- What Family Doctor Melinda Ratini MD Says:
- Yoga – Benefits Beyond the Mat
- The Benefits of Yoga
- 1. Improve flexibility, strength, and posture
- 2. Better all-round fitness
- 3. Weight loss
- 4. Increase your energy
- 5. Reduce stress
- 6. Breathe better
- 7. Be happier
- 8. Become more mindful
- 9. Improve concentration and think clearer
- 10. Live longer
- I read more than 50 scientific studies about yoga. Here’s what I learned.
- The bottom line
- What is the state of yoga science?
- 1) Is yoga likely to hurt you?
- 2) How does yoga compare with other forms of exercise?
- Key studies:
- 3) Does yoga really reduce stress and anxiety?
- 4) Does yoga have long-term health benefits?
- 5) Does yoga help with lower back pain?
- 6) Does yoga improve flexibility and balance?
- 7) Can yoga really stimulate digestion or wring out toxins?
- What happens to your brain and body when you do yoga regularly
- The Truth About 7 Big Yoga Claims
- Researchers Are Catching On to Yoga’s Benefits
- First-Hand Experience With the Benefits of Yoga
- 38 Ways Yoga Improves Health
- 1. Improves your flexibility
- 2. Builds muscle strength
- 3. Perfects your posture
- 4. Prevents cartilage and joint breakdown
- 5. Protects your spine
- 6. Betters your bone health
- 7. Increases your blood flow
- 8. Drains your lymphs and boosts immunity
- 9. Ups your heart rate
- 10. Drops your blood pressure
- 11. Regulates your adrenal glands
- 12. Makes you happier
- 13. Founds a healthy lifestyle
- 14. Lowers blood sugar
- 15. Helps you focus
- 16. Relaxes your system
- 17. Improves your balance
- 18. Maintains your nervous system
- 19. Releases tension in your limbs
- 20. Helps you sleep deeper
- 21. Boosts your immune system functionality
- 22. Gives your lungs room to breathe
- 23. Prevents IBS and other digestive problems
- 24. Gives you peace of mind
- 25. Increases your self-esteem
- 26. Eases your pain
- 27. Gives you inner strength
- 28. Connects you with guidance
- 29. Helps keep you drug free
- 30. Builds awareness for transformation
- 31. Benefits your relationships
- 32. Uses sounds to soothe your sinuses
- 33. Guides your body’s healing in your mind’s eye
- 34. Keeps allergies and viruses at bay
- 35. Helps you serve others
- 36. Encourages self care
- 37. Supports your connective tissue
- 38. Uses the placebo effect, to affect change
- Maintaining a regular yoga practice can provide physical and mental health benefits
- 10 Great Resources for Online Yoga Classes
- These Are 10 Great Resources For Premium Online Yoga Classes:
What Family Doctor Melinda Ratini MD Says:
There are many types of yoga, from the peaceful hatha to the high-intensity power yoga. All types take your workout to a level of mind-body connection. It can help you relax and focus while gaining flexibility and strength. Yoga can also boost your mood.
Even though there are many instructional books and DVDs on yoga, it is well worth it to invest in some classes with a good instructor who can show you how to do the postures.
Chances are, there’s a type of yoga that suits your needs and fitness level. It’s a great choice if you want a holistic approach to mind and body strength.
Yoga is not for you if you like a fast-moving, competitive workout. Be open-minded, since there are physical and mental benefits you can gain by adding some yoga into your fitness plan, even if it isn’t your main workout.
Is It Good for Me If I Have a Health Condition?
Yoga is a great activity for you if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease. It gives you strength, flexibility, and mind-body awareness. You’ll also need to do something aerobic (like walking, biking, or swimming) if you’re not doing a fast-moving type of yoga.
If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart problems, ask your doctor what you can do. You may need to avoid certain postures, like those in which you’re upside down or that demand more balance than you have right now. A very gentle program of yoga, coupled with a light aerobic activity like walking or swimming, may be the best way to start.
Do you have arthritis? Yoga can help you stay flexible and strong without putting added stress on your joints. You get the added benefit of a mind-body approach that can help you relax and energize.
