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Yoga and Health: Take it Home

February 14, 2015

The health benefits of Yoga in general are extremely well documented, but a recent study by researchers from the University of Maryland School of Nursing and the National Institutes of Health took a unique look at the relationship between various aspects of yoga practice and specific predictors of health.

This study, published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, separated yoga practice into different components and then correlated them to several known factors associated with good health. The study implies some interesting possibilities, and we'll take a look at them over a few different articles. 

We can start by skipping to the end of the story, the moral of which is obvious: The more often you practice yoga, the more healthy you are likely to be. 

O.K. I could have told you that. 

But more specifically, the more frequently you practice yoga

  • The less fatigued you are likely to feel.
  • The lower your BMI (body mass index) is likely to be.
  • The more fruits and vegetables you are likely to eat.
  • The more likely you are to be a vegetarian.
  • The higher your level of mindfulness is likely to be.
  • The better you are likely to sleep.
And you don't have to go to class to get these benefits. In fact, frequency of practice at home was a major indicator of overall health: 
In the final models examining general yoga practice, frequency of home practice was the practice variable that most often predicted aspects of health . Specifically practice frequency (β  = .106, P < .001) and years of practice (β  = .039, P  < .05) were independent predictors of mindfulness. For every extra day per week of yoga home practice, mindfulness scores increased .42 of a point (.10 of a SD). After controlling for gender and age, practice frequency was a significant independent predictor of subjective well-being (β  = .183, P  < .001) and BMI (β  = −.043, P  < .001). Every additional day per week of home practice was associated with a decrease of .17 of a point (.04 of SD) in BMI. After controlling for gender and age, practice frequency predicted fruit and vegetable servings per day (β  = .031, P  < .001). Practice frequency was the only variable negatively related to sleep disturbance (β  = −.052, P  < .001), and individuals who practiced more frequently had higher odds of being a vegetarian than those who practiced less often (OR = 1.057, P  < .001). For every additional day per week of yoga practice, sleep improved by .21 of a point (.07 of an SD) and the odds of being vegetarian increased 22.8%.
If you've practiced yoga for more than a week, you can probably attest to Yoga's ability to help you with at least some of those healthful qualities, and it's easy to imagine how yoga helps energy levels, body composition, mindfulness, sleep patterns, and even eating habits.
But the results of this study might not be too surprising from another angle, because if you have the self-discipline to practice at home all the time, you've probably got your shit together in a lot of different departments. Or to put it another way, if you manage to practice yoga at home almost every day, then you've undoubtedly got at least one of these things going for you:
  • A lot of self-discipline
  • Serious commitment to taking care of yourself
  • A great deal of free time
Any or all of which are likely to increase your health via obvious mechanisms. 
I don't know about you, but one of the reasons why I go to yoga class is that I don't always have the self-discipline to practice at home. I am self-employed, and if you are familiar with Parkinson's Law, you already know why it can be hard to create a home practice:  Work expands to fill the time available for it's completion.
Or put in a slightly different way: When you own your own business, whether or not you work at home, you know that the demands never end and that your to-do list grows at a speed just slightly faster than your ability to complete the tasks, therefore, you never have any free time. This is just a rule of nature.
I need that unique space of a scheduled class carved out of my week in advance in order to keep the practice going. As much as it makes no logical sense, the fact remains that driving 20 minutes each way to practice yoga keeps me doing it more regularly than being left up to my own devices at home. Not to mention the inspiration and simple enjoyment I get from the community that surrounds the awesome studio where I practice.
Still, I've had times where my home practice flourished. In fact, before I was a father I used to wake up and do yoga every single morning, even before having that first cup of coffee. These days I manage to pull home practice off once in a while, and it pays. I feel great for the entire day. With some further encouragement provided by the results of this study, I may find myself on my home floor a bit more often. 

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