Pain is a real and debilitating health condition. Every day I treat women who are in pain and often don’t know what is feasible for them due to their discomfort or their physical limitations. While pain may be the underlying reason for them to limit physical exercise, mental fear or apprehension also play a role. For all my patients, I suggest yoga as a pathway to mental and physical health. I’m not saying you need to jump into a hot, tortuous yoga room but I’m simply suggesting that you be open to a new style of exercise and relaxation.
While yoga has become a hot new trend, everyone must take a step back to think about what they are physically capable of doing and what their goals are for this new exercise. Whether it is to tone their body, or mentally decompress, there is a type of yoga for everyone. Yoga’s overall function is to balance the body, mind, and spirit by using postures, breathing, and meditation. Varying positions have been shown to improve flexibility and strength, while breathing and meditation help to focus the mind.
Yoga has been studied extensively as its popularity has grown, though scientific studies on its physical and mental effects are hard to perfect. Studies performed have shown a reduction in symptoms from osteoarthritis and menopause, in addition to decreased perceived pain for those with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic back pain. Studies have also shown improvement in mood with decreased symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and stress. Yoga also allows decreased activation of the autonomic nervous system, allowing its practitioners to relax. Research has suggested decreased cortisol levels and reduced stress in pregnant women. Furthermore, significant reductions in noradrenline and self-rated stress have also been found.
Each yoga style differs; from Ashtanga to Bikram, and Power to Vinyasa. They each take on a different feel and intensity depending on their teacher’s training. While not all forms of yoga can be considered cardiovascular exercise, lower intensity sessions tend to involve more postural awareness, breathing, and meditation, all of which can positively impact your mood while improving flexibility. However, I cannot stress enough how important it is to know your limitation. The worst thing that can happen is beginning yoga and injuring yourself while attempting a difficult pose. Always check with your physician to find out if you have any medical condition that may preclude you from participating in yoga. Your doctor can educate you about any limitation he or she feels applies to you. Also, always talk to the yoga instructors prior to starting any class and be sure to inform them of your medical conditions or injuries. Usually they will let you know if a pose needs to be altered during the session. Yoga classes at a gym tend to be more physically dynamic, so if you aren’t very active, I would suggest starting with a lower intensity form of yoga first. Meditation yoga classes are often offered by studios and are a great introduction into poses, relaxation and breathing.
Regardless of any medical condition, disability, or physical limitation, yoga can be applied to your everyday life. The poses may be altered depending on your physical capabilities, but the mental exercises of breathing and relaxation can be applied to anyone’s life. Although there are many studies that cite the benefits of yoga, all of them cannot be explained in a scientific journal. All the physical and mental health benefits that can come from practicing yoga must be experienced to be believed.
Natalia Covarrubias is a resident of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at UC Irvine Medical Center. She is pursing a fellowship in Pain Management.