Yoga continues to surprise with potential health benefits – Commercial Appeal

I began one of the longest days of the year with a sun salutation — a mountain pose, the lunge, the downward dog, the plank pose, baby cobra, child’s pose, powerful pose (essentially a squat) and back -to-the-mountain pose. June 21, the day close to the summer solstice, has been proclaimed as International Yoga Day by the United Nations.

Although yoga is an ancient practice of the East, watching thousands of people in New York City’s Times Square doing downward dog is telling of yoga’s popularity and acceptance in the West and a bit humorous. As many as 36 million Americans practice yoga — more than the number of people who play golf.

I am by far not an avid yoga practitioner, but I am constantly surprised by scientific studies that show its benefits. Recently, the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease published a study about what I and many of my over-50 colleagues are challenged by: recalling names, finding where we put our car keys and remembering what we had for lunch.

We know that exercise, dance, and even gardening can lower the risk of dementia and memory loss when compared to a sedentary life. But the researchers wondered what impact does yoga have on the brain?

In this study, 29 individuals over age 55, who were anxious about their memory and had mild cognitive impairment, possibly reflective of early dementia, were divided into two groups. One received the standard aggressive brain-training program for one hour per week in the classroom with recommended 15 minutes of exercise each day. Training included cognitive strategies for improving memory such as mnemonics, word or name repetition, visual imagery and categorization.

The other group received one hour of yoga and meditation instructions with guidance to practice 15 minutes each day. The yoga included exercises with hands and body along with sound repetition and meditation. After 12 weeks, the two groups were retested and rescanned.

While both groups performed better on many of the thinking tests, the yoga group was less depressed, had a better mood, and had better balance depth perception (which decreases the risk of falls). Also, the brain scan of the yoga group showed more connectivity between the parts of the brain that control attention. It was as if yoga was augmenting the traditional brain training program outcomes without adding more time for the exercises.

The findings were a total surprise to the researches, who admit that the mechanisms by which yoga impacts the body and the brain are still a mystery. However, they stipulate it may be a combination of stress and anxiety reduction.

Celebrities and politician alike have taken up yoga in a big way. Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga and Britney Spears all practice yoga as do former House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Bob Corker. Michelle Obama organizes a yoga session on the south lawn during the Easter Egg roll, which I have attended.

But it is not the celebrity backing, but scientific backing which has led Medicare and health insurance plans to cover yoga as part of cardiac rehabilitation or a wellness plan.

So if you haven’t tried yoga, it may be worth adding a sun salutation to the routine of a long summer day. One in three Americans said they were very likely or somewhat likely to try yoga for the first time in 2016.

The survey found that 34 percent of Americans or 80 million people said they would try yoga in 2016.

Source: Commercial Appeal

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