Benefits of Yoga for Women
Time and again, yoga has been cited as one of the best forms of exercise a person can do. It’s as challenging as you want it to be, and has a positive effect on both the mind and body. For women, though, there are a few unique benefits that may make these stretches and poses extra special.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is a millennium-old discipline that focuses on exercising the physical, mental and spiritual facets of an individual. Yoga is a large school of teachings from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism; the form that we call simply ‘yoga’ – with the posing and breathing – is actually a branch of the wider practice of yoga, called hatha yoga. This type become popular in the 60’s and 70’s, and has remained so ever since.
Initially it was adopted in the west by those looking to expand their experiences, or who travelled to countries like India to seek spiritualism. Nowadays it’s part of mainstream exercise and regularly tops lists of the best de-stressing methods. Everyone from corporate executives to delivery drivers sing its praises, and yoga studios have made their homes in cities across the world.
Basics of Yoga
The excellent thing about yoga is how accessible it is, with exercises consisting mainly of pulling specific poses while concentrating on your breathing. It can be as simple or challenging as you wish, with hundreds of poses of varying difficulty and associated breathing exercises to practice. Each of these use different parts of the body as well, meaning those with limited mobility can still enjoy and benefit from yoga.
This all may seem simplistic, but the positives of being able to slow down during the day and exercise slowly have been noted, both colloquially and scientifically. For women, it can help with easing certain issues such as…
Assisting with Pregnancy
The stretching of muscles and increased blood flow associated with yoga can have a great benefit to mothers-to-be, during and after carrying their child. With this being a physically-daunting and testing time in a person’s life, there’s comfort to be found in the fact that yoga can ease pregnancy in a multitude of ways, not just in the nine months leading to birth. It may even help the health of the child, too.
A 2013 study found that, when practicing an hour of yoga each day from 20 to 36 weeks pregnant, it positively affected many areas of the participants’ mental and physical health. Compared to the control group, there were decreases in anxiety and depression, along with “pregnancy related uncomfortable experiences.”
This increase in comfort is also seen during labour itself: a study looked at 335 women, roughly half practicing yoga an hour a day. This group had “significantly lower” preterm labour and pregnancy-induced hypertension. What’s most striking is that this research found that yoga also increased the birth weight of babies born – the benefits can then, apparently, be passed down to the next generation. Another piece of research found that yoga can even reduce the amount of pain during pregnancy (although this is relative to the steadily increasing amounts felt while giving birth).
If you are wishing to do some yoga while pregnant, remember to listen to your body’s signals while doing so. After the first trimester do not attempt any poses that require laying on your back, and be aware of the shift in your centre of gravity after the second trimester when posing. If in doubt, parental yoga sessions are popular and readily available, with teachers who can guide you through the experience.
Menstrual and Menopausal Relief
It’s well-known that yoga can help with pain in muscles and bones, sometimes surprisingly so. It’s thought that this effect is because of a number of reasons: calming the kinds of stress that may incite the brain to feel pain, relaxing consistently tense muscles in the body and helping become mindful of the body’s signals. For those suffering from menstrual cramps or menopausal aches, this may mean comfort from those symptoms. Especially for menopausal women, who are likely to be also affected by mood swings and stress.
The impact yoga has on women’s pain has been a focus of some research: a 2011 piece found that three yoga poses – Cobra, Cat, and Fish – helped reduce primary dysmenorrhea (period cramps) in 18-23 year old women, both in severity and duration. With approximately 15% suffering from cramps serious enough to distract from normal activities, this could prove to be a drug-free assistance to relief.
Research into yoga helping with menopausal symptoms has been positive, too. One piece suggests that it can help alleviate what they describe as climacteric symptoms, which cover a range of physical discomfort related to the menopause: aching limbs, hot flushes, tiredness and so on. Yoga also eased psychological symptoms too, with the research pointing out “perceived stress and neuroticism” being lowered by completing one-hour sessions five times a week. Once again, yoga is helping calm both the body and the mind.
Stress and Mental Health
It’s been demonstrated that yoga is great for the mind. The focus on breathing and slow, low-pressure exercises means that it’s more geared towards relaxation than most other forms of exercise or sports. As mentioned above, yoga can be a big help for those who are going through a tough time with the menopause, but women of all ages can also benefit from it when going through a mentally-trying time.
Yoga can help with stress during the menopause, but that effect is present no matter the age or physical condition of an individual, proven by multitudes of scientific tests. Many of these go a step further than letting participants fill in questionnaires or interviewing them; some measure the levels of cortisol in the saliva. This is the hormone that the body releases when it’s stressed, and one study that measured it levels before and after yoga sessions found that it “demonstrated pronounced and significant improvements” to stress levels.
It’s not just stress that yoga can quell, though. It can help tackle other serious mental health afflictions. One meta-analysis (a study that breaks down multiple pieces of research) found that “yoga may be an effective, far less toxic adjunct treatment option for severe mental illness.” This is in comparison to psychopharmacological medication, which can have negative side effects or increase the chance of heart disease in some. This analysis found evidence for yoga helping in the treatment of conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD and schizophrenia (although these last two require more research to solidify a link).
With yoga being a physical activity, it naturally has an effect on the heart, although this can be easily dismissed by many. Even though it’s not the most strenuous exercise, yoga can still have a positive effect, in some unexpected ways.
A 2008 study looked into the effect of yoga on post-menopausal women. The researchers found that they had much lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” version of cholesterol) than those not completing the yoga regime. This is interesting enough by itself, but the post-menopausal yoga group also had much lower LDL levels than pre-menopausal women who completed the yoga regime. It’s known that oestrogen helps maintain cholesterol levels in the blood, so women’s levels increase during post-menopausal life. This research then indicates that yoga can help bring levels under control, in the absence of oestrogen.
Decreased levels of LDL were also one of the results found in research from Korea, focusing in obese postmenstrual women. Additionally they found that it decreased blood pressure, triglycerides (fats in the blood that’s eventually stored in fat cells) and even resistance to insulin. They state that “yoga exercise will be effective in preventing cardiovascular disease caused by obesity”.
A terrible condition that afflicts both sexes, there may be some relief to be gained from practicing yoga during and after treatment. Cancer treatments are renowned for being exceptionally exhausting and harsh on the body, so anything that can soften the blow will have an uplifting effect on morale.
Even the gentle act of yoga can breathe life into those being treated, sometimes literally. A study from the American Cancer Society studied breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue. Those who completed a 12-week yoga schedule had “significant improvements in fatigue and vigor,” alongside improved depression and stress symptoms. Another study looked into chemotherapy-induced nausea: an hour of yoga every day reduced the severity and frequency of nausea, along with the “intensity of anticipatory nausea.”
In reality, it’s the mental effects that give cancer survivors and sufferers the greatest comfort – being able to better process their situation, stave off negative feelings and, in the case of some pieces of research, discover some level of spirituality. Emotional wellbeing is a major part of the healing and recovery process, and yoga has been proven to fortify the mind time and again, in scientific research.
The mental and physical effects of yoga are well-known in popular culture, but it too often gets dismissed as ‘new age medicine’ or pseudoscience. Hopefully this article has shown yoga’s capabilities for healing, health and sound-mindedness have a real effect on the lives of women with all kinds of lifestyles. For women who can’t partake in traditional exercise or sports, yoga is an excellent alternative that should not be overlooked: one meta review says that “yoga may be as effective as or better than exercise.”