Harvard Medical School Gives Yoga Top Grades

Harvard Medical School Gives Yoga Top Grades

If Nanna was to write a PR blurb for yoga, it would be measured, and less of an outright accolade than what I read in the recent publication An Introduction to Yoga: Improve your Strength, Balance, Flexibility and Well-being. In outlining the health benefits of yoga, Nanna needs to be wary of looking like a zealot in order to maintain credibility. Harvard Medical School, however, doesn’t have to worry about credibility. It has that in spades.

“Yoga,” the authors of the new publication from Harvard Health begin, “may be the antidote for what ails you. And we’re not just talking about a single problem like back pain or insomnia.” The report outlines three major benefits, with multiple research studies to back all of its claims:

  1. Improved health – The authors describe yoga’s effects as “widespread,” including: “it can reduce your risk of heart disease and boost your immunity, while easing back pain and helping to conquer stress eating.”
  2. Greater well-being – The report cites many studies demonstrating “the more frequently you practice yoga, the more you experience positive emotions, along with greater satisfaction in life, joy, energy, improved quality of life, and an enhanced sense of well-being.”
  3. Savings in health care costs – Quoting a 2015 Harvard study of 4,400 people, it reports the yogis in the study used 43% fewer medical services, saving themselves between $640 and $25,500 each, every year. These are US dollars, with savings relevant to the US medical system, but it makes the point: a regular yoga practice can keep you out of the doctor’s office.


Why do people take up yoga?

The report says people first take up yoga for physical benefits. The top five reasons for starting yoga are flexibility, general fitness, health improvements, physical fitness, and stress relief.

While stress relief is the last of the top five, Harvard says it may be yoga’s most powerful benefit. “According to research, up to 90% of all doctor visits can be attributed to stress-related complaints,” it says. “In our always-plugged-in, stressed-out lives, yoga provides the respite to make you feel better – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too.”

And this is Nanna’s favourite quote of all: “Many people take up yoga as a workout, but they stick with it because it makes them happier.” Yogis don’t need a Harvard research team to prove that yoga makes them feel good – but it’s nice to have the data to validate all those warm fuzzies.

But why does it work?

Harvard Health lists six reasons yoga works, even though the authors concede there is “a long way to go before researchers will fully understand just why yoga has such a broad range of physical and mental benefits.” The report cites evidence to prove that yoga:

Lowers stress: “a single 90-minute yoga session can lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.”
Reduces inflammation: quoting a 2014 meta-analysis of 34 studies showing yoga, meditation and other mind-body therapies “reduce markers of inflammation.”
Tones the vagus nerve: “conditions such as depression, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder are associated with low vagal tone. Yoga appears to increase vagal tone, providing a possible explanation for why these conditions respond well to yoga.”
Boosts immunity: “Yoga appears to boost your body’s natural defenses.”
Changes your brain: “The latest research on yoga shows that it can alter the structure and function of the brain. For example, yoga practitioners have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex . . . the “happy side” of the brain.”
Turns on health-promoting genes: The report shows not just experienced yogis, but “novices also saw beneficial (genetic) changes after eight weeks of a daily practice. The result was an enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance (all good things) – and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways (band things.)”

In future posts, Nanna will present some of the evidence Harvard has collected on issues such as yoga for arthritis, for heart disease, for staying young, for weight loss and for mental health. If you would like a copy for yourself, you can buy and download it at https://www.health.harvard.edu.

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