Today, the day of the summer solstice, is also the International Day of Yoga. It’s easy to see why 21 June would be chosen to celebrate this ancient, spiritual practice, given that the solstice has been revered as a spiritual, mystical event for thousands of years, with ancient civilisations seemingly structuring their architecture around the sun’s highest point in the sky.
But why does yoga have its very own day?
Well, it was the idea of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, which was put to the General Assembly of the United Nations as a potential method to address the world’s mental health crisis, and approved, apparently in record time, by 175 member states.
There’s no doubt that the practice is growing in popularity, with yoga studios popping up on virtually every street corner, and retreats stretching from Oxford to Bali and everywhere in between. You can do yoga in water, with dogs, with goats, hanging in mid-air, or the slightly more traditional, animal-free version on the ground with a mat.
But is it a fad, or is there more to it?
The truth is that until relatively recently there was a shortage of good evidence for the benefits of yoga. People said it made them feel great, but we live in an age of randomised-controlled studies, and without them, well… it’s all just anecdotal isn’t it?
Well, times are changing and more and more solid evidence is emerging to support the idea that regular yoga practice is good for our physical and mental health. A 2017 study found that absence for musculoskeletal conditions amongst NHS staff reduced significantly after an eight week yoga programme, and that the probability of yoga being a cost-effective intervention was an incredible 95%.
Another study looked at quality of life and argued that medical yoga is a cost-effective alternative to conventional treatments for non-specific low back pain.
No wonder Simon Stevens announced that yoga should be offered to NHS staff back in 2015. Although this is something that has not yet been rolled out across the whole organisation, despite estimates by Public Health England that staff sickness due to stress, poor diet, and limited exercise and self-care cost the NHS £2.5bn each year.
But it’s not just the NHS workforce that can benefit. The Yoga in Healthcare Alliance (YIHA) says that yoga can have a positive impact on chronic diseases other than musculoskeletal problems.
The practice is far beyond the ability to open out into splits at the drop of a hat (and if we’re honest, most practitioners can’t even do that). Yes, it improves flexibility, but it also builds strength, and improves balance and coordination. It strengthens the joints within the legs which can help to prevent falls in older people, potentially staving off a hospital admission, and can reduce the symptoms of arthritis. Breathing techniques used in yoga can affect breath capacity and gas exchange, whilst the practice of postures, breath control and meditation can all help to regulate mood.
Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that the different elements of yoga can reduce risk factors for common conditions including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as depression and mental ill-health. All of these are a huge financial cost to the NHS.
Yoga is finding its way onto GPs’ social prescription pads: in recent weeks I’ve had several clients try my classes for the first time on the advice of their GP. The West London CCG commissioned the design of the Yoga4Health programme: a free 10-week yoga course for patients suffering stress or anxiety who are at risk of type 2 diabetes, or who need help to feel healthy and supported.
This February saw the UK’s first Yoga in Healthcare Conference, where Public Health England’s chief executive, Duncan Selbie, confirmed that there would be additional funding for yoga classes, stating, “The evidence is clear. Yoga is an evidenced intervention and a strengthening activity that we know works.”
Yoga gives physical exercises that can be practiced virtually anywhere, makes practitioners more aware of their bodies and better able to interpret and understand feedback from them, and gives tools that can be used in day to day life when faced with stressful situations, all whilst being cost-effective. What’s not to love?
So, if you’re still not convinced of its merit; if your perception of yoga remains one of being wafted with incense whilst chanting a few ‘Oms’ and then going home without having even worked up a sweat, might I suggest that you join in the International Day of Yoga celebrations this weekend by joining a class to see what it’s really all about. You could even attend one of the many charity classes being held up and down the country, because being nice is also part of yoga - and, funnily enough, it’s also good for our mental health!
Happy International Day of Yoga!
This article was first published in National Health Executive on 21/06/2019 in honour of the International Day of Yoga.