Valerie Brooke, MD
The Health Benefits of Yoga
Updated: Mar 11, 2022
In one corner of my vision board for 2022 are the words yoga, flexibility, and keep moving forward. Right next to them is a photo of a female yogi doing a downward facing dog pose. (For those non-yogi’s out there, imagine a body in a V shape with the hands and feet on the floor, and the hips up towards the ceiling at the apex). I used to practice daily yoga way back in my early 20s, at a time when I loved pushing my body to the limits, no matter the pain or strain. Fast forward a few decades later and I cannot touch my toes when I bend over, and I certainly never plan on trying to do another back bend from a standing position. That would, for sure, land me in the emergency room.
In short, I’ve gotten quite stiff and inflexible as I’ve gotten older, in part due to how hard I have pushed myself physically. I had trained to do another triathlon last year, but due to the local fires which caused an acute asthma attack (first of my life), I did not compete that day. I was surprised at how much joy I felt to be on the sidelines cheering on my friends as they completed their first triathlon. I recently gave away my wetsuit, finally deciding I am done with triathlons, done with athletic competition, done with trying to accomplish more with my body. I’m listening to the messages my body is giving me, the whispering to slow down, walk or jog rather than run intervals, to use my body instead of heavy weights in order to build strength, and to let go of high intensity workouts. None of this is easy for my ego which has believed so strongly in the false message that more is better, stronger is better, and faster is better.
And that’s where yoga thankfully comes back into my life. I’ve added it to my daily regimen of healthy habits, along with meditation and writing. I’m honestly shocked at how challenging yoga has been, how sore I get after particular classes, though I am slowly gaining more flexibility. The true gift of yoga, which I missed the first time around due to being more focused on the physicality of the practice, is how grounded and calm I feel after each session. Like I could lay in Savasana (the resting pose at the end of every practice) forever. Like I can get off my mat and calmly handle any crisis that may come by way that day. Yoga is teaching me how to pay attention to my body, to slow down and breathe, to be in the present moment. What’s different this time around is that I’m not trying to accomplish anything, though truth be told, I would like to be able to touch my toes again.
I recently did a literature search to see what research has been done on yoga, not that I need this validation to continue my daily practice, but just because I’m curious if the effects can be scientifically measured. It turns out there are many physical and mental health benefits. Yoga for children and adolescents has been shown to decrease hyperactivity and increase attention, improve overall health, and decrease anxiety. For older adults yoga may help with general overall health, stress management, physical balance, resilience, mental health, smoking cessation, adopting healthy habits, as well as decreasing BMI (body mass index – a marker of weight). Yoga may also decrease pain in disorders such as fibromyalgia, headaches, neck and back pain, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Several different chronic diseases also may see improvements with regular yoga practice including breast cancer, multiple sclerosis related fatigue, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma, diabetes, insomnia, and menopause.
I am not surprised at this long list of possible health improvements as the result of a yoga practice, and I don’t need this list to motivate myself to continue my daily practice. However, as I likely will develop many more age-related illnesses as I get older, having yoga as a tool to keep myself healthy for as long as possible is something I look forward to. All I need is my yoga mat, my bare feet, and my commitment to continue becoming more flexible.