On 21 June, International Yoga Day, celebrated annually since its inception in the United Nations General Assembly in 2014, was observed, thanks to the efforts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet. Modi had said in the UN General Assembly when he proposed the International Yoga Day: “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature. Changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness can help in well-being. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”
The date was chosen, as it is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere (shortest in the southern hemisphere). It is the second full moon after the summer solstice, known as Guru Purnima. Lord Shiva, the Adi Yogi, is said to have begun imparting the knowledge of yoga to the rest of mankind on this day.
Historically, yoga practice has been thought to date back to pre-Vedic Indian traditions. It was first mentioned in Rig Veda (this body of knowledge dates back to around 1500 BC). Yoga finds mention also in the Sanatana Dharma holy book SrimadBhagavadGita, where Bhagawan says, “Samatvam Yoga Uchyate,” meaning equanimity in the mind is a sign of yoga. However, it wasn’t until 2,000 years ago that Indian sage Patanjali systematised the practice of yoga and documented his work — the Yoga Sutras — so that others could follow his work.
One may ask what was the purpose of yoga. Yoga did not start as a physical fitness regimen. In fact, physical fitness was one of the many positive effects of yoga. The ultimate goal of yoga (union) is moksha (salvation), which can be attained only if the individual experiences the self. Yoga involves performing certain activities or exercises which can bring one’s mind, body and breathe in the union to fully experience the state of meditation or Samadhi. However, in the modern materialistic world that we live in, it is beyond our comprehension to understand these concepts. Nevertheless, several forms of yoga are now practised in India as well as in the rest of the world, not specifically to attain moksha but mostly for the physical and mental benefits it offers. This year, the celebrations were sober, given the pandemic and the need for social distancing. Yet, people all over the world performed yoga within the confines of their home.
Let us look at the several health benefits that recent studies have reported on yoga. First and foremost, yoga improves strength, balance and flexibility. Betsy Donahoe and colleague (2019) conducted a study, where children aged 10-12 years participated in a 40-min yoga session between one and three times a week, for eight weeks. They concluded that yoga was a beneficial form of exercise in the school-based setting for improving balance and flexibility in children. In another study, Kaitlyn P. Roland and colleagues (2011) found that older adults who performed yoga showed improvements in gait, balance, upper and lower body flexibility, lower body strength, and weight loss. These studies suggest that yoga is beneficial for young children as well as older adults in terms of overall physical fitness.
Yoga helps with back pain relief. The American College of Physicians recommends yoga as a first-line treatment for chronic low back pain. A systematic review of the literature by Douglas G Chang and colleagues (2016) found that yoga can reduce pain and disability, it can be practised safely, and it is well received by participants. Yoga can also ease arthritis symptoms as it eases some of the discomforts of tender, swollen joints for people with arthritis. A PRISMA-compliant meta-analysis by Yiguo Wang and colleagues (2018) found that regular yoga training is helpful in reducing knee arthritic symptoms, promoting physical function, and general well-being in arthritic patients.
Yoga benefits heart health as well. Regular yoga practice may reduce levels of stress and body-wide inflammation, contributing to healthier hearts. Several of the factors contributing to heart disease, including high blood pressure and excess weight, can also be addressed through yoga. Paula R Pullen and colleagues (2018) examined the effects of yoga on heart failure patients and reported that yoga benefits included a reduction of inflammatory markers, blood pressure, pain, and a decrease in implantable cardioverter-defibrillator firings. Holger Crame and colleagues (2014) conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on the effects of yoga on cardiovascular disease risk factors. They found that, relative to usual care or no intervention, yoga improved systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, waist circumference, waist/hip ratio, total cholesterol, HDL, VLDL, triglycerides, HbA1c, and insulin resistance. In fact, relative to exercise, yoga improved HDL, suggesting that yoga is far superior to regular exercise for cardiovascular health.
Additionally, yoga plays a curative, preventive and promotive role in mental health. A growing body of research reveals that some of the most consistent and reproducible effects of the yoga practice include stress reduction, emotion regulation, improved mood and well-being, improved cognitive functioning, enhanced respiratory function, improved physical flexibility, muscular strength and neuromuscular performance. Research by John Hopkins University reveals that yoga practitioners feel increased mental and physical energy, a boost in alertness and enthusiasm, and fewer negative feelings after getting into a routine of practising yoga.
In the US, a national survey of yoga practitioners, conducted by Alyson Ross and colleagues (2013) found that yoga improved energy, happiness, social relationships, sleep, and weight. Javnbakht and colleagues (2009) examined individuals who participated in twice-a-week yoga classes of 90 min duration for two months. They reported that participation in a two-month yoga class can lead to a significant reduction in perceived levels of anxiety in women who suffer from anxiety disorders. More recently, Holger Cramer and colleagues (2013) conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on the effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women and concluded that yoga could be considered an ancillary treatment option for patients with depressive disorders and individuals with elevated levels of depression.
In a very recent development, yoga has been found to be an effective strategy for self-management of stress-related problems and well-being during Covid-19 lockdown. Pooja Swami Sahni and colleagues (2021) studied the effect of yoga practice on the illness perception and well-being of healthy adults in 4–10 weeks of lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak. A total of 668 participants were grouped as yoga practitioners, other spiritual practitioners and non-practitioners, based on their responses to daily practices that they follow. The researchers found that yoga practitioners had significantly lower depression, anxiety, stress, and higher general well-being as well as higher peace of mind than the other two groups.
There is a growing body of research on several benefits of regular yoga practice. As witnessed by research findings mentioned above, yoga is beneficial not just for physical fitness and health, but for mental well-being too. So, just like how we adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle, yoga too needs to be incorporated into our routine schedule for overall well-being. However, yoga needs to be practised under the guidance of a trained yoga instructor, especially when one is a beginner, in order to avoid injury. Also, before you start practising yoga, be mindful of a very important side effect of yoga — spirituality. Who knows, you may attain moksha unintentionally.