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Yoga may offer physical benefits, studies find

When yoga instructors tell you to take a “healing breath,” they aren’t just using a metaphor. Recent studies show that practicing yoga may actually have a significant effect on a person’s physiological well-being.

Researchers have studied the effects of yoga on fitness for years. “(Yoga) engages a lot of muscles at one time” said Andrea Soberaij, physiology courses manager. “It does a lot of lengthening. That’s one thing conventional workouts — like doing the machines at the gym — don’t do. They just shorten the muscle.”

The effects of yoga on hypertension, or high blood pressure, are currently being studied by Debbie Cohen-Stein, associate professor of medicine at Penn.

“A lot of people are interested in an alternative to medication, especially with mild hypertension,” she said. “The preliminary data does appear to show that yoga has a modest effect on lowering blood pressure.”

According to Cohen-Stein, most forms of yoga can contribute to lowering blood pressure.

“Any type of yoga that incorporates breathing and movement and a component of meditation will do,” she said.

MRIs taken of participants in her current blood pressure study suggest yoga activates the same part of the brain responsible for impulse control, Cohen-Stein said. She said she hopes to study next the effects of yoga on people attempting to quit smoking.

Patricia Gerbarg ’71 has spent years studying the effects of yoga on different disorders and afflictions of the body.

“We have found that the most effective practices are certain breathing practices,” Gerbarg said.

She and her husband, Richard Brown, developed these practices using breathing techniques that were safe and easy for almost everyone. They use these breathing practices to work with several different groups of people including victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and recently-liberated slaves in South Sudan, Gerbarg said.

One of the most recent studies on which Gerbarg has worked examines the effects of yoga on people with inflammatory bowel disease, or Crohn’s Disease.

“We know that it is very much affected by stress,” Gerbarg said.

Because inflammatory bowel disease is very difficult to treat, studies are currently being conducted to see if breathing practices can help control symptoms.

While researchers are exploring the physiological effects of yoga practice, others are simply experiencing its benefits directly.

“When I started practicing (yoga), there were so many parts of my body that I wasn’t even aware of,” said Eliza Brine ’14, co-leader of the student group Yoga and Mindfulness. “Yoga involves awareness of all the parts of your body.”

Brine said that while teaching yoga classes, she has observed students develop greater flexibility and range of motion. Her favorite part of her yoga classes is listening to people afterward talk about how much better they feel, she added.