Yoga is like the Fountain of Youth, minus the mineral water.
While the Fountain is a mythological tale, yoga practitioners know that yoga has a way of turning back the clock. The poses, the stretches, and the breathing are all designed for health—whether that health is physical, mental, or spiritual.
Intuition can tell us that much, but did you know that science is beginning to certify those claims? So to answer the question, “Does yoga help you stay young?", here are four ways yoga keeps your body, your mind, and your spirit youthful.
Fascia. Just the word conjures up images of athletes tearing this crucial part of the body and injuring themselves for months. The root of the word fascia is Latin and means "band." It considered the “organ of form” and is the connective tissue beneath the skin. It attaches, stabilizes, and encloses muscles and other parts of our body.
It may not be surprising then to learn that yoga affects a body’s fascia. The poses, which demand stretching, holding, and transitioning, do three things for the fascia in a body:
- Increase range of movement. The right amount of yoga keeps the fascia springy.
- Reduce pain. Some researchers believe the fascia is far more susceptible to pain than muscles.
- Prevent injuries. Many injuries happen because the fascia is too tight.
- Strengthen ligament support. Fascia connects our bones and stretching strengthen
A key with fascia is hydration. Just like any other part of your body, the fascia needs water to be healthy. A healthy and hydrated fascia keeps your body healthy, flexible, and injury-free.
Gray matter is a major part of our brains and contains a complex arrangement of brain components, from synapses to capillaries. It develops in areas involved in muscle control and sensory perception.
A study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine used fMRI scans to show how yoga practice affects the brain. In the study, those who practiced yoga developed more gray matter in their brains than those who didn't. Those who practiced yoga for more hours developed even more gray matter. The areas of the brain affected and their functions include:
- The somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of the body.
- The superior parietal cortex, which is involved in directing attention.
- The hippocampus, which is implicit in short-term and long-term memory.
- The posterior cingulate cortex, which is an area key to our concept of self.
Studies have shown that certain medical conditions can reduce the amount of gray matter in the brain. One of these conditions is chronic pain. For those with this condition, researchers showed that yoga can prevent or even reverse the damage to gray matter in the brain.
Improved Vital Signs
Vital signs give a glimpse into whether your body is maintaining life-sustaining functions. The four primary vital signs are body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Yoga benefits at least three.
A recent study found that participants who practiced yoga 2-3 times per week saw a larger drop in blood pressure than participants who followed a special diet. Participants in the study had hypertension.
Other studies have shown that yoga can:
- Decrease heart rate during practice
- Synchronize and reinforce inherent cardiovascular rhythms
- Strengthen baroreflex, a homeostatic mechanism that keeps blood pressure constant
At least two yoga positions significantly improve your vitals: The Corpse Pose and Child’s Pose. Both offer the opportunity to reconnect with your breathing and allows your muscles to relax, both of which improve your health.
A Disciplined Inner Peace
20 percent. That is the number of people who live with a mental illness in the United States. And though you may think that mental illness has little to do with staying young, consider that mental illness is associated with long-term physical detriments, including obesity.
Several studies have shown that yoga has a positive effect on mental health. The Harvard Medical School has some explanations. They say yoga:
- Modulates the stress response system
- Decreases sensitivity to pain
- Allows for improvement during times of emotional distress
- Relieves symptoms of trauma
Speculation has also moved to a neurotransmitter called GABA. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system; when the brain becomes very excited, GABA cools it down. Some studies suggest that:
- Those with depression and anxiety have low levels of GABA
- GABA is correlated with an increase in mood
- Regular yoga practice releases GABA in the brain
Promising studies are analyzing specific breathing techniques for further answers.
The Fountain of Youth, Revisited
When it comes to the Fountain of Youth, everyone is searching for answers. The health industry has grown to include nutritionists and counselors, physicians and surgeons, alternative medicine and hypnosis practitioners. It is a strange crew, with patients looking for answers and sometimes not receiving the one they are looking for.
Yoga occupies a stronghold as an ancient practice that scientists are just now showing alleviates many conditions. It is not a cure-all for many, but when combined with Western medicine for even some of the most severe cases, it provides many benefits. So much so, that those who were skeptical may turn into full-time yoga enthusiasts.
From the physical to the spiritual and everywhere in-between, yoga is growing as an alternative or adjunct approach to improving significant health conditions ranging from hypertension to depression. It is an answer to that age-old mystery of the Fountain of Youth.
“Where is it?” people have asked. In ancient India, around sixth century BC, the initial teachers may have answered, “Right here.”
Image credit: Mandy Martini