If you’re pregnant, yoga can help keep you relaxed, strong, and in shape. If you’re new to yoga or have any health or pregnancy related problems, talk to your doctor before you give it a try. Look for an instructor who’s experienced in teaching prenatal yoga.
You’ll need to make some adjustments as your baby and belly grow and your center of gravity shifts. After your first trimester, don’t do any poses that have you lying on your back. And don’t try to stretch any further than you did before pregnancy. Your pregnancy hormones will loosen up your joints and make you more likely to get injured.
While you’re pregnant, avoid postures that put pressure on your belly or low back. Don’t do “hot” yoga, where the room temperature is very high.
Yoga – Benefits Beyond the Mat
Published: February, 2015
Yoga, an ancient practice and meditation, has become increasingly popular in today’s busy society. For many people, yoga provides a retreat from their chaotic and busy lives. This is true whether you’re practicing downward facing dog posture on a mat in your bedroom, in an ashram in India or even in New York City’s Times Square. Yoga provides many other mental and physical benefits. Some of these extend to the kitchen table.
Types of Yoga
There are many types of yoga. Hatha (a combination of many styles) is one of the most popular styles. It is a more physical type of yoga rather than a still, meditative form. Hatha yoga focuses on pranayamas (breath-controlled exercises). These are followed by a series of asanas (yoga postures), which end with savasana (a resting period).
The goal during yoga practice is to challenge yourself physically, but not to feel overwhelmed. At this “edge,” the focus is on your breath while your mind is accepting and calm.
A Better Body Image
Yoga develops inner awareness. It focuses your attention on your body’s abilities at the present moment. It helps develop breath and strength of mind and body. It’s not about physical appearance.
Yoga studios typically don’t have mirrors. This is so people can focus their awareness inward rather than how a pose — or the people around them — looks. Surveys have found that those who practiced yoga were more aware of their bodies than people who didn’t practice yoga. They were also more satisfied with and less critical of their bodies. For these reasons, yoga has become an integral part in the treatment of eating disorders and programs that promote positive body image and self-esteem.
Becoming a Mindful Eater
Mindfulness refers to focusing your attention on what you are experiencing in the present moment without judging yourself.
Practicing yoga has been shown to increase mindfulness not just in class, but in other areas of a person’s life.
Researchers describe mindful eating as a nonjudgmental awareness of the physical and emotional sensations associated with eating. They developed a questionnaire to measure mindful eating using these behaviors:
- Eating even when full (disinhibition)
- Being aware of how food looks, tastes and smells
- Eating in response to environmental cues, such as the sight or smell of food
- Eating when sad or stressed (emotional eating)
- Eating when distracted by other things
The researchers found that people who practiced yoga were more mindful eaters according to their scores. Both years of yoga practice and number of minutes of practice per week were associated with better mindful eating scores. Practicing yoga helps you be more aware how your body feels. This heightened awareness can carry over to mealtime as you savor each bite or sip, and note how food smells, tastes and feels in you mouth.
A Boost to Weight Loss and Maintenance
People who practice yoga and are mindful eaters are more in tune with their bodies. They may be more sensitive to hunger cues and feelings of fullness.
Researchers found that people who practiced yoga for at least 30 minutes once a week for at least four years, gained less weight during middle adulthood. People who were overweight actually lost weight. Overall, those who practiced yoga had lower body mass indexes (BMIs) compared with those who did not practice yoga. Researchers attributed this to mindfulness. Mindful eating can lead to a more positive relationship with food and eating.
Yoga is known for its ability to soothe tension and anxiety in the mind and body. But it can also have an impact on a person’s exercise capacity.
Researchers studied a small group of sedentary individuals who had not practiced yoga before. After eight weeks of practicing yoga at least twice a week for a total of 180 minutes, participants had greater muscle strength and endurance, flexibility and cardio-respiratory fitness.
Several small studies have found yoga to have a positive effect on cardiovascular risk factors: It helped lower blood pressure in people who have hypertension. It’s likely that the yoga restores “baroreceptor sensitivity.” This helps the body senses imbalances in blood pressure and maintain balance.
