Yoga is more than a form of exercise: It's a broad tradition that encompasses a full complement of powerful healing practices. "Yoga alone doesn't cure that much, but there's almost nothing it can't help," says Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam, 2007). In his book, McCall looks at the scientific explanations for yoga's healing methods and covers a range of ailments including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, migraines, and back pain. He offers advice from several yoga therapists as well as tips for diet and lifestyle changes that can help with recovery, and other yogic practices, such as meditation, that can have a profound impact on your life. "No matter how constrained you are by illness or lack of fitness, there is a tool to help you," says McCall. These are a few of them:
Asana: The physical postures of yoga can be used therapeutically. A 2005 study-the largest yoga study to date-published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that asana practice reduced pain and improved function among patients with chronic lower back pain.
Meditation: Meditation helps calm and focus your mind, and studies show it can also lower blood pressure, strengthen your immune system, and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It can even stave off age-related mental decline and boost brainpower: In 2005, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used magnetic resonance imaging to show that in experienced practitioners, regions of the brain associated with perception and attention were thicker than in those who do not meditate. The study's authors concluded that a regular meditation practice would offset age-related cortical thinning.
Pranayama: Breathing techniques can be used to energize or calm. One study, published in Lancet, found that a three-part breath-in which you slow the breath and focus on breathing into the abdomen, rib cage, and upper chest-significantly increased lung capacity and blood oxygenation even among patients with congestive heart failure.
Chanting: Yogic chanting calms your body, focuses your mind, and-thanks to the ongoing vibration it causes-opens the sinuses and clears the lungs, according to McCall. "The devotional aspect of chanting can also be very therapeutic," he says.
Mantra: Many of yoga's meditation techniques focus on the repetition of a mantra, a series of sounds said to carry healing energy. "There's no absolute proof that mantras have physiological effects, but I believe they do," says McCall. "Even if they work only by placebo effect, they still work."
Yamas/Niyamas: These are yoga's ten "golden rules," guidelines for cultivating physical and spiritual health. Among the ten are: discipline, self-study, truthfulness, nonviolence, and "non-stealing" (which, it's worth noting, includes avoiding debt).