Downward dog devotees swear that yoga helps them tone up and chill out—and certainly, the mind-body benefits of a regular practice have been well documented. But the ancient art of breathing paired with movement can also be a treatment for very specific health problems, both physical and emotional.
"Yoga enhances human health," says Loren Fishman, M.D., a rehabilitation specialist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University Medical Center, who studied yoga in India under world-famous yogi B.K.S. Iyengar and prescribes Iyengar yoga regularly to his patients. "Combinations and adaptations of poses bring different ways to confront different problems."
Unlike medications or high-tech physical therapy, Dr. Fishman says, yoga is inexpensive and has few negative side effects. Plus, he adds, "yoga’s asana are memorable, can be practiced on your own, and are fulfilling in truly marvelous ways." So in honor of Yoga Awareness Month, here are five common injuries, ailments, or chronic conditions for which a little "om" may help bring some relief.
Joint and muscle pain
Twice-weekly sessions of Iyengar yoga can help ease chronic lower back pain, according to a 2009 study from West Virginia University; study participants who did regular yoga also had less functional disability and fewer symptoms of depression than those who didn't.
Fishman says the pain-relieving benefits of yoga extend beyond the back, as well. "A short sequence of asana can make the disability of rotator cuff disappear forever, retraining muscles of the shoulder," he says. "Another can reverse osteoporosis, by stressing the osteocytes in bones." A 2013 study, for example, found that yoga decreased pain and stiffness and improved quality of life in women with knee osteoarthritis.
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Insomnia (and fatigue)
Anyone who's ever felt thoroughly relaxed after spending a few minutes in savasana won't be surprised to know that yoga promotes peaceful slumber. But studies show that it can even help cure insomnia in cancer survivors and women going through menopause—two groups that often suffer from chronic sleep problems.
In fact, yoga can affect energy levels in both directions, says Dr. Fishman. "Forward bends really can increase a person's calm, while back bends really can invigorate people," he says. "When driving with fatigue at night, getting out of your car and doing a few back bends is as good as a cup of coffee."
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Heart rhythm disorder
Atrial fibrillation—a common condition in which the heart's upper chambers don't contract normally—can cause dizziness, shortness of breath, and palpitations, and can raise a person's risk of heart failure. But practicing yoga at least twice a week appears to improve symptoms, according to a small 2013 study from the University of Kansas. The authors caution, however, that yoga should be added to an existing treatment plan, and should not replace a person's current medication or other therapies.
Breast cancer recovery
Yoga can't prevent or cure breast cancer, but research suggests that it can help patients manage the side effects of both the disease and its often difficult treatments, like radiation and chemotherapy. A recent study from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, for example, found that breast cancer patients who practiced up to three hours of yoga a week while undergoing radiation experienced less fatigue and a greater reduction in stress hormone levels than patients who practiced simple stretching or nothing at all.
Another study, from Ohio State University, likewise found that breast cancer survivors who took Hatha yoga classes twice a week had less fatigue and lower levels of inflammation than those who were placed on a waiting list. And in a 2009 Wake Forest University study, restorative yoga sessions helped breast cancer patients report a 50% reduction in feelings of depression and a 12% increase in feelings of peace.
High blood pressure
Doing yoga two to three times a week was associated with lower blood pressure in a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study—on average, participants' levels dropped from 133/80 (considered prehypertension) to 130/70 over a six-month period.
Physical exercise in general has been shown to lower blood pressure, says Dr. Fishman, but he believes that yoga's benefits also stem from its ability to relieve stress and boost mood. "I think the really critical healing function of yoga is uniting the physical, mental and also the spiritual elements," he says. "One should feel each of those three aspects every time one does yoga, whether using it to heal or not."
Yoga isn't automatically a cure for everything, though. "There are paradoxical reactions in yoga just as there are with medications," says Dr. Fishman. If you're interested in using yoga in conjunction with a current treatment regimen, talk with your physician first. Then, he says, "find an instructor with the experience and the empathy for your individual situation, who can inspire creative remedies." Finally, he adds, recognize that yoga, like many medical treatments, can take time to be effective. You may not feel better overnight, but eventually, your practice will pay off.