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Yoga is Leading the Exercise World in Health Benefits

Yesterday, I taught my first #vinyasa class for the local yoga studio, about a year after I took my very first yoga class. I had embraced a great deal of inner work in therapy following a few traumatic years and was feeling ready to begin my physical #transformation. Immediately my soul felt at home in the yoga studio so I signed up for a teacher's training course, more-so because I wanted to really dive into learning yoga. I hadn't anticipated the continued emotional and mental transformation it would offer me. I wrote about that experience here if you'd like to read more.

A growing body of research #evidence supports the belief that certain yoga techniques may improve physical and mental health through down-regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the #sympathetic nervous system (SNS). If you are familiar with functional medicine, you may be familiar with the term "adrenal fatigue." We don't really use this term anymore, as it isn't entirely physiologically correct, so more-so we are using the term "HPA axis dysfunction." Many of you, as well as myself, are sufferers of dysfunction in this area and are living in a more #sympathetic dominant state. This is a sort of fight-or-flight state, but let's not forget the #freeze state which is also very sympathetic dominant.

When we live in a sympathetic state, as the result of chronic #stress or disease, we are sort of in a place of constant triggering. Often these folks feel especially responsive, whether that results in fear, anger, or melt-downs, they are always a little close to the surface. I would say over-whelm was my rather constant feeling but I reassured myself that just after the next goal, all would be well. I was always chasing that next goal. When our HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) are triggered, a cascade of physiologic, behavioral, and psychologic effects occur, primarily as the result of #cortisol and catecholamine release (epinephrine and norepinephrine) occur. This effort is so the body can mobilize energy to combat our stressors; the body just doesn't know if we are dealing with finances or a saber tooth tiger.

Over time, this constant hypervigilence, resulting from constant firing of your fight-or-flight response via the sympathetic nervous system, can lead to dysregulation within the system and ultimately, #obesity, #diabetes, autoimmune disorders, #depression, substance #abuse, and cardiovascular disease. Cortisol, one of the hormones released during these triggers, causes us to ignore the need for a healthy bedtime routine and it leads to central obesity by depositing fat around our organs.

Yoga has a Down-Regulating Effect

Numerous studies have now demonstrated that yoga has profound effects on down-regulating our sympathetic nervous system and our HPA-axis response to stress. Yoga has shown to decrease our cortisol levels, our blood #glucose, and our norephinephrine and epinephrine levels (stress hormones). It has also demonstrated a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. Most reassuring, yoga has also demonstrated an ability to reverse the negative impact of stress on the immune system by increasing levels of immunoglobulin A12 as well as our natural killer cells. Markers of inflammation such as high sensitivity C-reactive protein and inflammatory cytokines, interleukin-6 and lymphocyte-1B, are also reduced by yoga.

What we know from this literature is that yoga does offer an immediate quieting effect on the SNS/HPA axis, and although it isn't entirely clear how, it has been hypothesized that particular asanas shift the nervous system into more of a #parasympathetic nervous state, possibly via direct #vagal stimulation. Regardless, the immediate psychologic results have been exceptional. Among those are decreased anxiety, less depression, improved obsessive-compulsive disorder, and improved schizophrenia symptoms, as well as an increase in feelings of emotional, social, and #spiritual well-being. When exercise and yoga are evaluated against each other for its effects on schizophrenia, both showed significant improved, but yoga was by far the winner.

Yoga appears to be superior to exercise in relieving certain symptoms associated with #diabetes, multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, and #schizophrenia. Both exercise and yoga have demonstrated, in a number of studies, ability to lower fasting blood sugars and LDL #lipids when performed once a week for six months, alongside additional yoga and exercise while at home. Results for those with kidney disease were significant improved with regards to pain and fatigue, but even labs were improved. Pregnancy and menopause are positively impacted by yoga. In research exclusively on healthy individuals, yoga has been shown to be effective as or superior to exercise on nearly every outcome measured. Hormones identifying stress have been measured in both yoga groups and exercise groups, and only present in those opting for exercise. It seems both improve mood, but affect the HPA axis differently.

Given the fact that yoga is far more complex than a more simple exercise program, including aspects of exercise (the asanas), as well as breath work (pranayama), concentration (Dharana), and meditation (Dyana), it is not surprising that researchers have found positive results regarding yoga in so many diverse areas. Yoga clearly appears to have multidimensional effects on brain chemistry and this warrants further study. Interestingly, the positive effects yoga has on one's mindset may contribute to improved changes in eating habits and improve body mass index when compared to exercises that may offer greater caloric loss.

Yoga is Our Winner

Overall, studies comparing yoga and exercise lean far more heavily in support of yoga being the superior option for both healthy people and those with disease. It has demonstrated both objective and subjective improvements in mood and health, and even how our bodies manage stress. If you would like to try a beginner yoga, join me on Wednesday evenings at the Indiana Yoga Studio in Lebanon at 5:30pm. Currently we are meeting at the park to avoid the need to wear #masks within the studio (pandemic days).

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