By Dr. Mercola
Exercise is important to your health, your mood and your future physical abilities. But, sometimes getting geared up for a high-intensity interval training workout or strength training is not what you had in mind. While those particular workouts are important, so is flexibility, stretching and core training.
Each of these different types of exercise helps you feel good about yourself, improves your mood, helps you maintain your weight and slows the aging process. It's nice to have several different types of exercises to fit these criteria to improve your mental stimulation and increase the benefits you experience.
Yoga is an option that has become increasingly popular over the years and has a long and established history, dating as far back as 3,000 B.C.1 The traditional purpose of the practice was not just flexibility and strengthening, but rather was an integral part of systematic approach to life in the East.
Through the years yoga was advanced around five basic principles developed by Swami Sivananda.2
Choose Your Yoga Type
The principles of yoga include relaxation, breathing, diet, exercise and meditation, which people use to help reduce stress, improve fitness and gain clarity.3 Yoga practiced today is a system of techniques.
There are several different types of yoga and within each type teachers may identify with a style, tradition or lineage.4 Different types of yoga include:
✓ Gentle Yoga
Classes are focused on helping students become calm and relaxed. Typically these are less demanding classes than other types of yoga. Often used as an introduction to the practice of yoga, students may have access to prop aids to assist them during class.
✓ Spiritually Oriented Classes
While not a system of beliefs, yoga classes may include meditation, emphasize yoga philosophy or include chanting, mantra or cultivating spiritual growth. These classes may not be as physically demanding as others.
✓ Flow Yoga
Classes are invigorating and often include an aerobic component. Postures are held for shorter periods of time with an emphasis on continual movement.
✓ Alignment Oriented Classes
These classes pay close attention to movement precision, with longer pose holds of asanas (particular postures used in hatha yoga). Students may have access to props to help attain and maintain the desired alignment until muscular development allows the student to hold the pose independently.
✓ Fitness Yoga
These classes place greater emphasis on the physical exercise of yoga and typically include aerobic conditioning, strength training and building stamina.
✓ Hot Yoga
Classes are given in heated rooms with temperatures reaching up to 110 degrees F. The postures may or may not be demanding, but are done in a physically demanding environment.
✓ Specialty Yoga
These classes are customized for a particular group of people, such as a senior population, children or expectant mothers. Teachers working with these groups undergo specialized training to reduce the risk of injury.
Change Your Yoga Perspective
The practice of yoga has continued to adapt to the needs of the students and available mechanical advances. In the last 10 years, aerial yoga has been integrated into many yoga and exercise studios, as the practice is slightly easier to learn and places less stress on the joints.
Basically, the student uses a large silk hammock, or swing, suspended from the ceiling to perform yoga poses and movements. The practice stresses core strengthening and flexibility. If you are able to sit on a swing at the playground, it's likely you'll be able to use aerial yoga in your exercise program.
The swing may or may not include a set of handles on the side of the fabric. The handles give added stability while using the apparatus. Swings come with one, two or three handles on the side at varying heights for different poses and cost between $50 and $150 online.5
Aerial yoga gives practitioners a different perspective on the practice of yoga and offers some of the same benefits with an easier entry point to learning the exercise.
However, since you are suspended above the ground and potentially upside down, it's important to practice good safety and learn in a class or perform it when you are not alone.
The benefits of yoga include reduced stress, anxiety, insomnia, back pain and depression.6 While physically stressful exercises may improve your stamina and strength, there is more to yoga than meets the eye. Dr. Ruby Roy, chronic disease specialist at LaRabida Children's Hospital in Chicago, comments:7
"One of the issues in this country is that people think of yoga only as exercise and try to do the most physically hard poses possible. That may or may not help you, but it also could hurt you. The right yoga can help you. One of the primary purposes of a yoga practice is relaxation.
Your heart rate and your blood pressure should be lower when you finish a class, and you should never be short of breath. Whatever kind of yoga relaxes you and doesn't feel like exercise is a good choice.
What really matters is, are you in your body or are you going into a state of mindfulness? You want to be in the pose and aware of your breaths."
Yoga Changes How You Relate to Your Body
Studies have demonstrated practicing mindfulness increases your serotonin level,8 associated with happiness and pleasure, and GABA,9 a neurotransmitter regulating communication between your brain cells. This emotional boost extends to a reduction in depression, schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.10
As the foundation of yoga is balance, strength and flexibility, teachers stress using your body in a proper musculoskeletal alignment, leading to improved use of your body in space even when you aren't in class.
The combination of better postural control, strength and flexibility leads to reduced chronic back pain. Studies have demonstrated better back function and lower pain levels after practicing yoga for a couple months.11,12,13
Adding yoga to cardiovascular rehabilitation for patients in congestive heart failure improved the patients' capacity for exercise and improved their quality of life.14 Since yoga reduces stress and anxiety, researchers also find it reduces the inflammatory response in the body and thus has a protective effect on the heart.15 Asthma is another process that reacts to inflammation in the body, and also demonstrates improvements with the practice of yoga.16
Lead author Dr. Loren Fishman, physiatrist at Columbia University, compared the list of side effects of medication used to treat osteoporosis against those of yoga, commenting that yoga side effects included18 "better posture, improved balance, enhanced coordination, greater range of motion, higher strength, reduced levels of anxiety and better gait."
