Implementing yoga into a workout routine can provide unique health benefits, said a Baylor College of Medicine physician and yoga enthusiast.

"Yoga is a broad philosophy containing many different paths to achieve the goal of physical, mental and spiritual well-being," said Dr. Bobby Kapur, assistant professor of medicine at BCM and associate chief for emergency medicine at the Harris County Hospital District's Ben Taub General Hospital. "In physical fitness, yoga is the practice of physical postures and breathing exercises that allow a person to strengthen the body and at the same time enter a meditative and relaxed state of awareness."

Practicing yoga can help a person improve flexibility, balance, limberness, blood circulation, and it can also relax muscle tension and fight infection, Kapur said.

'Awkward' positions help vascular, lymphatic system

Yoga puts a person in "awkward" postures, Kapur said. These postures can help the vascular and lymphatic system.

The vascular system is made up of the vessels that carry blood. "In blood flow, there is a lot of active and passive action," said Kapur. "The heart actively pumps blood through the arteries, then the blood passively returns through the veins back to the heart. Varicose veins or swollen legs can be caused by blood not returning back to the heart effectively."

Yoga helps move along this circulation, Kapur said.

Adjacent to the vascular system is the lymphatic system, which contains immune cells called lymphocytes that protect the body against viruses and bacteria.

"Yoga can help improve circulation of some of these lymphocytes throughout the body to help drain out infections," said Kapur. "This is why you hear some claims that yoga 'cleanses' the body."

Benefits of stretching

"There are many different stretches in yoga programs," said Kapur. "These stretches improve flexibility, balance and limberness, making the body stronger and better prepared to participate in more strenuous exercise activities."

It can also serve as a stress reliever, Kapur said.

"People hold stress mostly in tension with certain muscles, for example clenching a jaw," said Kapur. "In yoga, these tense muscles are being stretched."

This can also help reduce strain on certain areas of pain, such as the lower back.

It is important not to overstretch the body's limits.

"When a person first starts, they will probably not be able to sit and reach their toes," said Kapur. "Start at a comfortable length, then progress a little each day."

Yoga should also be started in small increments. Kapur recommended starting with about five minutes each day and gradually increasing each week.

Breathing exercises

Deep breathing is a critical part of yoga practices. "These are longer, deeper breaths that use more lung capacity."

Kapur said these breathing exercises can help a person relax while improving cardiovascular and pulmonary function. "This can help with regular exercises."

Yoga alone will not induce weight loss, said Kapur. "It should be done in combination with other more physical exercises and the incorporation of a healthy diet and lifestyle."