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Yoga and Arthritis
Yoga is one of the fastest growing fitness activities in the United States. According to the International Association of Yoga Therapists, the number of people practicing yoga rose to 20 million in 2002, an increase of over 300% since 1990. Yoga’s popularity has been due in large part to the endorsements that it has received from celebrities such as Madonna, Sting, and supermodel Christy Turlington. As more and more Americans seek alternative forms of therapy for their ailments, experts anticipate that the number of yoga practitioners will continue to grow.
A Brief Summary of Yoga
Each year millions of Americans turn to yoga as a way to keep fit, develop agility, reduce stress, or relieve musculoskeletal problems. This is only part of the goal that the founders of yoga sought to accomplish when they developed this practice. Yoga was created over 5,000 years ago in India as a means of achieving increased physical freedom, longevity, and a heightened sense of self-awareness. The ancient yogis understood that this could be achieved by unification of the mind, body, and spirit. Indeed, the word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yunakti, meaning “to join”. Yoga accomplishes this in five ways: proper relaxation, exercise, breathing, meditation, and diet. People who practice yoga soon discover that it is not only another form of exercise— it’s a way of life.
The Science Behind Yoga
The most popular form of Yoga in Western culture is Hatha Yoga. This branch focuses primarily on postures known as asana, combined with breathing exercises known as pranayama, and extensive meditation. Yoga views the body as a vehicle of the soul. The combination of all three exercises is aimed at controlling your mental state by regulating the flow of prana, or the life force that is believed to flow through all living things. While this may sound like the stuff of Star Wars (“Luke, the force is with you”), there appears to be a lot of truth behind the claim that “things” in our body are being regulated and improved when a person is performing these exercises.
The most obvious physiological benefit to yoga lies in the various postures in which a person places him or herself. Because the asanas are controlled positions that are sustained, any given asana allows an individual to stretch and strengthen a variety of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The result is more lean muscle mass and increased strength and agility. It is also believed that each asana is specifically designed to gently massage and stimulate various organs that are crucial to proper immune function and blood circulation.
What about controlled breathing and meditation? What’s the physiological explanation for the advantages to performing these actions? As it turns out, focused meditation and breathing exercises have enormous benefits in terms of reducing the harmful effects of stress.
The human nervous system can be divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic, or “fight or flight” system, is triggered when we’re placed under stressful conditions— accidents, demands from work, school, poor diet— essentially, everyday life. When this occurs, blood circulation tends to concentrate in certain areas such as our skeletal muscles. This is an evolutionary tool that we’ve developed in order to avoid danger and make quick escapes when necessary. The problem is that constant stimulation of this division leads to a compromise in health that ultimately produces harmful conditions such as ulcers and hypertension.
The parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” system, makes every attempt to balance the effects of the sympathetic system. Meditation and pranayama facilitate the parasympathetic system in redirecting circulation from areas like our skeletal muscles to those that are more critical for long-term health, such as the liver and intestines. One response that most people notice immediately after meditation and breathing exercises is a reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and an overall sense of relaxation. The medical community is beginning to conduct more studies to further support the countless claims of the benefits of yoga as more and more people turn to yoga to improve their health.
Health benefits of practicing yoga
Although only a small number of studies have been conducted, so far the overall results have been positive. In a survey of 3,000 people who reported using yoga to improve their health, The Journal of Family Practice found that 98% of the participants claimed yoga to be beneficial to them. A well known Indian journal in human physiology published a study that showed a marked improvement in the hand strength of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers who practice yoga. Finally, a recent pilot study conducted by rheumatologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine concluded that yoga may provide a feasible treatment option in the reduction of pain and disability caused by osteoarthritis of the knee.
As medical research continues in this field, results may continue to confirm what yoga enthusiasts have suspected all along.
A word of caution
As with any exercise regimen, discuss the potential pros and cons with your physician before beginning. Some particularly vigorous forms of yoga may push you into positions that your body is not ready for. The safest approach is to get clearance from your physician and only take yoga classes from an experienced yogi who understands and respects your individual limitations.
Authors: Marcus Melendez, B.A., New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, Old Westbury, NY
Juliana Khowong, M.D., New York-Presbyterian Hospital, The University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell, New York, NY
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