Reducing stress and anxiety also has a positive effect on your cognitive abilities,19 reducing the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder,20 as well as reducing incidence of insomnia. Insomnia affects more than 30 percent of the U.S. population,21 and is improved through practicing relaxation yoga poses.22 Other benefits include improved cognition,23 lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels24 and improved lung capacity.25
The American Osteopathic Association's (AOA) approach to wellness is to use the body's natural tendency toward self-healing when given the right tools, such as a real food diet, exercise and quality sleep. Dr. Natalie Nevins, board-certified osteopathic family physician and certified Kundalini Yoga instructor, explains:26
"As an osteopathic physician, I focus a lot of my efforts on preventive medicine and practices, and in the body's ability to heal itself. Yoga is a great tool for staying healthy because it is based on similar principles. The relaxation techniques incorporated in yoga can lessen chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome. Yoga can also lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia."
Combination of Mind and Body Drives Health Benefits
Whether it's aerial yoga or another yoga practice, researchers believe many of the benefits from yoga come from the connection between the mind and body that occurs during a yoga session. Yoga does burn calories and improve flexibility, but it is not a competitive sport, unless you are comparing your current level against how you performed last week.
The incorporation of meditation and specific breathing techniques with physical movement turns on and off specific genes, triggering some of the physical and mental benefits you experience.27 Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, Dr. John Denninger, is leading a five-year study evaluating how yoga affects the brain of people who are chronically stressed.28,29
The current study Denninger is involved in follows work he published in 2013, showing how mind-body practices affect genes that switch on and off linking stress and your immune function.30 Denninger writes:31
"Our results for the first time indicate that RR (relaxation response) elicitation, particularly after long-term practice, may evoke its downstream health benefits by improving mitochondrial energy production and utilization and thus promoting mitochondrial resiliency through upregulation of ATPase and insulin function.
Mitochondrial resiliency might also be promoted by RR-induced downregulation of NF-κB-associated upstream and downstream targets that mitigates stress."
His previous study demonstrates that yoga has a significant positive impact on mitochondrial energy production. Problems with mitochondrial pathways are at the root of many chronic health conditions. Experts believe this may be one important reason using mind-body techniques, such as yoga, has such a positive impact on your health and wellness.
Aerial Yoga May Offer Even More Benefits
Aerial yoga may offer even more benefits as it is an easy and fun entry level method of integrating yoga into your exercise routine. Using the sling also enables you to attain more difficult poses you may not have been able to do without the support of the material. The sling allows you to slip into specific poses and explore the movement without the added stress to your knees and hips that may make the pose impossible for you.
Another significant benefit for those suffering from chronic low back pain is the ability to reduce the compression on your lower back without using an inversion table. On an inversion table, stress on your lower back is reduced as the muscles near your lumber spine are elongated and stretched. According to Bill Davis, director of group fitness for The Athletic Club in Brantford, Ontario:32
"Anyone that has back issues should be doing this class. It's better than an inversion table. It gives you the chance to hang freely, allowing your spine to lengthen. People who have taken the class here always comment on how much better their back feels afterward."
It is important to note that decompressing your spine for extended periods of time may trigger as much pain as you experience with compression to the lower back from poor posture. Neither position is a normal posture for your body. However, using the inverted posture to reduce spasms and contracted muscles in your lower back may help you to improve your posture and thus lessen your pain.
Getting Started With Aerial Yoga
In this short video clip Jane De Albuquerque, co-owner of Launch Awareness Yoga, discusses the benefits to aerial yoga.
Although called aerial yoga, acrobat yoga or anti-gravity yoga, it is not necessary to begin with both feet off the ground. Getting used to the device can be accomplished by using the sling to balance in specific poses, such as a single leg balance. Remember to practice sound safety measures when suspended in the sling and exercising off the ground. Ideally, join a class or make sure someone is at home with you.
A single leg balance is done by standing behind the sling and holding the middle handles or the material on either side for support. Step your right foot through the center of the sling and rest your upper leg on the material just above the knee. Your right foot should be hanging above the floor while you keep your left foot behind you and toes pointing straight. Lean into this lunge position, keeping your toes down and your weight centered through your core. Take five long deep breaths and repeat on the left side.
Once you're comfortable and balanced in this position, you can add a twist while in the lunge position. With your right leg resting on the swing, keep your left hand grasping the sling or handle and remove your right hand. Turn your upper body to the right, extending your right hand behind you. Keep your palm up and open and turn your head back, taking three long deep breaths. Repeat on the left side.
Next, sit on the sling like a swing on the playground. Relax into the sling, allowing your feet to remain off the ground. Extend your legs or bend your knees, whatever position you are most comfortable taking. Take 10 or more deep breaths and relax.