How does yoga change your body?

Yoga: The positive power of yoga

With asanas, breathing and meditation techniques, yoga can have positive effects on the body and mind. Used in psychotherapy, yoga can help reduce anxiety and have a beneficial effect on depression. More effectiveness studies and quality-assured yoga teacher training courses are important.

The popularity and worldwide spread of yoga can be noted with astonishment. With a more intensive occupation, many facets of yoga open up. This is not surprising, because yoga is said to be 5,000 years old, comes from India and has undergone many changes over time.

The term “yoga” has been associated with very different physical and mental exercises in order to achieve improvements in fitness, physical aesthetics, health and self-realization in esoteric terms. Thus, the transnational community of yoga practitioners is by no means a homogeneous group (1).

There is a lot of literature on yoga. The publisher Via Nova should be mentioned as an example, which has been publishing important works for many years: Eckard Wolz-Gottwald deals with central topics of yoga philosophy in his yoga philosophy atlas (2). The Professional Association of German Yoga Teachers (3) has published a comprehensive manual. The most important yoga postures were described in the basic exercise book “Theory and Practice of Hatha Yoga” (4). Anna Trökes guides 40 meditations in her book (5). Another standard work can be called “The Great Yoga Book” by Anna Trökes (6).

Asanas - breath - meditation

Yoga is primarily associated with exercise in public, then perhaps with breathing exercises and meditation. If you look at the prevalence of yoga, it is the physical exercises (asanas) that are mainly performed and that caused the boom. The asana practice in its current form is not at all old, some asanas were only developed in the last 100 years. Occasionally the practice of yoga is reduced too much to the asana practice and the other important components are not seen. The asana practice should always be about breathing work and focusing attention.

Yoga also has other essential components. In addition to the asana practice, the breathing practice (pranayama) and meditation should be mentioned. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a widely accepted foundation of yoga practice, the eight-part yoga path is set out. Processes of awareness and self-awareness also play an important role here. The principle of self-study (sadhyaya) is very essential because it underlies the ability of yoga to heal (7).

Broads suggestions

Although there may be better accounts of the historical development of yoga, the New York science journalist William J. Broad (8) tells of the fundamental transformation of yoga. It shows that yoga used to belong to lonely mystics, was an obscure cult and was endowed with a strong erotic component, while in the modern direction health and fitness dominate. Science also played an important role in this change (in the last few decades): The researchers uncovered natural explanations for the apparent miracle effects of yoga. Thus a secular doctrine was created that was about wellbeing.

Broads book sparked an ongoing discussion because it elaborates on the risk of injury in yoga. For example, severe neck stretching, stretching and rotation can lead to serious permanent injuries and impairments (including strokes). For this purpose, the headstand, the shoulderstand, the extended side angle, the triangle and the plow were identified as risky postures. The author notes that after his research he no longer practices the plow and shoulder stand. Despite all the criticism, Broad states that the advantages of yoga clearly outweigh the disadvantages.

The shoulder bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) is backbend and inverted posture in one and is also well suited for beginners. Photo: iStockphoto

Because there are different styles of yoga, the goal can be formulated to establish a yoga practice that excludes or minimizes risks. As a rule, the practitioner cannot sense the threat of chronic damage from a particular yoga practice. When pain and damage have set in, it is usually too late. Practitioners need to know about the possible damage and thus avoid it. Thus the trainers also have a special responsibility.

About myths and yoga

Not all knowledge that is passed on in yoga can be recognized as true. It is more often found that this particular exercise helps with a specific illness, or that the headstand improves cerebral blood flow. These statements are not correct. An interesting individual finding: Sarah Strauss and Laura Mandelbaum (9) deny those who criticize yoga as a withdrawal into the self and show yoga practitioners from three continents that they relate their personal yoga practice to a fundamental moral stance of anti-consumerism and an orientation towards the protection of the environment. Yoga has many positive effects, but contrary to overrated yoga fitness claims, it is not a substitute for endurance exercise. The practice of yoga is not tied to a specific religious practice such as Buddhism. Nevertheless, yoga is by no means free of values, but sets ethical standards.

Yoga and Medicine

The connection between the millennia-old yoga practice and new scientific knowledge is exciting. For example, yoga has been found to be beneficial for cardiovascular health or to increase the amount of antioxidants in the blood. Yoga exercises are often done in groups and aim to improve overall well-being with their effects on the whole person. In the tradition of the yoga teacher Krishnamacharya, yoga is also used therapeutically. T. K. V. Desikachar and B. K. S. Iyengar are important pioneers in this direction.

