Yoga as an investment – and why health engagement is vital

As part of my plan to try and work out my yoga teaching shit this year, I joined a mentoring group with my amazing teacher and some more fabulous humans (I think I am slightly addicted to coaching or mentoring groups? Well, there are worse things to be addicted to I suppose). There was some interesting chat about challenges we face, who we want to teach, what we want to teach etc etc – and then we got to the taboo topic of finances (how much do you charge, is it weird to charge friends, should you do stuff for free etc etc).

And one of the ladies made a comment that really resonated: yoga is an investment in your health, but unfortunately many people don’t really believe in investing in their health. This is especially true in the UK, where we don’t have a health prevention mentality at all and passively wait for bad things to happen before we take action (I could open my can of worms discussion on how the NHS fits into this but let’s leave it there).

And then it hit me – this is really about activation and health engagement. How had I not seen the link before?

WTF are you talking about Rachel, I hear you say. What does this have to do with yoga?

So let me explain…

In my other life (doing a lot of jumping into the other life lately!) my focus is on understanding the experiences of those living with chronic health conditions so as to better support them but, crucially, to develop interventions that help them be more actively involved in their health.

This concept is called patient activation or patient health engagement (or sometimes patient empowerment). It means that people have the knowledge and skills they need to understand what they have and what they need to do to be better manage their health, but also the confidence to actually do it. In essence, we support people to take charge of their health (and I’ve written before on how important it is to tailor such interventions).

This matters because being actively involved in your health leads to better outcomes

There is tons of research to show that patients who are actively involved in managing their health and condition also see better clinical outcomes; in other words, they end up better off than those who are passive and just allow things to happen to them.

This is because:

  • They are more likely to carry out health-preventative behaviours like attending screenings, check-ups etc
  • They are more likely to be informed and up-to-date with what’s going on with their health and condition if appropriate
  • They are more likely to feel confident when they speak with their doctor, ask questions and take part in shared-decision making (the famous “no decision about me, without me“)
  • They are more likely to take their medication, keep an eye on their condition and track symptoms, as appropriate, to spot any changes that come up
  • Crucially for this post, they are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours, like eating healthy, exercising and general self-care

This isn’t just relevant for those living with a chronic conditions

Obviously it’s super important to be actively involved in your health if you are living with a condition that needs managing, whether that’s, for instance, diabetes, Crohn’s disease or heart failure. But being an active participant also matters for those of us who generally identify as healthy – it gives us the best chance of staying healthy and/or achieving better clinical outcomes if something does indeed come up.

This is why yoga is indeed an investment

Yoga and other mind–body practices are highly relevant for health engagement and activation.

Yoga has direct health benefits

We know that yoga and other mind–body practices have health benefits* – most of this blog has focused on picking out examples of yoga having a positive impact on health (eg mental health 1, 2, 3,) heart disease and autoimmune disease) and the physiological reasons behind it (eg reducing the expression of inflammatory genes or balancing immunity through social connection). If you scroll back up to my list, you’ll see that pursuing health-promoting behaviours is a key pillar of being engaged with your health.

Yoga may help improve health engagement and activation

We also know that yoga and mind–body practices may improve our awareness of our own body, a concept known as interoception. This means that we are better able to recognise how we are feeling in both mind and body and identify challenges when they arise. Indeed, excitingly, there is some preliminary evidence that a yoga practice can help to improve patient activation as a result of this increase awareness of physical and mental health.

So, isn’t it time we stop being reactive, where we tackle things as they come along, to really investing in our health (both physical and mental, they are connected after all) so as to prevent issues from coming up in the first place?

Isn’t it time we change how we view our practice (and indeed any practice we enjoy*) – less of a gratuitous thing we like to do because it makes us feel good to something that is actually vital?

Isn’t it time we actively recognise that our practice* maintains or even drives our health engagement and, ultimately, sustains our wellbeing?

What do you think? How has your practice helped you be more engaged with your health?

* I’m not saying you must practice yoga. I am, however, saying that you do need to invest in your health through a physical practice (whether that’s yoga or something else you enjoy more like walking, running, swimming, pilates etc) and a contemplative practice (whether that’s breathwork, yoga nidra or some other form of relaxation – watching TV does not count!).

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