DEAR DOCTOR K:
A friend is urging me to try yoga because I’m stressed out. I am suspicious of all these “touchy-feely” practices. Does yoga have scientifically proven benefits?
Yes, many studies have found that yoga can improve strength, flexibility and balance. It also is effective in relieving stress and anxiety. It has minimal side effects, although there are a few precautions I should mention.
Like any form of regular exercise, it should be begun gradually in older people. People with disease of the bones in their neck, and people with glaucoma, need to avoid certain yoga exercises. If you have those problems, talk to a yoga instructor before you begin.
Several years ago a reader asked me about yoga, and I mentioned my first experience with its stress reduction benefits. The story is worth retelling.
The first person I ever knew who regularly practiced yoga was an intense and ambitious young doctor. Any conversation with him was short and difficult; he completed your sentences for you and interrupted you at will. He was very smart and had a lot of valuable things to say, but that didn’t mean you looked forward to talking with him.
Then something odd happened. I had a conversation with him in which he didn’t interrupt me. A few weeks later, I had another. What was going on? I learned from his wife that she’d suggested, strongly, that he try yoga — and he loved it.
In addition to physical postures and exercises, traditional yoga incorporates breath control, deep relaxation, meditation, concentration and mindfulness. These mind-body practices counteract stress by evoking the relaxation response. The relaxation response can be practiced without doing yoga — although the physical benefits (strength, flexibility and balance) are not as great. Nevertheless, you are primarily asking about techniques to relieve stress.
The relaxation response is essentially the opposite of the stress response. It lowers heart rate and blood pressure and decreases the production of stress hormones. Practicing yoga leads to changes in the mind and body that promote feelings of tranquility and well-being.
My friend Dr. Herbert Benson, a famous meditation researcher here at Harvard Medical School, described the following exercises to elicit the relaxation response. Give them a try to see if they help you to feel more relaxed:
- Select a word, mantra, prayer or thought. Focus your attention on it in a relaxed manner.
- When other, everyday thoughts intrude, let them go. Refocus your attention on step one in a relaxed and patient manner without frustration or judgment.
Start by doing this for five minutes. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend on the exercises.
I’d urge you to try yoga, rather than just the relaxation response, because of its greater physical benefits. To learn more about the physical and mental benefits of yoga, you can read a short e-book called “Your Brain on Yoga” by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa, with Jodie Gould.
(This column is an update of one that ran originally in January 2013.)