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.
The research: Migraine sufferers doing yoga weekly have less frequent and intense head pain after three months than a comparable group not doing the poses, a small but important study by Indian researchers found. If you have migraines, it’s best to practice as a preventive measure; once the pain strikes, yoga movements could make it worse.
Helpful yoga pose: Seated forward bend. Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Inhaling, raise your arms to the ceiling and exhale, folding forward from the hips, bringing your hands towards your feet. When you’ve reached as far forward as is comfortable, relax your head, neck and shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds, then release.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The research: One of the first American studies documenting yoga’s ability to help specific health concerns was the University of Pennsylvania’s 1998 research published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. People with carpal tunnel syndrome who practiced yoga moves emphasizing the hand and arm joints felt much better after 8 twice-weekly sessions.
Helpful yoga pose: Prayer pose. Sit or stand in a comfortable position with your spine and head centered. Relax your shoulders. Bring your palms together, fingers extended upward, in front of your heart. Gently press your hands together for 30 seconds. If this pose feels too easy, try repeating the move with your hands behind your back.
The research: Pat Garbarg, MD, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor New York Medical College, was so intrigued by the power of yoga breathing that she tested it on perhaps the most anxious and depressed people around–survivors of the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami! Amazingly, after just six weeks, their depression practically disappeared, and signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder fell 60 percent. If it could work for them, imagine what it can do for run-of-the-mill mood problems.
Helpful yoga pose: Paced breathing. The breathing practices Garbarg tested were complex, but she has found that even the most basic yoga breath works wonders in her less traumatized American patients. Once or, ideally, twice a day, sit quietly and begin slowing down your breaths until inhalations and exhalations become equal in length and last roughly 6 seconds each. Continue this slow, even breathing for up to 20 minutes.
Image credit: Andre Santos.foto / Flickr