Another study found that practicing yoga improved lipid profiles in healthy patients as well as patients with known coronary artery disease. It also lowered excessive blood sugar levels in people with non-insulin dependent diabetes and reduced their need for medications. Yoga is now being included in many cardiac rehabilitation programs due to its cardiovascular and stress-relieving benefits.
Before you start a new exercise program, be sure to check with your doctor.
Researchers are also studying if yoga can help people with depression and arthritis, and improve survival from cancer.
Yoga may help bring calm and mindfulness to your busy life. Find registered yoga teachers (RYT) and studios (RYS) through The Yoga Alliance.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
The Benefits of Yoga
by: Ashley Dodson
The benefits of yoga provide both instant gratification and lasting transformation. In the fitness world, both are extremely important. Too much time with too few results can be incredibly discouraging, and monotonous routines week after week can lead to stagnation. Yoga can change your physical and mental capacity quickly, while preparing the mind and body for long-term health.
Yoga is for everyone
Most yoga studios and local gyms offer yoga classes that are open to all generations and fitness levels. It’s exciting to enter a room full of young teens, athletes, middle-aged moms, older gentlemen, and even fitness buffs and body builders. Everyone can feel accepted and included and, unlike other sports or classes that focus on niche clients, yoga tends to offer open arms. Whether you like to say “Om” or you can’t stand the word “yogi”; whether you are 92, 53, or even 12, yoga can help you.
Yoga encourages overall health and wellness
Yoga is not just about working out, it’s about a healthy lifestyle. The practice of yoga allows students to find stillness in a world consumed with chaos. Peace and tranquility achieved through focused training appeals to everyone.
Yoga’s deep breathing and meditation practices help foster an inner shift from to-do lists, kids and spouse’s needs, financial concerns, and relationship struggles to something a little bit bigger than the issues you face. Yoga helps relieve stress and declutters the mind, helping you to become more focused.
Yoga has many faces
One of the benefits of yoga is that you can choose a yoga style that’s tailored to your lifestyle, such as hot yoga, power yoga, relaxation yoga, prenatal yoga, etc. Whether you prefer to practice at home, in a private session, while watching a DVD or at a studio or gym, there are a huge variety of options available to suit your goals and needs.
If you’re a yoga beginner, hatha yoga, which focuses on basic postures at a comfortable pace, would be great for you. If you want to increase strength through using more of your own body’s resistance, power yoga may be right for you. If you’re ready for a deeper practice, Bikram, also called “hot yoga,” may be just what you’re looking for. In Bikram yoga, the room temperature is set to around 105 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in greater elimination of toxins from the body through the increased production of sweat. No matter your fitness level, fat percentage, or health history, yoga has a style for you.
Strength training and flexibility
Yoga’s focus on strength training and flexibility is an incredible benefit to your body. The postures are meant to strengthen your body from the inside out, so you don’t just look good, you feel good, too. Each of the yoga poses is built to reinforce the muscles around the spine, the very center of your body, which is the core from which everything else operates. When the core is working properly, posture is improved, thus alleviating back, shoulder, and neck pain.
The digestive system gets back on track when the stretching in yoga is coupled with a healthy, organic diet, which can relieve constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and acid reflux. Another one of the benefits of yoga is that stretching and holding postures also causes muscles to lengthen, which gives the body a longer, leaner look.
How does power yoga build muscle?
Adapted from the basic Ashtanga yoga, power yoga requires increased energy, focus, and strength. Although power yoga evolved from the basics, it certainly is not a basic course.
How does it help build muscle? Most poses are held for five full breaths versus the usual one to three breaths. Muscles are challenged as the mind and body have to work together simultaneously to hold a position without giving up. Breathing, posing, moving, and increasing flexibility happen together at one time, which unearths a new level of discipline in your mind and body.
Power yoga and the core
Isometric exercises are one of the best ways to build core strength. Isometric, stemming from the words “same” and “length,” simply translates to holding one position without moving. Power yoga uses isometric exercises along with other postures that are designed to make the core and back stronger. Flexibility and balance stem from your core, so it’s important to train this area of the body. In turn, you can increase the strength and health of your entire body. Generally a high-temperature room is used in this practice to help keep the muscles warm and release additional toxins from the body.
