In the West, yoga is seen predominantly as a series of postures that are used to enhance health and are often coupled with meditation and breathwork. However, this accounts for only 3 of the 8 principles of yoga. Even considering this form of yoga to be an incomplete yoga practice, the research into yoga’s myriad of health benefits remains robust, even in comparison with other exercise research. For instance, a meta-analysis in 2010 was conducted looking specifically at the comparative benefits of yoga as opposed to conventional aerobic exercise for the same duration. What researchers found that while of course both exercise and yoga had marked affects on health outcomes, in some studies yoga was superior at the same dose, especially in markers for perceived health, happiness, and decreases in anxiety. The authors conclude the added aspect of meditation to the practice, despite not being physically demanding, could explain the differences in effects. This hypothesis supports the idea of enhancing wellness through a more holistic approach to exercise routines. Given this, what are the potential benefits if all 8 principles of yoga were to be included in the practice? Furthermore, if meditation is a key to unlocking more efficiency from health practices, what are the ways to enhance meditation? To answer these questions, it is perhaps best to look back at the original understandings of yoga before the modern-day simplification.
THE EIGHT PRINCIPLES OF YOGA
The eight principles of yoga (or limbs of yoga as they are also called), is the translation of the Sanskrit term Ashtanga. The first written reference to the eight principles comes in roughly 500BCE when the scholar Patanjali codified the oral tradition of yoga into the Yoga Sutra. The eight principles include Yama – our attitude and understanding of our environment, Niyama – our attitudes toward ourselves), Asana – the physical postures of yoga that most audiences consider generalized yoga, Pranayama – using breathwork to connect with the lifeforce shared between all things, Pratyahara – to focus inward, withdrawing from the 5 senses of the body, Dharana – the practice of singular focus, Dhyana - meditation and Samadhi - complete integration. These eight principles or limbs are to be practiced both singularly, and in tandem. With this comprehensive approach to yoga, it is interesting to note that research is relatively sparse on utilizing Ashtanga yoga, or yoga that promotes all 8 principles, while research into Asana or Hatha (meaning physical) yoga is robust. It is of interest to note that long term practitioners of Asthanga yoga exhibit regional long-term decreases in glucose metabolism correlated to the number of years in practice. Another study found lower circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol in practitioners. This observational research shows one of the unique changes that yoga practitioners that are less noted in other forms of exercise.
THE STUDIED BENEFITS OF YOGA
Yoga’s therapeutic research is largely broken into two main groups: psychological benefits, especially for anxiety, and for the management of physical pain. In one study of 101 participants, the treatment group received 12 weeks of yoga practice, another cohort was giving therapeutic exercises specifically for chronic lower back pain while the control group was an cohort that only had a low back pain diary. At the end of the 12 weeks, the yoga group has the highest decrease in a modified 24-point Roland Disability Scale focusing on objective functional movements of the back and "bothersomeness" of pain on a 11-point numerical scale. This is one of the first studies of its kind to pit conventional exercise against yoga and to observe objectively yoga’s greater improvements. Additionally, research had found that yoga’s effects on the mind/body connection is so robust in nature that the National Institute of Health recommended meditation over prescription drugs as the preferred treatment for mild hypertension in 1984. Moreover, yogi masters from antiquity have been validated in their mention of yoga for treating the internal environment beyond physical pain. Yoga shows benefits in treating disorders, such as anxiety and depression, such that among young adults with mild depression, practicing yoga was found to decrease self-reported symptoms of depression, improve overall mood and improve morning cortisol levels. Beyond this, yoga has been shown to be effective for reducing anxiety symptoms in specific populations such as psychiatric patients,, AIDS and HIV patients, the elderly, organ-transplant recipients, and individuals with irritable bowel syndrome to name a but a few populations positively impacted by yoga practices.
The primary concern from skeptics that follows yoga is a supposed lack of biological mechanism of action. In order to address this criticism, recent research has focused on assessing changes in possible biomarkers along with clinical changes in people with known psychiatric disorders who also practice yoga. Parameters that have been studied include changes in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and oxytocin. Researchers have also studied the structural and functional changes in the brain measured using magnetic resonance imaging as well as newer approaches such as observing measures of regional blood flow and cortical inhibition, respectively. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is the primary neurotransmitter in cortical inhibition and has been shown to be dysfunctional in people with major depression and obsessive–compulsive disorder, two conditions that have seen positive effects from yoga therapies. Moreover, in healthy individuals there is a documented increase in GABA levels within the brain.
Not dissimilar to the research quandaries surrounding herbal medicine research, it appears that yoga has a multi-system effect on the body, with many targets being utilized in tandem to exert an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. Interestingly, just as the ancient scholars wrote of yoga’s abilities to affect the mind and body, they also purported the use of herbal products to enhance yogic practices. For instance, ashwagandha is used to calm the mind while powerfully strengthening the body’s ability to perform Asana, or movement based, yoga, while also enhancing the experience of Dharana or singular focus yoga. Another herb prominently called up to enhance meditation ability is tulsi, or holy basil. This herb is said to be the gateway to the divine found within nature, and as such, drinking holy basil tea supports and correlates with a deepening of Yama yoga, or the relationship of one’s self to nature. Gotu kola has been called the most spiritual of all herbs, used by yogis to develop the crown chakra. Its leaf even resembles the brain, reflecting its ability to balance the left and right hemispheres, which yoga itself also does. Gotu Kola is a tonic for the mind and nerve tissues, nourishing the central nervous system and rebuilding energy reserves, making it a key herb in mental health support and for enhancing the experience of all yoga practices. Lastly, bacopa, also known in India as brahmi, was used to enhance focus and concentration while also expanding the mind’s ability to weigh and consider. Taken together, employing these herbs, much like therapeutics of yoga itself, will continue to help us unlock deeper aspects of health, wellness, and serenity in our daily lives.
ENHANCING YOUR YOGA PRACTICE
As yoga will continue to grow in favor worldwide without question, perhaps even as the best medicine of the day when considering its myriad of effects, it is important to consider the practice as it was originally intended. By taking these additional facets into account, perhaps we will see yoga’s therapeutic value grow even more exponentially. Additionally, by incorporating herbal teas and products into our daily practice of yoga we honor the yama yoga, that is, we connect the outside world with our internal one. It is this balance between ourselves and the gifts of our world will surely deepen more than just our stretches!
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