At Yoga Journal, Kate Holcombe related a story about her sons. As she taught her youngest son to use yogic breathing techniques to relax at night, her older son confirmed that he still used the same technique, which she’d taught him a few years earlier. As anyone who’s ever practiced yoga can attest, this isn’t surprising. Yoga is a great way to de-stress and relax. Additionally, deeper benefits of yoga – such as improved mental health, chronic pain relief, and reduced inflammation – have recently become clearer through research.

Yoga breathing techniques are one of the most beneficial aspects of the practice

A particular kind of yoga, called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, involves very calming breathing techniques. While it may not act as a replacement for other medications or therapies, Sudarshan Kriya Yoga could act as a viable, low-risk complement to existing treatments for a range of different conditions.

Specific conditions that this type of yogic breathing has proven beneficial for include:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress-related illnesses
  • Substance abuse
  • Criminal rehabilitation
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after natural disasters

According to a study recently published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, Sudarshan Kriya Yoga might also be beneficial for veterans with PTSD. This study was the first to closely study the effects (including measurable biologic effects) of yogic breathing on people with PTSD.

Traits that characterize PTSD include intrusive memories, personality changes, and heightened anxiety, but many scientists believe that hyperarousal is at the core of all these traits. Hyperarousal, essentially, is overreaction to harmless stimuli. For example, a burst of noise might cause a severe overreaction.

Definite benefits were seen in the soldiers who received a week of training in yogic breathing. They showed reduced respiration rates, lower anxiety, and less PTSD symptoms. Current treatments for soldiers’ PTSD, such as antidepressants or psychotherapy, are successful for some individuals, but not all. According to Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) and one of the study’s authors:

“A clinician could use a ‘tool box’ of psychological assessments to determine the cognitive and emotional style of the patient, and thereby determine a treatment that would be most effective for that individual.”

Davidson hopes by determining which people would benefit most from each particular therapy and treatment for PTSD, soldiers could be treated more effectively. However, the population of soldiers used in the study was rather small, totaling just 21 between the active and control groups. Therefore, studies involving larger populations are needed before any serious conclusions can be drawn.

Scientists examine why and how yoga breathing techniques work

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the automatic, or autonomic, processes carried out by the body. It has two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic is the “fight-or-flight” system and is responsible for stressful situations. When it’s activated, it increases the heart rate, dilates the pupils, makes hair stand on end, and causes the palms to sweat. These traits are consistent with the symptoms of hyperarousal suffered by people with PTSD. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It controls the body during calm situation, slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure.

Breathing is a part of the autonomic nervous system. It’s also very necessary for life, so the rest of the body responds quickly to changes in breathing. It’s thought that this is why yogic breathing is so effective at reducing PTSD and other mental or emotional conditions. By learning to control breathing, individuals can learn to shift from a sympathetic nervous response to a parasympathetic one.

Physical benefits of yoga, beyond breathing techniques

Yoga encourages better balance, better posture, and stronger muscles. Also, its ability to help lower stress and the heart rate makes yoga particularly beneficial for those at risk of heart disease or stroke. Additionally, researchers are finding other conditions that benefit seriously from yoga.

For example, a study carried out by Ohio State found that yoga reduced inflammation and fatigue in breast cancer survivors. One group of women did yoga twice a week for 12 weeks, while the control group did no yoga at all. As compared to the women who didn’t do yoga, the ones who did yoga regularly after breast cancer treatment had 57% less fatigue and 20% less inflammation. In fact, the more yoga the women did, the more significant the benefits were.

This was one of the largest-scale studies to look at the benefits of yoga. 200 women were involved, suggesting that the results are strong enough to warrant some serious attention. Also, the lead author of this study expressed hope that the same benefits would exist in other groups of people who suffer from fatigue and inflammation, such as those who suffer from fibromyalgia.

Yoga’s potential to improve core strength, balance, and flexibility make it a prime treatment option for a host of other conditions, too. Researchers at the Rutgers School of Health Related Professions carried out a trial with multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. The people involved were all women, ranging in age from 34 to 64. All were at different levels of ability regarding disease progression, and the yoga was specialized to allow alterations so each woman could practice at her own level.

After eight weeks of two 90-minute yoga per week, the women had experienced a host of improvements. They were more able to walk for short distances, could walk for longer periods of time, had better balance when reaching backwards, better fine motor coordination, and found it easier to go from sitting to standing. Additionally, some reported experienced better concentration, bladder control, vision, and perceived mental health, as well as reduced fatigue and pain.

This trial was relatively small, with just 14 women who completed the entire eight-week course. While the results were very promising, larger trials might help researchers decide if yoga is a viable treatment for all people who are moderately disabled by MS.

How have you benefited from yoga?

Image by Army Medicine via Flickr

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