namasteYoga has been around for centuries, with writings extolling its virtues in producing serenity and transcendence – but world leaders, as well as a growing collection of scientific research, are pointing to how the ancient practice also can be good for your health.

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution commemorating June 21 as International Day of Yoga. Cosponsored by more than 170 member states, representatives said yoga not only promotes “clarity of vision and action” but health.

“Yoga can contribute to resilience against non-communicable diseases. Yoga can bring communities together in an inclusive manner that generates respect,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the news agency Reuters at the time of the resolution in December. “Yoga is a sport that can contribute to development and peace. Yoga can even help people in emergency situations to find relief from stress.”

A recent review of 37 randomized controlled trials concluded that yoga may improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, according to researchers at Harvard University and its Schools of Medicine and Public Health and Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. The study was published in December in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

The research paper said “yoga showed significant improvement” for body mass index, systolic blood pressure, low-density lipoprotein (also called “bad”) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (also called “good”) cholesterol compared to those who did not exercise. The study noted “significant changes” in heart rate, body weight and diastolic blood pressure, as well.

Still, more comprehensive study is needed. A recent article said that many of the current randomized studies have limitations “like lack of adequate controls, small sample size, inconsistencies in baseline and different methodologies, etc. and therefore large trials with improved methodologies are required to confirm these findings.” The authors added “However, in view of the existing knowledge and yoga being a cost-effective technique without side effects, it appears appropriate to incorporate yoga/meditation for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

For Kelley Herd Lugo, yoga has become a “virtuous circle.”  She started the practice about 20 years ago because of a college requirement. She was looking for a “more mellow” way to get her physical education credits at Emory University in Atlanta. She was hooked.

She continued when she moved to New York and joined a studio where she learned about the breathing, meditation and “lifestyle” component of Hatha yoga she said is often missed by many who focus solely on the exercise and poses.

“If I wake up and my body is sore, which happens a lot, I can do a 20-minute yoga routine and my aches will go away,” said Lugo, who is a full-time business manager at a law firm and mother of an 8-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy. “It’s amazing. You feel the results the whole day.”

She is still dedicated now that she is back in Atlanta. In addition to casual yoga practice at home, she now also practices Bikram or “hot” yoga once or twice a week, featuring 26 poses and two breathing exercises in about 90 minutes.

“It’s done in 104 degree temperatures with a lot of close friends who smell bad like you do,” she laughed. “Every single muscle is used, from toes and arches in your feet to your neck. By the time you are done, if you haven’t done it before, you feel sore the next day like you lifted weights. But generally how you feel is like you have had a full body massage. It’s a virtuous circle once you experience that.”

A National Institutes of Health survey released in February showed that in the last decade the number of American adults practicing yoga has nearly doubled since 2002 to 21 million. There is a wide variety of different styles of yoga and is now also being taught at schools across the country as an alternative to traditional gym classes.

According to the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, recent studies have suggested that yoga:

  • May reduce pain and improve function in people with chronic low-back pain with a carefully-adapted set of yoga poses
  • Might have benefits on heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety, and depression

The agency said it currently is supporting research on how practicing yoga may affect: diabetes risk; HIV; immune function; forms of arthritis; menopausal symptoms; multiple sclerosis; post-traumatic stress disorder; and smoking cessation.

To celebrate the first International Day of Yoga, which also falls on this year’s summer solstice, The United Nations plans an event at the U.N. Visitor’s Plaza Entrance in New York, sponsored by the Mission of India. It will include a demonstration of simple Asanas, or yoga poses. Thousands of people also are expected to l gather all day in Times Square for the annual solstice celebration, which features yoga.

On Monday, June 22, the Hindu American Foundation is sponsoring Yoga Day on the Hill, with two 30-minute yoga sessions for elected officials, staffers and the public.