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Science meets spirit – The hidden medical benefits of yoga

Tuesday, 10 September 2019   (0 Comments)
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Yoga is an ancient practice that has been through a popularity boom in recent years. Known for its ability to increase fitness and flexibility and its mental health benefits, for people who suffer from medical conditions like eczema and irritable bowel syndrome, yoga could also be their saving grace. This article previously appeared in OnMAS, the member publication of MAS.


It’s not often you associate the spiritual, calming practice of yoga with a doctor’s office or medical science. But they aren’t complete strangers. Beena Hegde has been practising medicine for more than 30 years and yoga for almost 20. She instructs two yoga classes a week at her local studio in Wellington, while also working as a general practitioner.

Beena says yoga provides an excellent complement to Western medicine for achieving overall wellness.

STRETCH TO HEAL

With the fitness industry in New Zealand worth $494 million, we see thousands of messages about the physical benefits of exercise, and that includes yoga. So we know what these benefits look like: weight loss, toning, and improved flexibility. But what are the lesser known benefits?

Beena has a hybrid perspective of overall health from being both a yoga teacher and a GP. She says there are many medical conditions traditionally thought to only be remedied by medication that the practice of yoga can hugely assist with.

“The benefits of yoga are so much more than just fitness. At its essence, yoga is the practice of connecting the body and mind, and the effect of this connection should not be disregarded when it comes to treating health issues.”

Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis that are often a result of inflammation can be made worse by stress and anxiety and, for many, there can be benefit through practising yoga with its emphasis on deep relaxation. “Ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation can also be exacerbated by stress. So if you’re stressing less, you may suffer less. Some people report the physical practice of yoga aids their digestion and eases constipation,” says Beena.

JUST BREATHE

Don’t underestimate the power of rest. Within the practice of yoga, the body is breathing deeply and concentrating on its physical form – and arriving at a deep state of relaxation. This relaxation is hugely important for a range of health reasons.

Women going through menopause may find yoga helpful in regulating hot flushes, and some reports suggest people receiving cancer treatments have found yoga helps their sleeping patterns and general sense of wellbeing.

“Anyone who is experiencing health conditions that have very up and down symptoms can benefit from long periods of relaxation. You’re forcing your body to be stable both through the muscles and the breath and that has fantastic longterm benefits.”

YOGA FOR EVERYONE

The most common obstacle to taking up yoga is the perception that the practice is only for the young and flexible. But Beena says the hesitant crowd is exactly the type of people who could benefit from yoga the most.

“I get middle-aged men saying to me ‘Oh no way, I’m not flexible I can’t do yoga’ but that’s only because they’re imagining the extreme end of the yoga spectrum – a woman balancing off the side of a mountain.

“For beginners, even the smallest movements are very beneficial.” She says a Type A person may want to partake in a fast, ‘militant style’ yoga class – but in reality, they would be better suited to a slow and calming yin yoga class.

“If you’re a fast-paced, bold and busy person, it’s natural to want a class which matches that. The thing is, you’re already living your life like that. So what you really need is a chance to reset and take a break.”

Beena says that yoga is a useful tool for people and doctors looking to deal with stress-related health concerns through an approach of overall wellbeing.

“Stress is an energy and it’s an energy that can be channelled into yoga if someone chooses that’s what they want to do. Starting anything new can be overwhelming, but when people see the results, they never regret it.”

Beena says approaching medical conditions with an overall wellbeing perspective can be a refreshing change for people who have relied solely on medication for long periods of time.

“And even for people who don’t suffer from medical conditions, incorporating yoga into [their] routine will never be a bad idea, and feeling better, physically and mentally, who wouldn’t want that?”