It’s not easy being a woman. Between weight and body image issues, menopause, pregnancy, labour and osteoporosis, it can feel like a constant uphill battle to maintain good health.
However, there’s a form of exercise that can help in every phase of a woman’s life, easing her through the transitions from youth to motherhood to maturity. It’s not exactly a new method of staying healthy – current research suggests it’s been around for approximately 5000 years – but novel ways of approaching it are constantly popping up.
It is yoga, and while you probably have heard of it, you may not be aware of just how powerful this ancient practice can be. Recent studies have shown that yoga can alleviate depression and anxiety; reduce back pain; and boost your immunity to heart disease. In addition, it can be a powerful ally against the bone loss and hip problems common in women, as well as an invaluable tool for handling the aches and pains associated with PMS and pregnancy.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common health challenges women face, and how yoga can help us handle these with grace, strength and success.
Keeping Body Issues at Bay: Self-esteem, Eating Disorders, and Obesity
Unlike most forms of exercise, yoga is holistic: it teaches total body awareness, linking breathing and meditation with movement, and instilling a respect for the whole self. If you’re more in tune with your body, you’ll be able to better read your hunger signals – and probably be less likely to reach for that box of biscuits next time the urge to snack hits. A study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center of Seattle, WA, found that people who studied yoga were less inclined to overeat or indulge in junk food out of respect for their bodies.
For the millions of women who struggle with disordered eating or body image issues, yoga can help them remember that what their bodies look like, is only as important as what their bodies can do. One of the main tenants of yoga is self-empowerment. When learning the poses (or asanas), it can be frustrating at first. Balancing on one leg, getting your limbs to bend into crazy positions, holding poses that strain your arms in ways you never thought possible – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The more you practice, however, the easier the poses become, giving you a renewed appreciation for your body.
The Heart of the Matter: Stress, Blood Pressure and Heart Disease
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the Unites States. The best way to lower your risk of heart disease is to reduce and resolve stress, keep blood pressure low, and get adequate exercise. Yoga not only provides a great strengthening, anaerobic workout, but its meditation and relaxation focus really works wonders for conquering tension and daily stressors. While some experts argue that a “typical” yoga class (not including power yoga, which moves at a much brisker pace) cannot raise the heart rate enough to provide adequate heart-healthy benefits, the National Center for Environmental Assessment supports that yoga “can improve strength and flexibility, and may help control such physiological variables as blood pressure, respiration and heart rate” (The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol. 8, No. 6, 2002). Other small-scale studies have suggested that yoga can lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels and even control hypertension.
Babies on the Brain: Infertility, Pregnancy, and Labour
Bringing life into the world requires inner and outer strength. But pregnancy can take a toll on your body, making it difficult to engage in more aggressive forms of exercise. Prenatal yoga keeps your muscles taut and limber without harming your joints or putting your baby at risk, but that’s only part of its tremendous benefits. Numerous asanas help common pregnancy complaints like swelling, fatigue and back pain. And the deep, cleansing breath – ujjayi – so integral to yoga practice, trains you to stay calm and focused even when in uncomfortable poses. According to BabyCenter.com, this can be extremely beneficial when in labour: “When you’re in pain or afraid, your body produces adrenalin and may decrease the production of oxytocin, a hormone that makes labour progress. A regular yoga practice will help you fight the urge to tighten up when you feel pain, and show you how to relax instead.”
Sometimes, the very act of getting pregnant can be more difficult than pregnancy and childbirth put together. Infertility strikes about 12% of women (about 7.3 million per year) in the Unites States (National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002), for a variety of reasons. But regardless of the cause, several promising studies have shown that yoga can assist infertile couples in becoming pregnant. This may be partly due to yoga’s stress-reducing abilities: in 2002, a Harvard Medical School study looked at 182 infertile women, some of whom participated in a relaxation and yoga program. The women in this yoga program were nearly 3 times more likely to get pregnant than the others.
Maintaining Mobility: Osteoporosis and Balance
No matter what form of yoga you practice, the poses can enhance balance and coordination and keep you flexible as you grow older. Osteoporosis specialists encourage weight-bearing exercises, which help bones retain calcium; many asanas are weight-bearing while remaining gentle to joints and fragile bodies.
A recent study at the School of Podiatric Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia suggests that yoga – specifically a modified form of the prop-heavy Iyengar style – can help reduce the risk of falls in elderly women. Not only did the participating women increase flexibility and strength in their legs and develop a faster, more stable stride, most of them cited increased confidence in their day-to-day walking and balancing activities.
The Beauty of Balance: Yoga for Life
No matter what stage of life you are at, yoga can help every woman face the challenges life throws at her. You can research the different styles – Iyengar, Bikram, Hatha, Ashtanga (“power” yoga), to name just a few – to find the one that best suits your individual needs and personality. All that is required is an open mind, an eager heart, and a dedication to staying healthy, happy and strong throughout every season in our complex and beautiful lives.
[Image credit: ©iStock.com/Brosa]