Yoga: Therapy for lifestyle diseases

By Santiago Buompadre

Lifestyle is now the main driver of mortality and morbidity in the world. In other words, our habits, activities, and how we treat ourselves have become the primary reasons for early death and chronic illness.

Yoga offers a wide variety of practices that contribute to overall well-being, which at the same time provides a measure of prevention against noncommunicable, lifestyle-related diseases. Therapies, like yoga, that address the functional links among mind, brain, and body can be especially effective to support the symptoms associated with many chronic, lifestyle-driven diseases. 

The power of mind-body therapies

The basic principle of mind-body therapies is that all parts of us—emotional, cognitive, social, spiritual, experiential, and behavioral factors—affect our physiology. Our emotional, cognitive, and physiological systems are intimately interrelated, and they communicate continuously. This understanding has profound implications for how to address disease and illness, and for yoga therapy’s place in healthcare and healing support.

Advances in medical research show increasingly clearly how bidirectional interactions between the brain and other parts of the body, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous, and immune systems, contribute to mental and physical health. We now know, for example, that a two-way street between psychological stress and inflammation contributes to chronic conditions such as heart disease.* 

Learning the skill of self-regulation

Yoga can influence these pathways because the practice emphasizes the integration of self-regulatory processes across all body systems. As yoga practice awakens awareness of physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions, practitioners naturally become more able to take an active role in their health. They may learn, for example, to relax voluntarily, to experience physical sensations more deeply, to follow complex thinking, or to achieve more subtle movement patterns and work with less effort. This active and participative awareness is part of all body-mind disciplines, and it’s how we can regulate emotions through work in the body and vice versa. 

The body cannot function in a state of emergency (stress) for long periods without increased vulnerability to disease. Yoga practices teach people the skill of being able to voluntarily create the relaxation response that comes with activating the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. Yoga therapy provides individualized strategies for learning how to manage stress in ways that do not increase this vulnerability to illness, which is good medicine against lifestyle diseases.

*See, for example, “Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the lifespan.”

Santiago Buompadre, MD, is a clinical psychologist and university professor with a master’s degree in psycho-neuro-immuno-endocrinology. He has practiced and studied yoga and meditation since 2001 and runs a mind-body training center in Buenos Aires.

This post is adapted from an article in the Summer 2023 issue of Yoga Therapy Today magazine.