Yoga as Lifestyle Medicine: Frequency of Home Practice Predicts Health Benefits

By: 
Jennifer Willams-Fields, E-RYT 200

 

Ever found it hard to find the time to hit your yoga mat? Of course! We all struggle with finding time for ourselves on the mat.

But according to studies, any time you can practice at home pays ample dividends, and then some. In fact, a survey of yoga practitioners found that frequency of home practice was linked to greater well-being, a more healthy body mass index (BMI), better sleep, healthier eating behaviors, and decreased fatigue.

Each component of yoga practice (different categories of physical poses, breath work, meditation, philosophy study) predicted at least one health outcome. The researchers also found that home practice of yoga predicted health better than years of practice or class frequency.

The Importance of Lifestyle Changes

And all of these small changes add up to big results: Making small, yet positive, changes in health behaviors can significantly improve mortality rates studies show. Changing multiple health behaviors results in even further reductions in morbidity and improvements in overall health and wellness.

Vast amounts of money, as much as 75% of healthcare-related spending, are spent for the treatment of chronic health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. At the same time, those conditions have long been shown to be controlled, if not reversed, by modifying lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity and poor dietary habits.

Many studies have been done on the benefits of aerobic exercise. Yet, when compared with yoga, studies have shown yoga to be equal or superior to traditional exercise in improving chronic health conditions. Scientists believe yoga’s effect on the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, through decreasing cortisol, accounts for much of the additional benefits yoga has over other aerobic exercises.

Do Some Aspects of Yoga Offer Greater Health Benefits?

This study, conducted by the University of Maryland School of Nursing and the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, with help from Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, addressed the contributions of both a general yoga practice (classes per month, years of practice) as well as specific components of practice such as asanas, pranayama, meditation and the study of philosophy. The study sought to answer if individual components of a yoga practice were more effective than others at improving specific health outcomes such as BMI, sleep quality, and mental health.

Study method included an anonymous online 65-item questionnaire sent out to 15 targeted Iyengar studios in each of the four major geographic locations. More than 1,000 yoga practitioners completed the survey between June and September 2011.

The questionnaire focused on eight areas:

  1. Yoga practice

    1. Years of practice, frequency, class vs. home practice

    2. Physical poses divided into standing poses, inversions, restorative poses and more vigorous poses including sun salutations and backbends

    3. Breathwork

    4. Meditation

    5. The study of yoga philosophy including the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita

  2. Demographics: age, weight, gender, marital status, race, and education

  3. Sleep disturbance, fatigue, and social support

  4. Subjective well-being: happiness

  5. Fruit and vegetable consumption

  6. Physical activity: average amount of time per week spent in non-yoga physical activity

  7. Mindfulness

  8. Other health information: smoking status, vegetarian diet and alcohol consumption

After analyzing the results, a frequent home practice, independent of time spent in a yoga class, was the most important finding for improving health. In fact, the frequency of a home yoga practice was more important than the number of years practicing yoga in improving:

  • Each additional day per week of home practice accounted for a decrease in BMI.

  • Increased home practice frequency predicted higher servings of fruit and vegetables and increased the odds of being a vegetarian.

  • Each additional day of yoga home practice improved sleep quality.

  • Each additional day of yoga home practice increased mindfulness.

While class time is important in learning to practice yoga properly, it was not an adequate predictor of improved health habits. Although the individual aspects of a home practice might be small, the results are cumulative. The more of the eight limbs of yoga you practice, the healthier your lifestyle choices.

Yogis considered intense practitioners, those who practice at home more than five days per week, also had twice the odds of meditating regularly, three times the odds of practicing breath work and nine times the odds of practicing gentle restorative poses.

Since intense practitioners also practiced more of the eight limbs of yoga rather than just asana, they also had additional benefits.

  • Practicing more physical poses related to improved sleep, diet, and a lower BMI.

  • Practicing more breath work and meditation led to increased mindfulness and subjective well-being.

  • A frequent practice of gentle restorative poses was associated with higher fruit and vegetable consumption, higher rates of vegetarianism and lower alcohol consumption.

Evidence has long shown that stress is associated with unhealthy food behavior including increased consumption of high-fat, high-sugar foods and increased alcohol intake. Restorative poses have a greater impact on the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress, therefore potentially leading to better food habits and less stress-induced eating. Therefore, a combination of active poses to help lower BMI, in conjunction with restorative poses for stress relief, may be the best approach to weight loss through yoga.

The studies authors admit to some limitations in the study, namely that an anonymous online survey has the potential for deception, limited recall, and bias. The study subjects were also predominantly well-educated white females, resulting in a lack of diversity.

However, the study does predict a definite positive influence between a yoga home practice and improved health behaviors. Since a regular home practice was so influential in the results, it suggests that healthy behaviors must be incorporated into daily life for maximum benefit. Although a yogi doesn’t need years of practice to see benefits, they do need a dedicated and committed yoga practice for optimum health.

 

Source: 

Frequency of Yoga Practice Predicts Health: Results of a National Survey of Yoga Practitioners (PDF Download Available)

What better way is there to cultivate a great home practice than study with master teacher Judith Hanson Lasater and YogaUOnline with her class Rest and Silence: Practicing for Stillness, Spaciousness, and Ease.

Want some tips to develop your own home practice?  Read this article from YogaUOnline and writer, Allison Schleck - Deepen Your Practice: 8 Steps to a Powerful Home Practice.

Jennifer Williams-Fields E-RYT 200 is passionate about writing, yoga, traveling, public speaking and being a fabulous single momma to six super kids. Doing it all at one time, however, is her great struggle. She has been teaching yoga since 2005 and writing since she first picked up a crayon. Although her life is a sort of organized chaos, she loves every minute of the craziness and is grateful for all she’s learned along the way. Her first book "Creating A Joyful Life: The Lessons I Learned From Yoga and My Mom" is now available on Amazon. She has had her essays featured on Yahoo! and Dr. Oz The Good Life. She is a regular writer for Elephant Journal Magazine, Your Tango, and YogaUOnline. See more from Jennifer at jenniferwilliamsfields.com