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Yoga can reduce stress and improve brain health

A team of researchers led by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has recently designed a virtual eight-week moderate-intensity yoga program dedicated specifically to full-time working adults experiencing symptoms of stress. In the trial, the experts enrolled 86 low-active, full-time working adults to participate in three self-paced remote yoga workouts each week, and assessed their anxiety and stress levels, as well as their cognitive health. 

The results showed significant decreases in stress and anxiety and improved working memory, suggesting that yoga can effectively contribute to physical and mental well-being. The study is published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

“There is some literature that has directly compared yoga to aerobic exercise, and we’ve known for quite a long time that aerobic exercise has benefits for the brain,” said study senior author Sean Mullen, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology & Community Health at Illinois. “Our research investigates complex movements – not just riding a bicycle or walking in a straight line, but multi-planar movements that require navigating one’s space a little differently and being conscious of movement, technique, and breathing.”

For instance, participants were guided through self-paced instructional videos in learning a well-known yoga exercise called Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), consisting in a progression of poses emulating the rising and setting of the sun, in order to assess if learning such new chains of yoga sequences could improve working memory in a similar way as learning a new dance.

“Having to move through multiple active postures, as opposed to static holds, should theoretically improve attentional abilities or inhibition control. Going through the flow could potentially improve spatial memory,” Mullen explained.

While the analysis revealed significant reductions in stress and anxiety and an increase in working memory, further research is needed to clarify how yoga may impact other elements of cognitive functioning. 

“The reductions in anxiety and improvements in short-term working memory suggest that it is possible to practice moderate-intensity yoga at home and still reap the benefits of reducing stress and anxiety without compromising safety,” Mullen said.

According to Mullen, participants’ overwhelmingly positive response was another encouraging outcome of the trial. “When participants are willing to recommend the program to friends and family, that’s great. To me, that suggests we were successful and that everyone involved had a good time.”

The scientists plan to continue their investigation of mind-body interventions and promote adherence to exercise by developing new technologies to gamify cognitively challenging activities such as yoga, kickboxing, or martial arts, while testing their neurological effects in increasingly larger cohorts. 

More about the health benefits of yoga

Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years and is known for its numerous physical, mental, and emotional health benefits. Some of these benefits include:

Improved flexibility

Practicing yoga regularly can help increase flexibility by stretching and lengthening muscles, which can also help to prevent injury.

Increased muscle strength 

Yoga poses require you to use your muscles to support your body weight, which can help to build strength and tone muscles.

Improved balance

Many yoga poses require balance, which can help to improve overall stability and body coordination.

Better posture

Yoga encourages proper alignment of the spine and strengthens the muscles that support good posture.

Enhanced respiratory function

The breathing techniques used in yoga can help to improve lung capacity, oxygen intake, and overall respiratory function.

Stress reduction

Yoga’s focus on mindfulness, deep breathing, and relaxation can help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Improved mental clarity

Practicing yoga regularly can help to increase concentration, memory, and cognitive function.

Enhanced emotional well-being

Yoga can help to promote self-awareness, self-acceptance, and a sense of inner peace.

Increased body awareness

Yoga helps you become more aware of your body and its movements, which can lead to improved body confidence and overall self-image.

Pain management

Yoga has been shown to help alleviate chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, and headaches.

Improved sleep quality

The relaxation techniques and stress reduction associated with yoga can help to improve sleep quality.

Boosted immune system

Yoga has been shown to help reduce inflammation and support immune function.

Enhanced cardiovascular health

Yoga can help to improve circulation, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart disease.

It’s important to note that individual experiences with yoga may vary, and some of the health benefits may be more pronounced for some people than others. As with any exercise routine, it’s essential to listen to your body, practice within your limits, and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any health concerns.

More about the history of yoga

Yoga has a rich and diverse history that dates back thousands of years. While the exact origins of yoga are debated among scholars, it is widely believed to have originated in ancient India around 5,000 years ago.

Pre-classical Yoga

The earliest references to yoga can be found in the Rigveda, one of the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, dating back to around 1500-1000 BCE. During this time, yoga was primarily a set of spiritual practices aimed at cultivating inner awareness and self-realization. Early practices of yoga were passed down orally from teacher to student and were later documented in texts like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

Classical Yoga

Around 400 CE, the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 aphorisms that systematized the philosophy and practice of yoga. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras outline the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga), which include ethical principles, physical postures, breath control, concentration, and meditation, ultimately leading to self-realization and spiritual liberation. This period is known as the classical period of yoga.

Post-classical Yoga

After Patanjali, yoga continued to evolve and adapt to various cultural and philosophical influences. During this period, Tantra Yoga emerged, focusing on techniques to cleanse and balance the body’s energy centers (chakras) and awaken the dormant spiritual energy (kundalini). Hatha Yoga, which emphasizes physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation, also emerged during this time and laid the foundation for modern yoga.

Modern Yoga

Yoga began to spread to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely due to the influence of Indian gurus like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda. In the 20th century, yoga masters like T. Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Swami Sivananda further popularized and expanded upon yoga practices, creating their own styles and lineages.

Today, yoga is practiced worldwide, with various styles and approaches that combine elements of traditional yoga with contemporary fitness and wellness trends. Some popular styles of yoga include Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini, and Yin, among many others. Yoga continues to evolve and adapt to the needs and interests of practitioners, while its core principles of self-realization, mindfulness, and inner peace remain constant.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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