxation rolled into one - the perfect anti-arthritis formula.
Weight reduction Regular yoga practice can help in weight management. Firstly, some of the asanas stimulate sluggish glands to increase their hormonal secretions. The thyroid gland, especially, has a big effect on our weight because it affects body metabolism. There are several asanas, such as the shoulder stand and the fish posture, which are specific for the thyroid gland. Fat metabolism is also increased, so fat is converted to muscle and energy. This means that, as well as losing fat, you will have better muscle tone and a higher vitality level.
What are the mental and emotional benefits of yoga?
Mental performance A common technique used in yoga is breathing through one nostril at a time. Electroencephalogram (EEG) studies of the electrical impulses of the brain have shown that breathing through one nostril results in increased activity on the opposite side of the brain. Some experts suggest that the regular practice of breathing through one nostril may help improve communication between the right and left side of the brain. Studies have also shown that this increased brain activity is associated with better performance and doctors even suggest that yoga can enhance cognitive performance.
Mood change and vitality Mental health and physical energy are difficult to quantify, but virtually everyone who participates in yoga over a period of time reports a positive effect on outlook and energy level. Yogic stretching and breathing exercises have been seen to result in an invigorating effect on both mental and physical energy and improved mood.
* Spiritual Benefits When you achieve the yogic spirit, you can begin knowing yourself at peace. The value of discovering one's self and of enjoying one's self as is, begins a journey into being rather than doing. Life can then be lived practicing ‘yoga off the mat’.
Pride Pride, and especially anxiety about pride, is something which Hatha Yoga seeks to diminish or eliminate. To one who has been dejected because he cannot do his work properly when he becomes tired, irritable, or haggard, any degree of refreshment may be accompanied by additional degrees of self-respect.
Can long-term yoga practice decrease stress?
“To talk about stress, we have to talk about the hormone cortisol. Under normal conditions, your brain slowly releases cortisol into your body to make your muscles work. However, if you’re highly stressed (late for work, deadline due, screaming baby…), your brain thinks there’s an emergency and responds by flooding your body with cortisol. If there really was an emergency, you would need this much cortisol to deal with broken bones, excessive bleeding, and so on. But if you’re just stressed out by life, excess cortisol can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, bone density loss, and can throw your immune system out of whack (which is why we get sick when we’re stressed). It can also lead to weight gain because the body thinks it’s responding to an emergency and so holds onto as much fat as it can.
“Your nervous system has several branches. One of these branches controls what your internal organs are doing, and it has two parts: the sympathetic, or “fight or flight” state, which ramps up when you are stressed (and dumps cortisol into your bloodstream) and the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” state, which controls more day-to-day functions. So, if we’re trying to get less stressed, we’ll need to harness that "rest and digest" state! The only problem is these two states are happening automatically within our bodies and we can’t control them.
“However, yoga has an answer! The diaphragm, the muscle that we use to breathe, mostly functions automatically, but we can also control our breathing when we want to (like holding our breath underwater). So if we practice specific breathing patterns (called pranayama in yoga) we can slip ourselves into that “rest and digest” state and allow our minds and bodies to get some relief.”
Can long-term yoga practice boost your mood?
“The practice of yoga asanas, particularly back bends, are highly associated with the positive emotional effects that are produced with the practice of yoga. After the completion of these exercises, one feels more exuberant. Depression therapy or other types of psychological therapy involve a great deal of back bends since these poses help to open up your chest. During this action, you are able to release any negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, stress, and fear. Once you have let go of these, you will feel reinvigorated and renewed. But this is more than just psychological since expanded lung capacity is physiologically considered to affect your mood and behaviour.”
Which style of yoga is best for getting your heart pumping?
“Ashtanga or vinyasa yoga elevates the heart rate as the poses flow continuously and include many sun salutations.”
Which style of yoga is best for a detoxifying sweat?
“Bikram yoga, taught in a hot room, creates the most sweat even though it is not the most vigorous or energetic styles of yoga.”
Which style of yoga is best for chilling out?
“Restorative yoga allows the body to relax in various positions, using props like bolsters and blankets. Poses are held for up to five minutes.”