A yoga body isn’t just about bendy limbs, the ancient practice can improve memory, heart and bone health, says Anna Magee
We’ve become a nation obsessed with downward dogs and cat cows. Brits are now spending a staggering £790 million a year on yoga classes.
In fact, while on one hand yoga seems to get weirder by the day – new hybrids include rage or naked yoga, poses done on paddleboard or horseback (seriously) and even dog yoga – on the other its real benefits are being increasingly proven by science.
UCLA researchers have found a three-month course of yoga and meditation was more effective than memory exercises for minimizing age-related brain impairment while another found it could improve sleep in breast cancer survivors.
a three month course of yoga was more effective than memory exercises for minimising age-related brain changes
When Lucy Edge, 53, a former advertising executive fell into a deep depression she opted for yoga instead of the anti-depressants she was prescribed. ‘I took a six month career break and travelled to India to learn yoga and though I failed to get the yoga goddess body I came back happier and with a sense of contentment I had never felt before,’ Edge remembers. She’s since written three books about yoga and founded Yoga Meds, a section of her website Yogaclicks.com that lists over 300 clinical trials for yoga’s benefits for everything from arthritis to insomnia and obesity.
‘Yoga was so beneficial for my depression, I wanted to tell the world about its joys. But as the daughter of a scientist [Lucy’s late father was Professor Gordon Edge, creator of the Cambridge Cluster] I didn’t want to make mad claims, I wanted evidence and found so much of it for yoga,’ Lucy remembers.
Here are some ways yoga could benefit your health, plus how to get started (stretched lycra optional):
Yoga body benefit #1: It will increase your memory
If crossword puzzles and Sodoku have been the extent of your memory training to now, it could be time to sharpen up your warrior pose.
The UCLA research took brain scans and memory tests comparing the effects of 12 weeks of memory exercises and a course of yoga and meditation on 25 adults over 55. The latter not only had better improvements in their spatial and visual memories, but also more reduced depression and anxiety and increased resilience to stress.
‘Although this study is small, it suggests that we should be doing more research into the benefits of yoga and meditation as additional ways to keep our hearts and brains in good health as we age,’ said Dr Clare Walton of the Alzheimer’s Society.
Try it: There’s no need for hours and hours of headstands to benefit. In this study, participants did one hour of Kundalini yoga a week. This is a gentle form of yoga that incorporates breathing techniques, meditation and some chanting of mantras. The latter will feel silly at first but can be easier than other forms of meditation.
In fact, the study participants also did 20 minutes daily of Kirtan Kriya, a type of meditation involving chanting, hand movements and visualization of light. You can order a copy of a 12 minute Kirtan Kriya mediation CD for $20US from the US Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation alzheimersprevention.org/Cart/. Find a Kundalini yoga teacher at kundaliniyoga.org.uk
Yoga body benefit #2: It will improve your heart
We’re often told to plod the pavement with walking or jogging for the health of our hearts, but a large body of evidence suggests a more gentle yoga option may be just the ticket. In 2014, a systematic review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology showed that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise such as brisk walking.
Stress is a big contributor to heart disease and stress hormones raise both blood pressure and heart rate, increasing the likelihood of blood clots, which is why reducing stress through yoga can help.
‘The benefits of yoga on emotional health are well established, it has been shown to help with anxiety, stress and depression, conditions which affect many people who have suffered a cardiac event or have undergone cardiac surgery,’ says Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation.
‘Previous research has shown that practising yoga is associated with some improvement in blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, which are all risk factors for heart disease.’
Try it: Charlotte Watts, yoga teacher, nutritional therapist and author of The De-Stress Effect (Hay House £12.99) has created a stress-reducing series of gentle yoga poses outlined in the book, that is perfect for beginners to get started.
Another great way to reduce stress is to practice Restorative yoga, suggests Anna Ashby, a senior teacher (and teacher-trainer) at Triyoga Studios in London (triyoga.co.uk). ‘Postures are supported on bolsters and cushions and held for up to 12 minutes,’ she explains. ‘This gives the nervous system a break and is like a fast-track to stress reduction.’
