By Dr. Mercola
In the US, yoga has become an increasingly popular form of mind-body exercise, with the number of those who practice increasing by close to 30 percent in recent years.
Nearly 9 percent of US adults practice yoga for reasons that vary from improving strength to relieving back pain or stress. The Yoga Journal actually revealed the top five reasons why so many people try yoga, and they ranked as follows:1
- Flexibility (78%)
- General conditioning (62%)
- Stress relief (60%)
- Overall health (59%)
- Physical fitness (55%)
As you can see, increasing flexibility ranked number one by a sizeable margin, which is important for maintaining your full range of motion as you age, lowering your risk of injuries, and improving your ability to engage in physical activities and the rigors of daily life.
The ability to touch your toes, in particular, is often used as a measure of flexibility, and yoga can help in this area as well. Interestingly, there may be very good reason to use yoga to help you touch your toes.
The Ability to Touch Your Toes May Reveal Heart Risks
Research published in the American Journal of Physiology found that an inability to touch your toes while in a seated position (sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you) might mean your arteries have become stiff, and you have an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.2
The study found participants' flexibility scores correlated with their blood pressure, cardio-respiratory fitness, and other measures of heart health.
Flexibility appeared to be an indicator of arterial stiffening, and the researchers suggested exercise such as yoga might help improve it… and your heart health:3
"The findings suggest a possibility that improving flexibility… may be capable of modifying age-related arterial stiffening in middle-aged and older adults… We believe that flexibility exercise, such as stretching, yoga and Pilates, should be integrated as a new recommendation into the known cardiovascular benefits of regular exercise."
5 Yoga Poses to Help You Touch Your Toes
If you find that you are unable to reach your toes (or beyond) from a sitting position, the yoga poses that follow, reported by Dana Santas, creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, for CNN,4 may help.
"Standing with your feet hip-distance apart, exhale as you bend forward, hinging from your hips, rather than pulling from your low back. Clasp your hands around the opposite elbow and let your head hang loosely.
With your weight evenly distributed in your feet (not just your heels), straighten your legs by engaging your quadriceps (the muscles of the front upper leg).
Firing your quad muscles allows your hamstrings to relax. You'll also want to engage your deep core muscles to release your low back during this stretch. Remain here for 10 long, deep breaths."
2. Functional squat
"Start with your feet and knees aligned under your hips with your arms reaching out at shoulder height. Exhale as you sit back into the pose as deeply as possible without knees splaying or heels lifting. Hold for three long, deep breaths. Repeat three times."
3. Kneeling lunge
"Tight hip flexors can hold you in a pelvic tilt that inhibits forward bending. Kneeling lunge is a great pose for releasing them. Step into a basic lunge position with your back knee bent.
Rest your hands on your front thigh as you exhale and let your pelvis sink downward. Keep your hips squared forward. Engage your buttocks to increase the stretch in your hip flexors. Hold for five long, deep breaths on each side."
"When done correctly, the pyramid pose stretches your hamstrings with proper pelvic alignment. Step one leg back 18 to 24 inches with your toes angled slightly out. With both legs straight, hinge from your hips to bend forward, placing your hands on your forward leg as low as possible without rounding your back.
To establish proper pelvic alignment, draw your forward hip back while pushing your back hip forward. Engage your quadriceps to keep your legs straight and stretch your hamstrings. Hold for five long, deep breaths on each side."
5. Extended child's pose
"This pose is a restful one intended to stretch low-back extensors and encourage the pelvis out of an anterior tilt. From a kneeling position, reach your arms forward as you exhale and press your hips back toward your heels. Rest your forehead on the floor or a block. Hold for five long, deep breaths."
Yoga Is 'Meditation in Motion'
Originating in ancient Indian philosophy, yoga is sometimes referred to as a form of meditative movement because in addition to offering physical benefits like improved flexibility, core strength, and balance, it also helps with relaxation, breathing, and mental well-being.
So part of what makes yoga so beneficial is that it offers simultaneous benefits to both your mind and your body. Research suggests yoga can have a similar effect on your mind as antidepressants and psychotherapy, by influencing neurotransmitters and boosting serotonin. Yoga was also found to reduce levels of inflammation, oxidative stress, blood lipids, and growth factors, as well as have a positive effect on:5
- Mild depression
- Sleep problems
- Schizophrenia (among patients using medication)
- ADHD (among patients using medication)
Further, yoga has been shown to have a beneficial impact on leptin,6 a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure, as well as atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat).7 Other research shows that yoga is beneficial for chronic low back pain, anxiety, high blood pressure, and improved function (the ability to walk and move).8
Yoga might even help to boost your metabolism and help with weight loss. Research published in 2012 found that yoga has a beneficial impact on leptin, a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure. According to the authors, expert yoga practitioners had 36 percent higher leptin levels compared to novices, leading them to theorize that regular yoga practice may benefit your health by altering leptin and adiponectin production.9
Another study investigating the mysterious ability of Tibetan yogis to generate high amounts of body heat through the yogic practice of Tumo, found that these expert yogis were able to activate brown fat to keep them warm.10 This allows them to meditate near-naked in sub-zero temperatures without shivering or succumbing to hypothermia. As I've discussed in previous articles, brown fat is a heat-generating type of fat that burns energy instead of storing it. Not only does this have implications for surviving extremely low temperatures while meditating in the Himalayas, but it also plays a role in weight loss.
An Inspiring Yoga Transformation
If you're thinking of giving yoga a try, but aren't sure if it's for you, the following video, featuring Arthur Boorman, a disabled veteran of the Gulf War, is a very inspiring yoga success story. His injuries had put him on a downward spiral for 15 years, and his doctors had told him he'd never be able to walk unassisted again. Due to his injuries, he couldn't perform high-impact exercises, but one day he came across an article about yoga, and the rest, as they say, is history...
If you've ever doubted the transformative power of a low-impact exercise such as yoga, I urge you to take a look at this video. It's a truly remarkable story. Not only did he rapidly start losing weight, he also gained tremendous strength, balance, and flexibility—to the point he proved his doctors' prognosis wrong by walking unaided in less than a year!
Another Way to Increase Your Flexibility: AIS
If, for some reason, yoga doesn't appeal to you, there are many additional ways to improve your flexibility. Personally, my favorite type of stretching for increased flexibility is Active Isolated Stretching (AIS). With AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch and regain flexibility.