Yoga has become well known as a powerful tool for stress-reduction. Yoga's relation to stress, your heart, and other health issues appears at the end of this chapter because it is meant to underscore and summarize how yoga's ability to reduce stress can support a man as he deals with virtually any health concern he may encounter—from aches and pains to life-threatening challenges. Yoga's power to reduce stress is probably its number-one health benefit.
Yogic practices—the physical postures, yoga meditation, yoga breathing exercises, and the yoga lifestyle in general, including yogic principles of diet—are among the best available today to help combat stress and develop healthy lifestyle habits. While some stress is necessary, and, in fact, desirable, too much stress can be hazardous to a man's health. Indeed, stress seems to be the most pressing and widespread health concern of many men today. Nearly every man complains of life stress—physical stress from physical activity, as well as mental, emotional, and psychological stress at the workplace and in personal relationships with partners, family, and friends.
Stress is intimately connected to illness. In fact, many experts maintain that stress is responsible for as much as 80 percent of all illness today. Stress has been shown to impair the function of the immune system, which makes us even more susceptible to disease. It also inhibits the restorative process of healing and recuperation and accelerates the aging process.
In addition to being directly linked to illness, stress often compounds its adverse effect on health by contributing to the formation of the unhealthy lifestyle habits that many men develop trying to flee it or beat it; for example, overeating, drug and alcohol consumption, smoking, and lack of exercising because of lower energy levels. Medical authorities maintain that up to 90 percent of all illness is caused by stress and lifestyle choices that we make regarding such areas as diet and exercise.
This is the bad news about stress. The good news is that because so much illness is caused by stress and lifestyle choices, a man can make the proactive choice to do something to control and mange the level of stress in his life. He can choose to transform unhealthy habits into habits that support health and well-being.
By reading Yoga for Men and beginning a personal practice of yoga, a man can take one of the most positive steps available to turn his life in a healthy direction. Yoga is the perfect practice to help a man reduce stress and improve his health. In fact, many men who practice yoga often report that as an added side benefit of their yoga practice, they develop a deeper awareness of their own bodies and needs so that they naturally and spontaneously begin to make healthier lifestyle choices.
Studies have shown that yogic practices can help to induce what Herbert Benson, M.D., coined the "relaxation response," in his best-selling book of the same title. This relaxation response is an antidote to the fight-or-flight response, which is the excited way in which many men react to stressful situations. The pressures of modern life are sending today's man increasingly into this mode. "Life was stressful before 9-11. It's gotten progressively worse," reports Benson.5
In addition to reducing stress, yoga can have other wide-ranging health benefits. Yoga practices can help improve both blood and lymph circulation, thus helping nutrients reach their target cells in the body. Improved circulation helps the body remove toxins more efficiently. Yoga can also improve joint mobility and overall flexibility, which, in turn, makes a man's body less prone to injury.
At the forefront of men's health concerns is cardiovascular disease—the number-one killer of American men today. Yoga has proven to be an effective practice in addressing coronary heart disease, as demonstrated through the clinical work of Dean Ornish, M.D. Dr. Ornish has gained a great deal of public attention, as well as admiration, for his work with patients suffering from cardiovascular disease. His pioneering studies at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute have shown that a comprehensive lifestyle change program consisting of yoga and meditation, diet, exercise, and group support can help to reverse coronary heart disease. Many of the elements that comprise this program are time-honored, integral ingredients of the yoga tradition.
Other scientific studies also indicate that yoga is good for the heart and cardiovascular system. One recent study has shown that the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a practice of yoga meditation techniques, can reverse the buildup of fatty deposits in arterial walls.6 Early studies by Herbert Benson indicated that the practice of TM could help reduce blood pressure. In fact, Benson's pioneering work in discovering and researching the relaxation response was spurred by his observation of the effects of meditation on practitioners of TM. All of these modern, Western scientific discoveries underscore the tremendous contribution that yoga can make to improving a man's heart and cardiovascular system— something yoga practitioners have known for millennia.
If yoga has so many profound benefits on all the systems of a body, it stands to reason that it can do more than just help build a healthy heart. And, in fact, other scientific studies are beginning to emerge that point to a variety of concrete ways in which yoga can help prevent or alleviate a host of specific ailments, including such widespread and debilitating conditions as asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome.7 A 1991 report concluded that clients diagnosed with cerebral palsy who received weekly Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy sessions became more empowered, self-responsible, and physically able.8
Of particular interest to men, and at the cutting-edge of research in male health today, Dr. Ornish believes that yoga may offer special hope for men. In 1997, he and his colleagues at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute began a randomized, controlled study to determine if a comprehensive lifestyle change program including yoga and meditation, dietary modifications, exercise, and group support might slow, stop, or reverse the progression of prostate cancer as measured by PSA (prostate specific antigen), a surrogate marker for prostate cancer progression. Results from the first phase of this Prostate Cancer Lifestyle Trial are encouraging. The study is continuing long-term to assess differences in progression and mortality between the experimental and control groups. The approach to yoga used in both Dr. Ornish's programs for coronary heart disease and in his prostate cancer trial incorporates asanas, deep relaxation, meditation, breathing practices, and visualization to induce relaxation, and, hence, possibly enhance immune system function.
In addition to all the physical health benefits that have been discussed, it is helpful to note that yoga can also be good for a man's mental health and state of mind. Yoga practices can help a man achieve greater balance of body and mind, and to reach a state of calmness where he can become much more in touch with his feelings and emotions. The subject of mental health is far too vast and complex to be summarized here: In the section that follows you'll find suggested resources for further reading if you'd like to explore the subject of yoga psychology in-depth.
So, besides just making you feel good, yoga can be a cornerstone of your ongoing health maintenance routine. Practice yoga regularly and you'll realize for yourself its amazing ability to restore, rejuvenate, strengthen, tone, and improve your overall physical functioning and well-being—body, mind, and spirit.
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