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Get rid of your preconceived notions about yoga. It’s not just for women, doesn’t require you to contort your body into a pretzel, and isn’t the exercise equivalent of taking a nap. If you’re looking for a gentle form of fitness, dealing with nerve damage or pain, or recovering from an injury, it’s a good alternative to high-impact sports.
Take, for instance, mountain pose, which simply requires you to stand (though you can sit if you need to) and focus on posture and breath. Or the shoulder rolls you can do while seated. Carol Krucoff, an experienced registered yoga teacher at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., has taught yoga to people in wheelchairs and people with amputations: “If you can breathe, you can do an appropriate yoga practice,” she says.
Like most forms of exercise, yoga may be good for your blood glucose, too. A small study published in the January issue of the International Yoga Journal found that women’s fasting and post-meal blood glucose dropped after a six-week yoga program. The researchers couldn’t establish that yoga caused the improvements, but a 2010 position statement by the American Diabetes Association and the American College of Sports Medicine explains why muscle-building exercises such as yoga may improve glucose levels: An increase in muscle mass may use up more excess glucose.
“Yoga may improve glucose tolerance—fasting blood glucose, post-prandial blood glucose, and A1C—as well as other cardiovascular disease risk [factors],” says Kim Innes, MSPH, PhD, clinical associate professor in the Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies at the University of Virginia, who has researched the effect of yoga in people with diabetes. Plus, practicing yoga isn’t likely to suddenly drop your blood glucose as much as other exercise does (though caution is always smart). “This risk [for lows] would be expected to be very low,” Innes says. “Dangerously low blood glucose has never, to my knowledge, been documented following yoga practice, even among those who are poorly regulated.” But, she warns, a lot of research is still needed to confirm a link between yoga and blood glucose control.
Of course, the blood glucose–lowering effects you get from yoga will vary based on which form you practice and your physical limitations. But you may be able to improve your glucose control simply by how you breathe. A study in the May/June issue of the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism found that people who followed a yogic breathing program lowered their fasting and post-meal blood glucose after only three days.
As for its other beneficial effects on the body, yoga has the trifecta: It stretches, strengthens, and de-stresses.
Like any exercise, yoga can leave you injured if you’re not careful. Step one in ensuring a pain-free session is to find a qualified instructor. There’s no universal yoga certification, and education among teachers is inconsistent. “Be sure that the teacher had at least a month of teacher training and has been teaching for at least two to three years,” says Susan Winter Ward, an international yoga therapist and author of Yoga for the Young at Heart: Accessible Yoga for Every Body. “There are some certifications that take a weekend, and [people who do this] call themselves yoga teachers.” Not sure where to start? Try the International Association of Yoga Therapists’ website. There, you can search for an instructor in your area.
Another must: Discuss any health issues with the instructor before you begin, and make sure he or she is experienced in teaching gentle or therapeutic yoga. For instance, people with osteoporosis are better off avoiding forward bends, which can increase fracture risk.
Though many yoga poses look simple at first glance, they pack a punch if you hold still for long enough. Try this: Extend an arm out to your side. Now stay still for a minute, two minutes, five minutes. Much of the muscle building that goes on in yoga comes from this extended holding of the poses. “Some of the most beautiful, strong bodies are yoga bodies,” says Winter Ward. “But people aren’t going to be building up the big muscles as if they were pumping up at a gym.”
Stretch It Out
With great strength comes great flexibility—even if you start out as stiff as a board. “You do not have to be flexible to do yoga,” says Krucoff. “Yoga will help you become more flexible.”
Keep in mind: Flexibility is earned over many classes, not overnight. “In yoga, you don’t strain, you don’t stress,” says Krucoff. “A yoga pose should be steady and comfortable.” Pushing your body too quickly can lead to injury, so be mindful of your pain. Know the difference between a “good” stretch and one that can cause injury. Think about the way a stretch feels when you’ve just woken up in the morning. That’s a healthy stretch. But if, say, your legs are screaming when you attempt to touch your toes, that’s pain.
Even without our knowing it, our bodies respond to stress. Our muscles tighten. The shoulders rise. Our breath increases. Most people don’t realize exactly how tense their bodies are until they begin to purposefully loosen their muscles. “Yoga helps people really relax and find their breath and reduce stress,” says Krucoff.
In many classes, yoga instructors help students relieve tension from their heads to their toes by visualization or deep breathing. To visualize, imagine your muscles releasing little by little—first in your neck, then shoulders, then upper arms, to lower arms, and so on.
Silly as it may sound, breathing takes practice. When we’re stressed out, our breathing becomes shallower and is mostly in the chest. But to experience stress-relieving deep breath, focus on the stomach: Place a hand on your abdomen. Inhale until your stomach (not the chest!) rises and then exhale, letting the abdomen deflate. Yoga breathing alone is a good stress reliever, but it should also accompany any yoga poses you do. “It has a very calming effect on your physiology,” Krucoff says.
Part of the reason yoga is so helpful to older adults, injured people, and those with chronic conditions is that it promotes self-acceptance. “People often feel betrayed when they have an illness,” says Krucoff, who specializes in yoga for people with health concerns. “Learning to accept and surrender into your condition isn’t giving up.”