The practice of yoga started in India thousands of years ago. Over the centuries, it has slowly moved into the West. At first, only the most alternative people embraced the practice, and researchers didn’t always accept yoga’s purported benefits—namely the huge impact on health the practice has.

But that’s changing. Nearly 21 million U.S. adults practice yoga, according to a Yoga Journal study, and the numbers are steadily growing. Nearly 60% of practitioners head to the mat to improve health and find relief for the overwhelming stress many people experience on a daily basis.

September marks National Yoga Awareness Month, as designated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The month-long initiative seeks to celebrate yoga’s ability to reduce stress and help people prevent or manage common ailments, including chronic pain.

National Yoga Awareness Month celebrations include free yoga classes.

Stress is a natural part of life, but growing levels have reached epidemic proportions. One in five U.S. adults experiences extreme stress, according to an American Institute of Stress (AIS) survey, and 44% of people feel more stressed than they did five years ago.

Stress is a normal reaction to life’s trials, and in small amounts can even be healthy and encourage personal improvement. However, elevated levels of tension lead to inflammation and are linked to 60% of all human illness and disease, including chronic pain, according to AIS. Consequently, stress-related disorders are on the rise.

With society hanging out in a pressure cooker, people are increasingly turning to stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation in an effort to reduce tension and improve their health.

National Yoga Awareness Month aims to recognize the importance of yoga and healthy lifestyle choices in managing stress and related illnesses and seeks to encourage conversation about what organizers say is the United States’ dysfunctional health care system because it emphasizes treating sickness instead of preventing it in the first place. Johannes Fisslinger, co-founder of National Yoga Month, says:

“It is a fact that our current health care system is broken beyond repair.”

National Yoga Awareness Month promotes the ability of healthy lifestyle changes to prevent and manage illness.

The United States has the world’s most expensive health care system even though it underperforms more affordable systems in comparable industrialized nations, according to a report from the Commonwealth Fund, a healthcare think tank. Fisslinger adds:

“Disease management and symptom treatment are important but should not be the main focus in health care. We know by now that it is possible to stop and reverse a majority of health issues (especially chronic symptoms like blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, angina, or depression) by changing what we eat, how we respond to stress, how much exercise, love and support we experience in our life.”

If the United States’ health crisis has had a positive result, it’s the increased focus on healthy lifestyle choices. The idea that preventative medicine is the best medicine, by treating diseases before they start, is a tenet of Yoga Awareness Month and it’s a crucial component of our comprehensive pain management approach. By making healthy lifestyle choices, people can largely avoid or delay the onset of diseases.

What is yoga?

Most people know yoga as a physical set of practices. However, the ancient tradition is an entire lifestyle approach based on the goal of living more mindfully in the present moment. In fact, ancient yogis said the physical practice of postures, called asanas, was only meant to prepare the body for seated meditation.

As students make their way through a class, yoga teachers typically encourage students to focus on the breath, using it as a way to stay in the moment. As students learn to stay present on the mat, that presence, over time, may continue off the mat.

A yoga practitioner may pause and breathe before responding to a critical comment from a coworker, friend, or loved one, ensuring a more compassionate response. Or in the midst of a stressful situation, you may opt to close your eyes and breathe for a moment, remembering that this too shall pass, as everything does.

Yoga philosophy also says that people hold tension and unexpressed emotions in the body. By stretching the joints and muscles, practitioners release that stored energy and feel more peaceful. Staying present while feeling difficult emotions helps students process and heal those feelings.

Yoga gives practitioners the tools to better navigate the stresses of daily life, one breath at a time.

It may sound mysterious and more the province of New Age hippies than modern denizens, but studies are increasingly showing the profound calming effects yoga and meditation have on the nervous system.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles discovered that reciting a particular chant—one form of meditation—for 12 minutes per day for eight weeks quieted the body’s stress response that leads to inflammation. Chronic inflammation can cause or exacerbate chronic pain.

Another study, published in The Journal of Pain, showed that people practicing yoga found relief from chronic neck pain. Researchers hypothesized that the practice toned neck muscles while releasing tension from them, and noted similar results had earlier been shown in patients with lower back pain.

During National Yoga Awareness Month, many studios will be offering free classes. That makes September a perfect time to try yoga out, if you haven’t already. Search here to find an event near you.

Here is some information about yoga to get you started.

1. Attend a class to learn technique

Many studios offer beginners’ classes. There are also several places that offer streaming videos online. However, it’s always a good idea to take a few classes with a certified teacher because alignment is very important in yoga.

2. You don’t need to be flexible to do yoga

People become flexible by doing yoga, but you don’t need to be flexible to start. Keep in mind that increased flexibility is only one part of the practice. Staying in the moment, learning to appreciate yourself and your body as you are right now, and developing an inner sense of peace are all much more important than touching your toes. There’s a saying in yoga:

“It’s not about touching your toes. It’s about what you learn on the way down.”

3. Be patient but consistent

Progress in yoga is very slow, and not immediately discernable. By showing up on your mat every day, or three days a week, or however frequently you commit to the practice, you will eventually see results.

Do you plan to participate in National Yoga Awareness Month?

Image by Grand Velas Riviera Maya via Flickr

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