10 benefits of yoga asanas for health

The regular practice of even a short 15 minute routine of yoga asanas provides multiple levels of benefit to all of the systems of our body. This two part article will cover ten benefits of yoga:

1. Strengthening yoga postures increase bone density

Many yoga exercises, or asanas are considered excellent weight bearing exercises. Our bones reach their maximum density at around 30 years old, and all of us will naturally begins to lose some bone mass with aging. However, especially in women,  this loss can be as dramatic as 20% in the first 5-7 years after menopause,* (1) leading eventually to the painful, degenerative condition of osteoporosis.
Integrating weight bearing exercises into your daily routine is important to prevent bone loss. Yoga postures that support the body’s weight and are held isometrically, such as the plank pose, cakrasana (wheel), sahajasana (chair pose)  not only strengthen the muscular system, but also increase bone density.  Asanas increase the pressure on bones without stressing the joints as movements are slow, deliberate and careful attention is given to proper alignment.

2. Yoga benefits the heart and circulation

While most of us tend to think that only aerobic training benefits the heart, recent research demonstrates that as little as 10 minutes of a regular stretching routines improves heart health. *(2)
Asana practice, which includes not only stretching and but also breath-awareness, deep relaxation and gentle movements improves blood pressure, calms the mind and increases resistance to stress. “A recent review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking.” (3)

3. Yoga postures help relax and strengthen the nervous system

Many yoga postures increase the flexibility of the spine, which nourishes the spinal cord and improves its functioning.  Postures that include a twist, such as Matsyendrasana are known in yogic texts to prolong youthfulness by maintaining the suppleness of the veretral column.
Inverted postures, such as shoulder stand, increase blood flow to the brain, allowing it to be revitalized and refreshed.

4. Asanas improve digestion and elimination

There are specific yogic postures designed to enhance digestion by working on the “manipura cakra” located at about the height of the navel, which in yoga is considered to be responsible for regulating the “agni” (digestive fire). There are postures that put pressure on this area and which thus help to regulate digestion, appetite and elmination. Postures such as the “bellows pose” (bhastrikasana) tone the digestive system, encouraging complete elimination of waste and eliminating gas.  A simple exercise to stimulate efficient digestion is “Utkśepa Mudra” which is practiced first thing in the morning, while still in bed.  While lying on the back, the knees are hugged towards the chest and then the legs are straightened out. This movement is repeated 8 times, vigorously.  After that, it is recommended to sit up and drink a glass of water.

5. Yoga helps the skin to shine and glow

During yoga asanas, subtle oils are released into the skin which then are reincorporated through a process of self massage. The systematic massage associated with asanas practice has many specific movements that relax and tone the facial muscles and skin in particular. Regular yoga practice, especially if enhanced by a clean, pure vegetarian diet and reglar water drinking, tends to give practitioners a radiant, clear complexion and slows down the process of aging.

6. Yoga improves our respiratory system

Deep breathing is the foundation of all yoga practices. By activating the diaphragm and breathing from the abdomen, the capacity of the lungs is increased and oxygenation of the blood improves. Most importantly, deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “relaxation response”. This deactivates and neutralizes stress, which has often become so chronic that it seems like our normal state of being.

7. The effect of yoga on the lymphatic system – enhanced by self-massage

Unlike blood, which is pumped through our body by the heart, lymph only circulates with movement. Lymph has the important function of purifying our system of wastes and is closely interconnected with our immune system. In ancient texts, yogis referred to lymph as pranarasa –  one of the stages of “shukra”, which is considered to be the final and most refined substance that is produced out of our food. It is compared to ghee (clarified butter),   which is the most refined essence of milk.  In yoga, lymph is considered the precursor to hormones. According to yogic understanding, when the lymph enters into contact with glands, it is converted into various hormones.  Thus great importance is given in yogic lifestyle to increasing and improving the quality and quantity of lymph through specific dietary guidelines and lifestyle practices.  In particular, foods high in cholorphyll (leafy green vegetables such as spinach, parsley and kale) are said to increase the production and quality of lymph and are thus favored by yogis.

