Practice Your Downward Facing Dog

By Temma Ehrenfeld and Sherry Baker @temmaehrenfeld
April 28, 2022
Practice Your Downward Facing Dog

The ancient practice of yoga to calm and focus your body and mind can help you manage a chaotic modern life. Here's what the research says about yoga.

It may seem odd that ancient practices are becoming increasingly popular — but people are increasingly spending their free time sitting still and breathing deeply, or balancing on their hands in the “down dog” yoga pose.

The number of Americans who practice yoga has soared since 2007, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports. About one in seven U.S. adults practiced yoga during the past 12 months, and about one in 12 youngsters between the ages of 4 and 17 have also practiced some yoga poses. Over 14 percent of U.S. adults meditate, too, according to a National Health Survey.

At the same time, science is confirming yoga techniques can help many people improve well-being, health, and balance. They can also heal and prevent injuries, strengthen muscles, and open the body for meditation.

“Yoga” and “mindfulness” are broad terms that embrace a long history of varied practices. The word “yoga” comes from its Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means “to yoke” or join together, and refers to joining the mind and the body. Yoga traditionally included breathing and meditative techniques as well as body postures and movements that were intended as preparation for extended sitting. Most American classes offer Hatha Yoga postures, beginning or ending with a moment of meditation.  


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When researchers refer to “yoga,” “meditation,” or “mindfulness,” they may be talking about very different experiences. That said, one literature review concluded that yoga helps fight depression and sleep problems, and it has been shown to help diabetics manage their blood sugar. There’s evidence that various kinds of meditation or mindfulness training can:

You don’t have to be a meditate for long periods to reap the benefits, either. Measurable positive changes in the brain have been documented by researchers after as little as a half hour a day for eight weeks. In another study, only 12 minutes a day for eight weeks produced happy results among a group under considerable stress — people caring for family members with dementia.

Half of a group of caregivers listened to relaxing music. The other half practiced Kirtan Kriya, which includes chanting, holding the body in certain positions, and a visualization meditation. The researchers gave everyone tests that assessed symptoms of depression and mental skills. The research volunteers also had blood tests performed to check for evidence of stress reduction.

After eight weeks, more than half of the Kirtan Kriya group did better on the tests, compared to less than a third of the comparison group. Most dramatically, the Kirtan Kriya group had an average 43 percent boost in the activity of an enzyme called telomerase — which was associated with better mental health scores — compared to only a 3.7-percent change in the comparison group. The increased telomerase activity may be a sign that the chanting and meditation practice helps slow aging related to stress.

To get started on a basic mindfulness practice, Britta Hölzel, PhD, a neuroscientist who has coauthored studies finding brain changes from meditation, recommends the book “Full Catastrophe Living,” or a stress reduction mindfulness program offered at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and online. She points out that the flurry of positive findings is typical for a new field of research, and that meditation researchers tend to be fans.

“You can really find anything you want to find,” Hölzel says. “It does make a huge difference in a lot of people's lives. It's just not understood exactly how and to whom and when,”

She predicts that more scientific documentation will continue to support the health benefits of yoga and meditation.


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April 28, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN