Yoga is one of the most underutilized and underrated medical therapies in the US. It's rare for American medical doctors to prescribe yoga-most are not knowledgeable about its wide array of health benefits.

What you may not know: More than 100 scientific studies have demonstrated that yoga can improve health problems ranging from heart disease to insomnia...diabetes to arthritis...and cancer to bronchitis.

As a medical doctor who has practiced yoga for over 12 years, I firmly believe that it is the most powerful system of overall health and wellbeing that I have ever seen. By promoting overall health, yoga increases the benefits you may derive from conventional and/or other alternative/complementary therapies—and may even eliminate your need for some medication.

What Is Yoga?

Yoga is a holistic system of exercise and controlled breathing aimed at optimizing physical and mental well-being. Developed in ancient India, yoga poses stretch all muscle groups while gently squeezing internal organs--a practice that lowers blood pressure and respiratory rate and increases cardiac efficiency.

How Yoga Helps

Studies suggest that a wide variety of health problems respond positively to yoga.

Landmark research: When 2,700 people suffering from a variety of ailments practiced yoga (for at least two hours a week for one year or longer), it helped 96% of those with back disorders...94% of those with heart disease...90% of those with cancer...90% of those with arthritis...88% of those with bronchitis or asthma...and 86% of those with diabetes.

What's responsible for all these salutary effects? Yoga, which is practiced by children as well as adults well into their 80s and 90s, helps with such a wide range of medical conditions because of its many different mechanisms of action. Yoga can…

  • Increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, and improve posture and balance.
  • Boost immunity by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing the circulation of lymph (a fluid rich in lymphocytes and other immune cells).
  • Enhance lung function by using slower and deeper breathing that promotes oxygenation of tissues
  • Strengthen bones and joints and nourish the cartilage in spinal discs by improving range of motion and helping to deliver nutrients to the cartilage.
  • Condition the heart and circulatory system, lower elevated blood sugars and artery-damaging high blood pressure...and improve levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Relieve pain due to conditions such as arthritis, back problems, fibromyalgia and carpal tunnel syndrome, by reducing muscle spasms, improving the alignment of bones in joints and teaching people to separate pain from their emotional response to the pain.
  • Heighten brain function by improving concentration, changing levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and activating an area of the brain (the left prefrontal cortex) that is correlated with reductions in anxiety and anger.

Getting The Benefits

There are a variety of ways to maximize the effectiveness and safety of yoga therapy. My advice...

  • Talk to your doctor. Certain yoga practices are not recommended for people who suffer from specific medical conditions.

Example: People who have diabetic retinopathy (damage to the retina as a result of diabetes) should avoid upside-down poses, shoulder-stand or headstand, because these poses can increase pressure on the blood vessels in the eyes.

Helpful: When you visit your doctor, bring a book with photos of yoga poses that reflect the yoga style that you are considering. Since your doctor may not be aware of all possible contraindications, be sure to also discuss your concerns with your yoga teacher.

  • Choose the right type of instruction. Yoga therapy ideally is tailored to the individual based on the evaluation of an experienced yoga teacher. While large group yoga classes can be great preventive medicine for people who are relatively fit and flexible, those with chronic medical conditions are usually better off working with a teacher privately or in a small group (two to four students). The cost of private lessons ranges from about $40 to $100 or more an hour. Group classes range from about $10 to $20 a session

Helpful: If you're not sure whether a class is right for you, call or E-mail the teacher before you attend and explain your situation. If the class doesn't fit your needs, ask for a recommendation for another class or teacher.

  • Find an experienced teacher. Some styles of yoga require teachers to undergo 200 to 500 hours of training to be certified. However, there is no universal accrediting organization."

Warning: Some yoga teachers may have completed only a weekend training course to become "certified." Before attending a yoga class, ask the instructor how long he/she trained. At least 200 hours is standard: 500 is better.)

  • Pay attention to your body. If you experience sharp pain when you do a yoga posture, stop. If you perform a breathing exercise and feel short of breath, stop. In either case, tell the teacher as soon as possible—during or after the class.
  • Practice regularly. The key to success with yoga is steady practice-once a day is ideal, even if it's only for 10 or 15 minutes. Yoga works well as part of an overall fitness program that includes aerobic exercise and strength training.

*To find a yoga instructor near you, go to the Web site of the International Association of Yoga Therapists,

Helpful: Set a goal for daily practice and make an appointment with yourself, just as you would make plans to meet a friend for lunch.

  • Be patient. Most drugs work fast, but the longer you take them, the less effective they tend to become. Yoga is not a quick fix. But the longer you practice it, the more effective it tends to become. Yoga is slow-but strong-medicine.

That doesn't mean you won't see immediate results. It's a well-known fact among yoga teachers that people starting yoga make quicker progress than people who have been practicing for a long time. Just a little bit of added flexibility, strength and balance can make a huge difference in how you function day to day-by reducing back pain, for example, or helping you climb stairs more easily.

And some yoga techniques can help you instantly in stress-provoking situations, such as getting stuck in traffic.

Example: Counting silently, inhale for three seconds and exhale for six seconds, for a single breath. Take a few normal breaths, then repeat the first sequence, breathing smoothly. In a few breaths, you should start to feel calmer.

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