8. Yoga asanas regulate the hormonal system

Yogic postures were designed, not just to stretch or strengthen the body, but to put pressure on various glands which regulate both physical and pyschological processes.  From ancient times yogis studied the existence of different glands which they referred to as “granthi” and their hormones or “granthirasa” by observing both humans and also animals which have different, specialized characteristics according to increased development of specific glands. (5) This is why some yoga postures are named after animals – as the yogis discovered that  positions which mimic the movements or posture of an animal that has certain glands well developed can similarly stimulate and develop those glands in the human body in order to attain positive qualities such as better digestion (peacock -mayurasana, patience and steadiness (cow pose – gomukhasana), sensory withdrawal (kurmukasana – turtle pose) etc.
Hormones are produced by different emotional states and can also positively or negatively effect our moods as well as state of health. By regulating the glandular system, health is optimized and mental balance is favored. The ability to stimulate extremely subtle glandular secretions from higher glands such as the pineal gland (known as amrita or nectar by yogis)  has  been long studied and sought after by yogis as these secretions help to induce greater spiritual awareness and inner states of bliss.  Asana practice helps to refine glandular secretions and in time can help stimulate subtler expressions of the glands that facilitate spiritual practice.

9. Yoga exercise work to optimize vitality (prana)

Specific patterns of breathing during asanas help to maximize the effects of the asanas as the breath is linked to vital energy or prana.  Yoga practice, unlike more intense and exhausting forms of physical exercise that aim primarly to “burn calories”, tends to increase energy and vitality rather than consuming it.  Usually one feels more energized and revitalized after a yogic practice due to the effect of the breath work.  However, this doesn’t mean the impact is less than a typical calorie burning aerobic workout. Rather studies on the effects of yoga on heart health reviewed in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology showed that several of the indicators related to cardiovascular disease: weight control, resting heart rate, blood pressure and cholestorol levels,  were all improved through yoga practice. (3)  Indeed, a yoga workout, if well planned and guided by a trained instructor can be a very complete form of exercise.

10. Yoga asanas enhance the subtler expression of cakra system

While asanas are only one of the eight main practices of the complete system of “ashtaunga” yoga,  they have an important function in  helping to strengthen and refine the body which is the base for further, subtler spiritual practices.  The cakra system provides a map the body’s energy centers.  On the energetic level, each cakra is associated with a number of different psychic propensities (worry, love, fear, craving, hatred).  Each cakra is a also the controlling station for a cluster of glands and nerve centers through which the propensities are expressed. The glands thus regulate different physical processes of the body as well as influencing psychological states through hormones.  This system works as a two way street that bridges mind and body. A thought – such as intense fearful reaction to threat, can release certain hormones such as adrenaline that trigger our survival system into gear.  On the other hand, hormonal changes, such as those related to the menstrual cycle, can significantly impact mood and state of mind.  While meditation works on the level of creating positive thoughts that trigger the functioning of higher glands and regulate the activity of lower glands – asanas work on the physical level.  They help to physically regulate hormonal secretions, as each posture has an either pressurizing  or depressurizing effect on specific glands. Asanas thus both can improve health as well as indirectly lead to enhanced feelings of well-being and psychological balance.
Even for those who are not particularly interested in the spiritual dimension of yoga, already the increasingly well-documented health benefits alone are enough to justify trying out this holistic form of exercise and movement.
*Yoga practices are best supervised by a trained teacher, especially in designing an appropriate individualized daily practice. It is best not to risk injury by practicing exclusively from a book, youtube, or website information.
Didi Ananda Devapriya, an Ananda Marga acarya  offers yoga courses, as well as individualized consultations in Bucharest at the Morningstar Center. 
(1) *Stay Good to the Bone with Yoga, Catherine Guthrie, Jul 1 2011 Yoga Journal
(2)“A Healthier Heart in 10 minutes per Day”: Peak Health Advocate
(3)“More than a stretch, Yoga’s health benefits may extend to the heart”:Julie Corliss, Harvard Heart Letter, April 15,2015
(4)”Anindyánanda Rasa Samádhi”,  Shrii Shrii Anandamurtii from the book Tattva Kaomudii Part 2
(5) “Plexi and Microvita”, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti from the book “Yoga Psychology”
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