As a longtime health writer, certified yoga teacher and, most recently, the novelist of a book with a yoga theme, I’m impressed with the way science has increasingly put yoga under a microscope. A number of well done, if small, studies are proving that these ancient stretches and breathing practices do more than make you feel energized and connected to your higher self (although they do that, too!), they actually help specific health problems.
Here are a suggested pose–and the corresponding research–for five common medical conditions. Remember to breathe as you hold each pose. (Of course, you should consult with your doctor before doing these or any exercises.)
The research: Atrial fibrillation–more commonly called A-fib–is a common but serious problem where the heart beats irregularly, putting sufferers at risk for stroke. When researchers at the University of Kansas Hospital recently referred people with A-fib to a 3-times-a-week yoga class, their number of A-fib episodes slashed in half. The study author says this is especially impressive when you consider that traditional treatments include drugs with serious side effects or risky surgical procedures.
Helpful yoga pose: Cobra. Although the study involved comprehensive yoga sessions, poses like cobra that open the chest are said to aid the heart. Lie on your abdomen, legs and feet together, forehead on the floor, and hands on the floor beneath your shoulders, elbows close to the body. Inhaling, stretch the chin out slightly and, pressing on the palms, begin raising the chest and shoulders, continuing to a height you feel comfortable (typically just before or just after the belly button leaves the ground). Hold 30 seconds, then release.
The research: Quelling shoulder pain after a rotator cuff injury usually involves surgery and months of rehab. But a study by an esteemed NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia rehab medicine doctor found that a single yoga move keeps people from needing to go under the knife. The pose, which can be repeated a few times in a row, strengthens the usually weak muscle below the shoulder blade, allowing it to take over the damaged muscle’s role.
Helpful yoga pose: First-stage of headstand, modified for standing. Stand a foot or so from a wall, facing it. Grasp your elbows with each hand and press both elbows against the wall. Keeping your elbows at that distance, release your hands and join them together to form a triangle against the wall. Engaging your shoulders, press your forearms into the wall. Hold for 30 seconds, then release.