In yoga therapy, the complaints reported by the patient, for example long-lasting back pain, are specifically and individually addressed. The doctors Imogen Dalman and Martin Soder work out an exercise program (a course) with their clients in a one-to-one session (10). The “prescribed” yoga exercises are recorded on a log sheet that the patient takes home. The course is clearly structured, for example there are six exercises that are numbered consecutively. The positions are recorded, the breathing directions and how often the exercise should be performed. In addition to the stick figures, there is space for explanations, for example that the arms should only be raised as much as possible without pain. When the patient comes to the next session, experiences and changes will be discussed, and possibly the first course will be modified and a course b introduced. The therapist's creativity is required when designing a new course. From small observations, new and effective exercise variants emerge in the yoga sessions.

Yoga therapy can be used for special complaints. With the practice of asanas, yoga can not only be effective muscle training, but also have a positive effect on all physical and mental systems with its three components.

Yoga and psychology

The health effects of yoga have been scientifically investigated for some time. Mood and metabolism studies that have been carried out for many years have shown that yoga works very well in balancing out the ups and downs of the emotional life, and thus yoga can be seen as an excellent mood enhancer. Amy Weintraub has described overcoming her depression with the help of yoga (11). There is now extensive research on the effects of yoga and a multitude of results.

For some years now, psychologists have also been increasingly concerned with yoga and try to make it fruitful for their work. Ulrich Ott is a graduate psychologist who has also been involved scientifically with yoga for a long time. In his new book "Yoga for Skeptics" (12) he familiarizes people extensively with yoga. In the course of his presentations, he suggests 50 exercises to the readers and enables theorists to gain practical experience. "Yoga is generally practiced every day" writes the well-known US "back doctor" Loren Fishman (12) and thus names the basis of yoga: one's own, independent and regular exercise practice.

Amy Weintraub has dealt with the integration of yoga practice into psychotherapy (7). What is particularly positive about her approach is that she looks at all of yoga. With her book she provides a compendium for therapists with exercises that are based on yoga and aim to positively change moods in particular. These exercises are not asanas - so no yoga mat is required - but exercises and strategies that yogis have used for thousands of years to balance their physical and mental systems. Weintraub shows mudras, mantras and breathing exercises as well as imagination and affirmation work and meditations (also yoga nidra) to have a positive effect on mood, reduce anxiety and have a positive effect on depression.

Yoga is a complex, multifaceted system from which components can be applied according to one's own needs. This self-determined application and positive emotional and health experiences could be reasons for the great approval that yoga is receiving today. In order to become an even stronger force in health care, as Broad (8) suggests, yoga must be more closely aligned with science, with clinical trials and professional qualification and licensing processes. The first step in addressing the lack of reliable information about yoga is to make trustworthy information widely available. For Germany, it can be said that training courses to become yoga teachers differ greatly in terms of quality, orientation and duration and that yoga practitioners are well advised to find out about the training and further training of their yoga teachers.

Joachim Koch

@Literature on the Internet:

Hauser B (Ed.): Yoga Traveling. Bodily Practice in Transcultural Perspective. Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2013. CrossRef
Wolz-Gottwald E: Yoga Philosophy Atlas. 3rd edition, Verlag Via Nova 2002.
Professional Association of German Yoga Teachers (Hrsg.): The way of yoga. Handbook for practitioners and teachers. 7th edition, Via Nova 2000.
Tatzky B, Trökes A, Pinter-Neise J: Theory and Practice of Hatha Yoga. 4th edition, Verlag Via Nova 1989.
Trökes A: Yoga meditation for beginners. 2nd edition, Publisher Via Nova 2010a
Trökes A: The great yoga book. 4th edition, Gräfe and Unzer 2010b.
Weintraub A: Yoga Skills for Therapists. Effective Practices for Mood Management. W. W. Norton & Company 2012.
Broad WJ: The Science of Yoga. What it promises - and what it can do. Herder Verlag 2013.
Strauss S, Mandelbaum L: Consuming Yoga, Conserving the Environment: Transcultural Discourses on Sustainable Living. In: Hauser, 2013.
Dalmann I, Soder M: Why Yoga: About Practice, Concepts and Backgrounds, Berlin: Iveka Verlag 2012.
Weintraub A: Yoga for Depression. Broadway Books 2004.
Ott U: Yoga for skeptics. O. W. Barth Verlag 2013.
Fishman L, Ardman C: Yoga for Back Pain. W. W. Northon & Company 2012.