Yoga from a scientific perspective – for a sustainable body, mind, and community

07 september 2022 | Av Sara Hoy f.d. Ström

How can yoga help us to find our way towards restful states and to move our bodies? I will tell you more about yoga’s benefits and what the research says.


Pockets of time where we can catch our breath

Whatever happened to margins, air in the schedule, and our perspectives on tempo? In our modern society, in the chase for efficiency and performance, we quite often find ourselves with packed schedules ready to burst. We seem to somehow have removed the margins, those pockets of time where we can catch our breath and relax. Not only have we built away moments for doing ‘nothing’, moments of physical movement also seem to have gotten lost.

The question I will address here is, how can yoga help us to find our way towards restful states and to move our bodies? I will tell you more about yoga’s benefits and what the research says.

Yoga as a support for physical and mental health (challenges)

Yoga is unique. It is unique in the way that it contains both movement and rest, two things that many of us lack today. This is true from us as individuals, bur also for our society. We have built away getting between places through movement, we have built away the margins in our schedules that would have given us recovery. To mention a few.

Although our health has generally improved over the past 100 years, with increased life expectancy and fewer deaths and infectious diseases, we face other problems. Challenges we face are all the years that we live but with reduced health and function. Today, it is (too) common to be struggling with mental illness such as depression, stress and fatigue, pain e.g. It is easy to think that it does not concern you or me, but most likely you will have already experienced something of the mentioned yourself, or have had someone close to you who has. When challenges like this hit you or your loved ones, it can be very helpful to have wellness and coping strategies at hand.

Fortunately, I think we as communities are starting to realize that many are facing these challenges, and we now know that we can do something about it. But then, what can we do? Yoga might be the answer.

What is yoga?

In order to be able to answer what yoga ’works for’, let's for a moment concretize what we mean by yoga. Even though yoga can take many shapes and forms, within the (medical) scientific landscape, yoga can be described, mainly, as having the following four components:

  • Low-intensity form of physical activity
  • Relaxation
  • Breath
  • Meditation

When researchers investigate the reason why we engage in yoga, it is mainly two reasons that come up:

  • For wellbeing and to prevent ill-health.
  • To take care of pre-existing health problems such as depression, exhaustion, pain, and anxiety.

Reserach shows effects from breathing exercises and meditation

  • When you have two minutes to spare:
    Some researchers investigated the effect of slow breathing on a group of yoga beginners. By breathing slowly for two minutes, both blood pressure and the experience of anxiety were lowered. The likely mechanism behind the effect is increased activation of the calming part of the nervous system. Exciting news, as a large percentage of us walk around with high blood pressure, much due to our lifestyles with a lack of physical activity and stress management.
  • When you want to sleep better:
    The hours of sleep in the day are your most important restorer. The hormone melatonin is an important regulator in the body to stimulate sleep. Some researchers, therefore, wanted to investigate melatonin levels in connection with meditation. A small group of experienced meditators meditated with different techniques, one group meditated for 30 minutes with one technique and another for 60 minutes with another. The meditation took place at midnight just before melatonin levels are at their peak. Blood samples were taken once an hour to measure levels, between 10 pm and 2 am. Another night the same things were measured but without the meditation to check for any differences in levels. Both groups got increased levels of melatonin the night they meditated. The researchers, therefore, theorized about how this effect can positively affect sleep. Most likely, meditation can be practiced at any time of the day, depending on the effect you want to achieve. So you don't necessarily have to meditate in the morning, or at midnight.

The effects of yoga compared to other physical activity

The calmer components of yoga can thus have a positive effect on things that have a strong connection to our health. However, most research that has been done on yoga involves yoga's physical activity components of some kind.

So how does yoga compare to other physical activity? This is something that is currently being researched intensively. As an example, one of the largest studies conducted on mild and moderate depression was conducted in Sweden, where several hundred participants took part. Three training groups (yoga, and two other cardio training groups) performed their training three times a week for 60 minutes, for a total of 12 weeks. That study showed that yoga produced the same effect as moderate- and high-intensity cardio exercise on lowering the level of depression, in particular compared to usual treatment.

In summary, yoga reminds us to move the body we were given and it can make us aware of how it feels at the moment. Yoga also reminds us to slow down, and pace the outer tempo with our inner tempo.

Yoga in the future

Change is inevitable, but which direction change takes can often be influenced by the actions we and our communities choose to take.

I believe that we have to start to rethink how we construct our schedules in the present moment, and for the future. In politics, at workplaces, at schools, in our residential areas, and at home. Building sustainable practices and communities means bringing back the margins and pockets of space in our schedules to do nothing, as well as for opportunities to move and relax. To create opportunities for yoga. As individuals, we must show that we want change through the choices we make on a daily basis. We must be the role models we want others to be for us. For ourselves, but above all, for others. It is something we can do together. Every small change matter, because it accumulates into something bigger. Our vision about the future begins right now, in this exact moment, through action. I guess next question is: what will your next step be?

Foto: Malin Wittig, copywright Bonnier Fakta (top image)

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Refereces:

Sara Hoy f.d. Ström

Sara is the yoga teacher who is passionate about the study of motion and conscious presence. Her vibrant personality and wide knowledge of the body and how it works makes her a true inspirer.

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