Why yoga works: An overview and update for healthcare professionals

Yoga research has grown exponentially in recent years, and with it a more complete understanding of why yoga is beneficial for both clinical and healthy populations. 

In a recently published article in Yoga Therapy Today, Laura Schmalzl, PhD, and Marlysa Sullivan, DPT, C-IAYT, offer an overview of the mechanisms behind yoga practices’ effects. 

“The importance of understanding these frameworks and mechanisms can be seen in how we apply yoga practices in client care,” the authors explain. “A biomedical application of yoga would be to look at how movement can be used solely for physical health, breathing practices for relaxation, and meditation for attention or emotion regulation. However, knowledge of the underlying mechanisms can empower us to describe, demonstrate, and apply the practices synergistically for whole-person health and well-being. It also allows us to make a case for the unique and necessary role of yoga therapy in integrative healthcare.”

Schmalzl and Sullivan list five mechanisms underlying the components of yoga practice, plus reference robust research that demonstrates each mechanism’s efficacy. These five mechanisms include

  • movement,
  • breath,
  • attention/concentration,
  • psychosocial elements, and
  • spirituality/meaning and purpose.

Additionally, the authors explain the mechanisms that link these various aspects of practice—including regulation of allostatic load and polyvagal theory

“Yoga practice is intrinsically tailored to promote vagal tone and reduce allostatic load in several ways. First, slow and rhythmic breathing (especially when performed with increased airway resistance) promotes activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and increases HRV. Second, yoga postures often enhance the depth of the breath (e.g., active expansions and contractions of the rib cage during back or forward bends), thus boosting the effects of the breathing practices themselves. Third, postures that emphasize abdominal tone through interior muscle activation additionally promote peripheral vagal stimulation and afference. Fourth, attempting to maintain a slow and steady breathing rhythm during physical, mental, and emotional challenges elicited by the yoga practice itself represents an opportunity to practice nonreactive awareness and cultivate a state of equanimity in the face of stress.”

Read the full article in the Spring 2022 issue of Yoga Therapy Today here.

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