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Studies show yoga can alleviate stress, improve flexibility and boost sex life

Soldiers and retirees practice reverse warrior pose during a lunch-time yoga class Jan. 10 at Lyster Army Health Clinic. The newly-created yoga classes are offered to patients seen at Lyster's Behavioral Health Clinic. The yoga instructor and staff members support the yoga students by encouraging them to try new poses and helping them modify yoga moves to accommodate injuries. (Photo by Katherine Rosario)

Soldiers and retirees practice reverse warrior pose during a lunch-time yoga class Jan. 10 at Lyster Army Health Clinic at Fort Rucker, Ala. (Photo by Katherine Rosario)

If you still think yoga is just for women and puny-armed men who can’t hack it in a real gym, don’t tell that to Richard Miller.

A few years ago, the psychologist and yoga expert was getting ready to appear on a TV show when a producer made a comment about yoga not being much of a fitness tool.

“I leaned over, put my hands on the floor, very calmly raised my legs up over my head, crossed my legs into a lotus position, folded the lotus down into my chest, raised it back up, slowly lowered my feet back down to the ground, and stood up and looked up at him and said, ‘Yeah, it really doesn’t make you fit at all.’”

So it’s no surprise that when Pentagon officials wanted to see whether yoga could help injured troops returning from combat back in 2004, they asked Miller to help develop the
program.

A decade later, his “iRest Yoga Nidra” program — a relaxation and meditative form of yoga — is now offered at about 40 military and Veterans Affairs Department medical centers and clinics.

And it’s just one of a variety of yoga practices embraced by the military, not to mention the estimated 11 million devoted practitioners in the U.S. alone.

But just what, exactly, is all that downward-dogging, brain-bending, lotus-loving stuff good for, anyway?

While even yoga evangelists such as Miller will tell you it’s not the best workout you’ll ever get, much less the be-all, cure-all remedy for every ill, a slew of recent studies and top experts suggest it does pack a powerful punch that goes far beyond basic flexibility and simple breathing techniques.

Strength and conditioning

The fitness gurus at the American Council on Fitness say most yoga is typically considered “light exercise,” with one study showing a typical 50-minute session of Hatha yoga burning an average of 144 calories — about the same as a slow walk.

A June ACE study found that the increasingly popular “hot yoga” classes — named for the steamy temperatures in which they’re conducted — provided about the same workout as cooler classes. More vigorous styles, such as vinyasa yoga, are thought to provide a better workout.

Still, regardless of the style, regular yoga practice has been shown to significantly improve muscular strength, endurance and balance. It also can serve as a valuable counterbalance to other higher-intensity workouts.

Elite athletes ranging from LeBron James to the Seattle Seahawks turn to yoga during “active recovery” periods between more demanding training days.

“Ideally, yoga is a complementary workout,” says Miller, who acknowledges that machines and free weights “are going to build muscle mass a lot faster than with yoga.”

His own workout usually involves about 20 minutes in the weight room and 20 minutes of yoga drills.

But don’t think of yoga as a “cool down” endeavor, he says: “It’s still a very intense workout.”

Improve flexibility

Can you lean over and tie your shoes without squatting down or even bending your legs?

“If they keep their legs straight, most people can’t get their fingers past the knees. That kind of inflexibility is actually impeding you because it forces you to use more energy,” Miller says.

He says a good yoga practice should provide better flexibility to every major muscle group. “Yoga exercises make you into a very efficient machine. You’re using body mass and energy correctly.”

Meanwhile, yoga’s emphasis on purposeful thinking brings a kind of flexibility to the mind as well.

“Like Neo in ‘The Matrix,’ your senses are open and you’re able to perceive things that other people can’t. The exercises help you become very comfortable in both your body and your mind,” Miller says. “So, we could be in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan and still feel connected. Or we could be at home with our wife — or 14-year-old daughter — and we’re still feeling a sense of peace no matter what’s going on in our outer environment.”

Boost brainpower

Twenty-minute bouts of Hatha yoga can improve both speed and accuracy in tests of working memory, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

While exercise in general has long been known to boost brainpower, the 30 college students involved in the University of Illinois study performed significantly better on cognitive tests after yoga than they did after jogging on a treadmill.