Yoga body benefit #3: It will help your back, muscles and bones
Sarah Shone is a musculoskeletal physiotherapist and yoga teacher that was so convinced of yoga’s benefits that she developed classes which she later incorporated into the Primary Care Trust’s rehabilitation programme for back pain. A staggering 87 per cent of participants reported a reduction in their pain.
National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines include yoga and stretching as a useful form of exercise for lower back pain but Shone says its benefits go deeper and is now aiming to train more physiotherapists in using yoga in their clinical work with this age group.
Yoga has also been shown to help keep incontinence at bay because it specifically targets the muscles of the pelvic floor, along with other muscles in the body and is weight-bearing so can help increase bone density. ‘Plus, it can be adapted in so many ways to make it accessible for all.’
Try it: ‘If you’re just getting started, tell your teacher about any health problems and choose a style such as Hatha or Iyengar that is more gentle, rather than some of the stronger more flowing or ‘power’ versions, at least to begin with,’ Shone suggests. ‘If you have a specific condition such as back pain, talk to your doctor to see if you’re eligible for a course of subsidised yoga on the exercise referral scheme’.
YOGA – What works for what?
Not flexible? No problem – whether you’re bendy or not yoga will help. Here’s what to choose.
I want: SLEEP
Try: Yin or Restorative yoga classes, usually done under candelight with the support of blankets, cushions and bolsters.
I want: WEIGHT LOSS
Try: A Vinyasa Flow class which is energetic and tends to link postures to breath in a dance-like sequence. Don’t be afraid if you’re a beginner as moves can be adapted, but do tell the teacher.
I want: MUSCLE TONE
Try: Iyengar yoga, a precise style of yoga that holds poses for up to 20 breaths and focuses on the alignment and detail of each posture. Also great for beginners as it uses props to help you get into poses.
I want: BETTER MOOD
Try: Anusara yoga, a modern form of yoga originating in LA that focuses on alignment but with flowing movements often done to upbeat music. You can’t not feel better afterwards.
I want: PAIN RELIEF
Try: Yoga Therapy, a specific type of yoga practiced by teachers trained to use yoga to help heal injury or illness.
June 21st is International Yoga Day
Find an accredited yoga teacher at websites such as British Wheel of Yoga or yogaalliance.co.uk
Lucy Edge’s latest book Down Dog Billionaire is available to buy on Amazon.
If you’ve always wanted to make money from your healthy passion, Healthista’s upcoming Health To Wealth event is your chance to learn how to grow – or even just start – your side hustle into a business.
Healthista have teamed up with luxury hotel brand Pullman Hotels & Resorts to launch a new wellness entrepreneurship-focused initiative and event – Health To Wealth – to help budding start-ups bring their businesses to life.
The live event will see Healthista readers, consumers, influencers, media and businesspeople alike, come together to share and learn.
During the event, selected early-stage health businesses and ideas will be put to the test Dragon’s Den-style before a panel of industry experts including BBC Dragon – and Healthista investor – Touker Suleyman.
When: June 13th, 2019
Where: The Shaw Theatre, Pullman London St Pancras, 100-110 Euston Road, King’s Cross, London, NW1 2AJ
Tickets: £15 from this link. Entry price includes a wellbeing goodie bag worth over £50.
On the night
Successful entrepreneurs from all areas of wellness including nutrition, fitness, and fashion will take part in a panel discussion focused on sharing their experience, tips and tricks for starting and growing a business in the wellness space.
This will be followed by a Dragon’s Den-style format, inviting up-and-coming wellness entrepreneurs to pitch for support to further the success of their own businesses.
The Health To Wealth entrepreneur’s panel includes:
Touker Suleyman, BBC Dragon, multi-millionaire behind brands including Finery, Ghost and Hawes & Curtis and Healthista investor.
Emlyn Brown, Vice-President Well-Being, Luxury and Premium Brands at Accor Hotels.
Ashley Verma, founder of London’s barre fitness studio DEFINE London.
Anna Magee, Healthista Editor and CEO and multi-award winning health journalist.
Charing the panel will be Anni Hood, co-founder and chief executive at Well Intelligence – a research, insights and market evidence platform aimed at helping wellbeing businesses grow.
Tickets to join the audience to learn from the successes and hurdles overcome by the panel of speakers are £15 per person and available to purchase from here.