As a college student, Julianna Blankenship began experiencing the unpleasant and distressing signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), including abdominal cramping, diarrhea and frequently feeling as if she needed to use a bathroom. Julianna's condition was long-lasting and possibly genetic—both her father and grandmother have IBS.
Doctors gave her medications to dry out her system, but the side effects created new agony. "I felt like I was replacing my symptoms with worse symptoms," she says.
So Julianna looked for alternatives. She read online that researchers were exploring the role yoga—a mind-body practice of physical poses (asanas), breathing exercises and meditative thought—might play in improving IBS and other intestinal disorders. Using videos and a book about yoga, Julianna started learning basic poses at home.
"Within two days, I saw a difference," she says. "The yoga restores the balance to my digestive system. I don't know how it does it, but I can feel it physically."
After three months of doing yoga, she felt well enough to stop taking medication. The only time she needed medicine again, she says, was when she let her yoga practice lapse due to long hours at work as a financial marketing specialist. Now Julianna, who is 25, practices regularly in her Rochester, Michigan, home.
"I still have symptoms from time to time, but they are markedly down when I do yoga. When I'm not doing yoga, I have symptoms 100 percent of the time," she says. "If I do it at least three times a week, then I have little or no problem."
Scientific investigation into how yoga might help IBS sufferers is still going on, but yoga has long been shown to help reduce stress, a major contributor to IBS symptoms. Yoga also lessens anxiety and depression, which can affect both emotional well-being and short- or long-term physical difficulties.
Does it make sense to roll out the mat the next time you have a health concern?
"Many research studies have shown that yoga is alleviating certain medical conditions," says Kyeongra Yang, PhD, MPH, RN, an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. She conducted a review that found yoga was effective in reducing body weight and other factors linked to diabetes.
"Yoga improves glucose and insulin levels, which is important in both types of diabetes," Dr. Yang says. "High blood pressure and cholesterol levels—common problems among people with type 2 diabetes—can be alleviated by practicing yoga."
Other studies have turned up more good news about how yoga practice, even after only a short time, can benefit your health. There's evidence that yoga can improve sleep, increase exercise endurance for those with heart conditions or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), reduce pregnancy discomforts and lessen low back pain. It also has been shown to help breast cancer patients and survivors reduce fatigue and menopausal symptoms as well as improve emotions.
Yoga also may help prevent or manage cardiovascular disease, according to Kim "Karen" E. Innes, MSPH, PhD, an associate professor at The Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies, University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville.
Yet you don't have to have a medical condition to reap gains from regular yoga sessions. "Yoga can improve physical function, balance and cardiopulmonary fitness in both healthy and chronically ill adults," Dr. Innes says.
Although the mechanisms underlying yoga's observed beneficial effects are not yet well understood, yoga likely influences health status in several ways, says Dr. Innes. For example, yoga may enhance both mental and physical health by effecting positive changes in emotional state, in nervous system balance and in brain chemistry and function, which in turn can lead to improvements in mood, sleep, physiological profiles and other measures of wellbeing. She adds that yoga can also lead to increased physical activity and overall fitness, promote social interaction (if taking classes), encourage healthy dietary choices and strengthen spiritual beliefs—all of which may directly or indirectly enhance and protect your health.
Less pain, more gain
Because yoga began in India thousands of years ago, doctors there are more accepting of its health benefits than are many in Western cultures. Mary Cosgrove, a human relations consultant and coach in Salt Lake City, faced resistance when she asked doctors about using yoga to help her heal from pain she suffered in a bike accident.
"My brakes locked up. I hit a post and fell," says Mary, who was 50 at the time of the accident. The crash twisted the nerves and bones in her pelvic girdle. "I couldn't sit for six months."
Mary underwent physical therapy and shots for the pain, with little positive effect. When she raised the possibility of trying yoga, she says, "I got a lot of push-back from my doctors." They were concerned that she would injure herself again—something that happened when she tried an "easy" aerobics class after the accident and ended up with plantar fasciitis, a heel pain problem.
Although her doctors didn't support the idea, Mary started going to a "restorative yoga" class, designed for people with health problems. "It was very gentle. You lay in a pose for a period of time," she says, explaining that foam blocks, bolsters and blankets were used to hold her body in the correct positions.
"It was like kindergarten nap time," she says, with a laugh. The poses enabled her to begin moving the injured area. "I slowly started to get better," she adds.
Yoga has been shown to help with musculoskeletal problems, and Mary found relief—both for the injury to her pelvic and hip area as well as for the heel pain. Yet she had to try several yoga teachers before finding one—a former dancer who had also suffered injury—who understood how to help her learn the poses safely.
Like Julianna, Mary finds that her pain returns if she lessens her yoga practice. She tries to take at least two classes each week.
"I feel like I'm resourceful now, whereas before I was so frustrated—it was medications and injections and one thing after another," Mary says.
That appears to be a typical pattern. "If people are practicing yoga regularly," Dr. Yang says, "we expect that their health conditions will improve and, thus, they will need fewer medications and have less complications."
Before you begin
If you're thinking of trying yoga to help with a health condition, consider these suggestions from Dr. Innes and Dr. Yang:
- Consult with your health care provider about your interest in using yoga to help manage your condition.
- Find an experienced yoga instructor who knows how to modify poses to make them safer and more accessible for you. Talk to the teacher before signing up for the class, to make sure that the sessions will fit your needs. Some instructors are specially trained in therapeutic yoga.
- Many types of yoga have been shown to be beneficial at preventing and managing health problems. Choose a class that lets you start slowly and gently.
- To avoid injury, pay attention to how your body feels during poses. Do not push yourself or try to compete with what others in the class are doing.
- There's no recommended frequency, but research shows effects from yoga with one-hour sessions, two or three times weekly, for eight to 12 weeks. Daily practice—even for just five minutes—is very helpful.