Yoga’s “breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath,” says lead author Neha Gothe, a professor of health and sport studies at Wayne State University. “Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”

Fire up your sex life

Maybe you’ve heard of tantric sex? It’s actually part of an ancient yoga practice that seeks to prolong sexual connection and even — if you can imagine this — expand orgasm.

“There are actual tantric techniques for postponing orgasm and deepening pleasure,” Miller says.

“Maybe you’re OK with a little simple orgasm in your groin, but I’m talking about a whole body orgasm — in your fingertips, your toes, legs, arms, your back, front, everything — and I’m talking about orgasms you can have over and over again.”

Meanwhile, even many of the more common yoga poses channel blood flow to the pelvic region, while strengthening and toning the core, not to mention improving stamina and flexibility — all good for boosting your sex life.

Reduce post-traumatic stress

A study at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center found that yoga helped those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by reducing symptoms of insomnia, depression, anxiety and fear.

Another study with combat veterans suggested that performing yoga poses helped counter depression, while yoga breathing techniques helped troops reduce hypervigilance.

When you start yoga, “your cortisol, which makes you feel hypervigilant and alert, starts to turn off and your parasympathetic response — your ability to relax — kicks in,” Miller says.

“Within about five minutes, your body actually starts to produce oxytocin, which helps you feel at ease and connected. It’s the same chemical mothers produce with milk.”

Ease real-time combat stress

In a study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, researchers found that troops trained in yoga breathing and meditation techniques were better at managing combat stress than those who were not.

Researchers tracked 70 troops deployed to a forward operating base in Kirkuk, Iraq. Half were given nine sessions of yoga training over three weeks, while the other half were not.

Those trained in yoga experienced “significantly greater improvement than control participants” in 16 out of 18 stress markers, the researchers found.

For example, more than half of those trained in yoga reported sleeping better — and that was despite the ongoing cacophony of the FOB, including regular gunfire and flightline ops — while 37 percent said they felt more calm and relaxed.

Physical therapy

Barbara Lyon has seen firsthand how yoga helps wounded warriors struggling with physical injuries. She’s been teaching yoga at Naval Medical Center San Diego for six years.

“Yoga is something new to most of these warriors, and being successful in poses that initially seemed unattainable provides a real feeling of accomplishment,” she writes in a recent guest post for the Navy’s medical blog. “Most attendees are astounded by the exhilaration of a powerful workout they receive — this is definitely not ‘sissy’ yoga — this is for real.”

One of her regular students, Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Zambon, credits his yoga training with helping him successfully climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Retired Rear Adm. Tom Steffens, a former SEAL commander, was so impressed with how yoga helped wounded warriors that he founded the Exalted Warrior Foundation, which provides yoga classes at several military and VA medical centers.

“Faced with the demands of both a physical and emotional recovery, yoga allows newly disabled veterans to reconnect both with themselves and their loved ones. Warriors with amputations, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries have benefited greatly since the program began,” reads the foundation’s website.

Improve sleep

In a randomized study published last year, a pool of women suffering from insomnia was split into three groups. One attended regular yoga classes, another performed periodic physical therapy stretching exercises, and a control group did nothing.

After four months, the yoga group was doing better than everyone, with “significantly lower” sleep problems as well as less stress and a reported better overall quality of life.

Now researchers at Harvard are looking at how yoga could do the same for troops and veterans suffering from insomnia in a study slated to wrap up later this year.

Sleep problems often stem from a “deep-seated fear of going to sleep because of nightmares,” Miller says.

Yoga, he says, “actually helps them resolve those core issues, memories and imagery. It introduces them to a very quick way of relaxing their body so they can go to sleep.”

Reduce pain

Twelve weekly sessions of yoga were better than traditional medical care at reducing pain, according to a 2011 study involving more than 300 adults with chronic or recurring lower-back pain.

A National Institutes of Health study of 90 people with chronic lower-back pain found that participants who practiced Iyengar yoga had significantly less disability, pain and depression after six months.

“Pain travels down certain nerve pathways. We’re offering them other pathways to turn their attention away from the pain,” Miller says. “We’re actually interrupting those pain pathways. We’re helping them change channels to other sensations in their body.”

Jon R. Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at jona@militarytimes.com.

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