Why Practice Yoga: The Benefits & Overlaps with Physiatry
by Chiamaka Ukoha, MS IV
Before reading this, I want you to take 3 of the deepest breaths you have taken all day in through your nose and out through your mouth then reflect on how you feel. Believe it or not, you just engaged in one of the most essential techniques of the practice of yoga, breathing. Breathing is something we do involuntarily every day, but by bringing it to our consciousness, it gives a person a sense of control and awareness over their body. Yoga is a simple practice used to improve quality of life, but one thing people struggle with how and why to start.
I started practicing yoga about a year ago, during my time studying for STEP 1. As many know, studying for this exam can be very stressful; however, I learned how to use yoga as an outlet for this stress. When I first started practicing, my expectations were low, but to my surprise, I reaped more benefits than predicted. I noticed that not only was I less stressed, but my motivation level improved, my sleep routine was better regulated, and my core body strength increased. It was as if I was reconnecting my mind, body, and brain. Every day I realized something about myself, whether it was physical or mental, which help me gain a better sense of who I am. It sounds cliché, but it’s true! With the COVID-19 pandemic occurring, I find myself sometimes ruminating on aspects of the future that I know I can’t control. However, yoga has taught me that one thing I can balance is the state of my mind and body in the present moment.
About 1 in 10 Americans practice yoga, but I was curious to see how these statistics resonate within the medical student population. I decided to take an online poll of medical students at my intuition. The poll consisted of 3 simple questions: “Do you practice yoga?” “If so, why?” and “If not, why?”. Of the 128 students that responded, 20% stated that they practiced yoga. For the students that stated they do practice, over 60% said it was to gain flexibility and decrease stress. Of the students that did not practice yoga, 50% stated it was due to a lack of knowledge about it.
I am nowhere near being an expert, in fact, it can take several years to master some of these techniques. Still, from my experience, I have gained some insight into what the practice entails and am inclined to tell others more about it, especially since it is evident many lack a full understanding of the practice.
Here are a few reasons how yoga can help you improve your overall health:
- Improve flexibility: Tight and inflexible muscles or connective tissue can lead to poor posture. By improving flexibility, one can prevent muscle strains or tears.
- Decrease stress and anxiety: By regulating self-referential thoughts through mediation, it has been proven that anxiety and stress levels can be attenuated. Yoga also strengthens the parasympathetic nervous system allowing our body to restore balance and release tension.
- Weight loss: One of the primary responses to stress on our body is cortisol. Although its activation is initially helpful, it can cause detrimental effects when overstimulated, such as increasing the production of adipose tissue. By decreasing stress, yoga can further help prevent unwanted weight gain.
- Build muscle strength: Not only does this help define the “summer body” we all pray for, but building muscle strength is a protective factor for many conditions such as arthritis and back pain.
- Cardiopulmonary function: Depending on the asana, yoga position, you can improve your cardiac function. For instance, positions that require twisting of the body can increase blood and oxygen circulation, essential decreasing stroke risk.
Adaptive yoga is something many physiatrists implement into treatment plans, and this could be because the practice of yoga and physiatry have many parallel characteristics. They essentially both focus on returning the body to its original state of balance through natural remedies. Here are some of the most significant aspects I’ve noticed:
- Holistic: Humans are multidimensional beings, and we must keep that in mind when it comes to treating patients. Rather than focusing on each organ system, physiatrists look at a patient as a whole and work with many other interdisciplinary teams to meet the patient’s needs. By connecting the brain and body, yoga works in the same way!
- Personalized: One thing I love about yoga is that you can truly make it your own. There are so many different styles of yoga, depending on what you are trying to achieve. When working with a patient, I believe physiatrists undergo this same process when personalizing a treatment plan for a patient.
- Active engagement: Yoga requires you to notice every simple movement you make from breathing to the flexion in your toes as a way to bring back self-awareness. The same thing goes when creating rehabilitation management plans for patients.
- Long-term effects: I will admit, some of the changes you see in yoga will be very meniscal but rewarding. Just like yoga, sometimes it takes time before seeing significant results when working with patients in rehab.
There is no “right way” to do yoga. My yoga journey will never match my peers, and I think that is the beauty of it. Although yoga is a great way to improve your overall health is not meant as a replacement but rather to complement. Even if it is just practicing deep breathing once a day, the fulfillment of reconnecting with yourself is something I believe everyone needs to experience.
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Chiamaka Ukoha is an MS IV at UTMB MD Candidate 2021.