Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

December 7 | The Practice |


There’s a lot we don’t know about yoga’s history and origins. We know it started in India thousands of years ago, and sages passed down its teachings and wisdom for centuries.

When yoga first “arrived” in the US, many people didn’t know what to make of it. It took some time for yoga to make it to the mainstream, which it did, in part, when influential people and celebrities started practicing and talking about its benefits.

But it’s taken even longer for the medical community to come around and realize the real, tangible benefits that yoga offers. Now, though, it’s getting more and more common for doctors (many of whom probably practice yoga themselves) to recommend or even prescribe yoga for patients to treat and manage a range of ailments. This is because science is finally catching up and validating many claims and beliefs about yoga.

The Claim: Meditation Makes Your Brain Work Better

A few years ago, research from Harvard showed that meditating regularly causes actual changes in our brains. Researchers studied the brain scans of people before and after an eight-week “mindfulness-based stress-reduction program” (they took a weekly class and were told to meditate for 40 minutes every day). Incredibly, the “after” brain scans showed significant differences in parts of the brain associated with focus, attention, learning, memory, cognition, empathy, compassion and the stress (fight or flight) response.

The Claim: Yoga Treats and Manages Chronic Pain

If your back hurts, flowing through some fast-paced sun salutations is probably one of the last things you want to do. But yoga therapy—an individualized practice aimed at treating specific conditions—has been shown to be effective for an incredible range of injuries, ailments and diseases. A study at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center found that breast cancer patients who practiced yoga while undergoing radiation treatment experience less stress and fatigue and better quality of life.

There’s actually quite a few studies that focus on yoga and back pain. Good news (and no surprise): a meta-analysis of many studies found that yoga is effective for both short- and long-term treatment.

The Claim: Yoga Improves Mood Disorders like Anxiety and Depression

Different studies have found that yoga can lower levels of cortisol (the hormone associated with stress) and improve blood pressure—both key indicators of stress and anxiety. The research on yoga’s effectiveness at treating people with diagnosed anxiety disorder, depression or PTSD is mixed, but it doesn’t show negative effects.

Studies have also shown that yoga may reduce inflammation in the body, which is correlated with ailments like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more. What’s interesting about this is that other forms of aerobic exercise can reduce inflammation—but it requires high levels of vigorous activity. But just the mild physical activity of a gentle yoga class seems to have the same effects.

Other studies in recent years have looked at how yoga can help people manage insomnia and sleep disorders, alleviate menopause symptoms and even quit smoking. In a lot of areas, the research is still limited, but growing.

So it turns out, those sages in ancient India really knew what they were talking about. Yoga clearly has a lot of wide-ranging health benefits. What we still don’t know is how exactly yoga affects our bodies and minds, but we’re sure we’ll discover that in time.