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 and yoga mats.
In fact, while on one hand yoga seems to get weirder by the day – new hybrids include rage or naked yoga, poses done on paddle-board 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 minimising 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 Sudoku 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 visualisation of light.
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.
yoga may help lower heart disease risk
‘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, 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.
‘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’.
Looking for the perfect yoga mat?
Whether you’re new to yoga or a practise pro, good yoga props can make all the difference when it comes to perfecting your flow.
With an overwhelming amount of yoga mats to choose from, when it comes to finding the best one for you, there are a few things you may want to consider before making a purchase.
Firstly, you need to think about where your mat is going to live. Is it going to be in your living room or rolled up by the front door? If you plan to have it out on display then it should look the part and promise durability.
It is worth investing in a thicker yoga mat that will protect your joints
Do you need to carry it with you everyday? If so, you’ll need to make sure your mat isn’t too heavy and that you have a comfortable strap for easy transport.
You also need to consider how tall you are. If you are a slightly taller yogi, you’ll want a mat that is longer so you are easily able to move through your yoga sequence without feeling restricted.
One last thing to consider is the thickness of your mat. Many people tend to suffer from knee or wrist pain when practising yoga. It is worth investing in a thicker yoga mat that will protect your joints and provide more cushion for a comfortable practice.
With all this in mind Healthista recommends this eye-catching Elephant Cork Yoga mat from Valka Yoga, £69.95.
Eco-friendly, versatile and made from organic cork and natural rubber, the mat is 100 percent renewable and recyclable.
Not only that but Valka Yoga promises to plant a tree for every order – so you can relax into your cobra pose knowing you’re doing your bit for the planet too!
Featuring a stunning elephant design, this yoga mat wont look out of place in a living room or bedroom.
Plus, at 3mm thick, the natural rubber base provides padding and comfort for your joints, knees and wrists even in the most demanding postures.
Cork is naturally antimicrobial and odour resistant
The good thing about cork is that it is great for those who sweat as cork becomes grippier when wet. Hot yoga for the win then. And the best part? Cork is naturally antimicrobial and odour resistant – bonus.
Each yoga mat comes with a carry strap and is backed by a 15 day money back guarantee as well as a one year replacement warranty.
This Valka yoga block in matching elephant design, £19.95 will be a brilliant addition to your yoga practice. It looks so great that you won’t mind having out on a bookshelf!
A yoga block will make moving into more difficult poses a little easier by helping to add extra length if you’re struggling to reach the ground in certain poses.
Although not as lightweight as a foam yoga block, cork blocks are often a popular choice as they are beneficial when it comes to stability and provide more grip.
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 candlelight 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.
Lucy Edge’s latest book Down Dog Billionaire is available to buy on Amazon.