DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I am a mother of two, work full time and am also a breast cancer survivor. I know physical exercise is important, so I try to visit the gym a few times a week for weight training and to walk. A friend recently invited me to a yoga class. I have never thought about adding yoga to my fitness routine. What are the benefits, and how would I get started?
ANSWER: Yoga is a wonderful form of exercise that provides benefits that walking and strength training do not provide. In Eastern cultures, yoga is not seen as exercise, but rather "a moving meditation." In the Western world, many people know power yoga or vinyasa yoga, which are classified as exercise.
Regardless of the type, the practice of yoga brings together physical and mental disciplines that may help you achieve peacefulness of body and mind, relax, and manage the stress and anxiety associated with being a busy mom and living with cancer.
Yoga can provide three primary benefits that a typical gym routine may not provide: improved nervous system function, improved joint range of motion and improved dynamic balance.
Improved nervous system function
Since yoga is based on breathing, parts of the nervous system are affected when you lengthen the amount of time you exhale, and control your breathing. This is cued throughout particular yoga sequences. Specifically, yoga can help lower the fight-or-flight response and improve the body's "rest-and-digest" response.
Practicing slow, controlled breathing stimulates the body's vagus nerve, which takes information about the current state of relaxation and relays it to the rest of the body, including the brain. One area affected when the vagal nerve is stimulated is the parasympathic nervous system, which controls the body's rest and digestion functions.
The mindful breathing practiced in yoga increases the activity of the parasympathic nervous system. As a result, yoga lowers the heart rate, improves digestion and quality of sleep, and strengthens the immune system. Another benefit is reduced stress.
Improved joint range of motion
The difference between flexibility and active range of motion is important. Think of flexibility as how much a muscle can be passively stretched. In contrast, range of motion is how much muscles can be used to control a joint's movement.