What are the Benefits of Yoga?

A long and happy life

Yoga This month we heard the sad news that the founding father of Iyengar Yoga, BSK Iyengar, passed  away aged 95.  His was a remarkable life, from a childhood struggling with poverty, malnutrition,  malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and his father’s early death, to becoming a world famous  teacher and writer with many books on yoga practice and philosophy to his name and a string of  celebrity students.

95, even these days, is a pretty good age, and it makes you wonder exactly what it was that he was doing right.  Interestingly, this coincides with a new study* which demonstrates that practicing hatha yoga (a similar form combining postures and breathing exercise) 3 times a week improved the brain function and performance of older adults.

Can Yoga improve your brain function?

The study looked at 61 adults aged between 55 and 79, comparing them with a similar control group doing stretching exercises.  The leader of the study, Goethe, believes that the focus on mind, body and breath during yoga practice means people are able to apply these skills outside of yoga, quietening their sympathetic nervous system and reducing stress levels.

It certainly seems to have worked for BSK Iyengar who was reported at age 90 doing 3 hours a day of asana practice (postures) and an hour of pranayama (breathing exercises).   He continued to have a successful and fulfilling personal and professional life until the end, and was named in 2004 by TIME magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Self-hypnosis by any other name?

This of course backs up what we already know about the benefits of a focused state of attention, turned inwards towards ourselves, or outwards towards a goal or outcome we want to come about.  What BSK Iyengar and the participants in Goethe’s study were doing is self hypnosis, although they may not have called it by that name.

Slowing down the breathing, breathing out for longer than you breathe in, activates the parasympathetic nervous system which calms us down, clears the mind and causes a reduction in harmful stress hormones as the body becomes aware that it can come down from an alert status.  You can try this from the comfort of your armchair by breathing in for  count of 7 and out for a count of 11 a few times – or whatever count is comfortable for you provided the out breath is longer than the in breath.

When you combine this with a focus on the body and what each part of it is doing – essential in yoga as you master the postures and really feel what the muscles and tendons are managing to achieve  – your attention is directed away from the everyday “noise” and you are growing new pathways in your brain, improving the function.  If yoga isn’t for you, try focusing on your toes, then your feet, then your legs, and so on up and then down again while practicing 7/11 breathing.

Resolve to try it yourself

There’s no doubt yoga has real benefits for the body and the brain, and they are essentially the same as we see in self-hypnosis.  So the message is – yoga might not be for you (although your body might be better if it’s your thing!) but you can get huge benefits if you practice directing your attention and controlling your breathing.  Give it a go!

To quote American actress Ali MacGraw: “It’s been my experience that the longer I do yoga, the more I want to know, the more I am able to understand and the less judgmental I am.”


*Goethe et al, 2014


August 2014

Blog written by Rebecca Welch

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