Power yoga’s effect on the body
Here’s a list of some of the most beneficial aspects of power yoga:
- It increases endurance, strength, and flexibility.
- Mental endurance and physical stamina are tested through holding postures for extended breaths.
- Arm and shoulder strength is increased as you use your own body weight for resistance.
- Lats, traps, and other back muscles begin to support the spine better than before.
- Abdominals and obliques are refined and toned through building core muscles.
- Posture begins to correct itself over time.
- Hip flexors are stretched and strengthened.
- Glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves are strengthened.
No matter what ails your aching body, or if you just want to take your fitness to a higher level, power yoga’s ability to build muscle has an undeniable effect on the total body.
Need a pick-me-up? If you feel a bit low it’s tempting to got for a pint, order a pizza or treat yourself to some new shoes, but putting 15 minutes aside to practice yoga every day could transform your mood (and your health) in more ways than you could imagine.
Studies have shown that yoga can decrease the secretion of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, which in turn can improve your overall health.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, it’s easy to squeeze in just 15 minutes of yoga practice a day. Here are 10 reasons why it will be worth it:
1. Improve flexibility, strength, and posture
Daily yoga practice will help stretch and tone your body muscles. Popular poses like the plank will simultaneously work on strengthening your arms, legs, shoulders and abs. You don’t have to be super flexible to practice yoga, the beauty of yoga is that it can be practiced at all levels of ability.
A few minutes a day practicing poses like the warrior or the downward facing dog, will soon make you really feel the difference in your flexibility, whether you’re pretty bendy already or not.
❤️ Daily yoga helps improve your posture, making you walk taller and sit up straighter at your desk. Aches and pains caused by incorrect body posture such as back pain can also be alleviated.
2. Better all-round fitness
When thinking of improving your fitness, most of us think of huffing and puffing away at the gym. But weights are not the only way to work out. Yoga gives you all that a gym can, but in a peaceful, safe and more holistic way. It combines aspects of cardio, functional and strength training all in one. What more could you ask for? The best part about this workout is that it can be done at your own pace, in your own home.
Nancy Leung / EyeEmGetty Images
3. Weight loss
You don’t have to practice Hot Yoga or be able to bend double in a yoga pose to lose weight. An everyday gentle yoga practice will fuel the metabolic system and will help burn fat, leading to weight loss. Daily yoga can also help restore the hormonal balance in your body, which can normalise your body weight.
An everyday gentle yoga practice will fuel the metabolic system and help burn fat.
Levels of cortisol, the hormone that is released in response to stress will be lowered, leading to less overeating. Daily yoga also strengthens the overall mind-body connection and helps you deal more effectively with unpleasant emotions rather than reaching for food to suppress those feelings.
4. Increase your energy
Just a few minutes of yoga every day will provide that much-needed energy boost in our busy lives and will keep us fresh for longer. Yoga, with its unique synergy of body and breath work, is perfect when your reserves are running low.
Daily yoga practice will awaken the main energy centres (called chakras) in your body. Great poses for extra energy are those that extend the spine, such as the tree pose, allowing energy to circulate throughout the whole body, and poses that open the chest, like the cobra pose, encouraging the intake of more breath.
5. Reduce stress
Many work places now offer lunch-time yoga sessions because it’s been shown that yoga is an amazing stress buster. Any yoga practice, even a short daily one, should be made up of three elements; poses, breathing and meditation. Studies have shown that those people who regularly practice all three elements are better able to regulate their heart-rate variability (HRV). This generally means that their heart rate is lower, giving body the ability to respond to stress in a more flexible way.
Relaxing yoga poses can calm both your body and your mind.
Are you coping with so much stress that it’s keeping you awake at night? Studies have shown that practicing daily yoga can reduce insomnia. When experiencing insomnia, practice relaxing asanas or postures, such as forward fold (uttanasana) or lying on your back with your feet up the wall. Relaxing yoga poses such as the forward fold or lying on your back with your feet up the wall can calm both your body and mind.
Matt DutileGetty Images
6. Breathe better
Breathing deeply and calmly is an essential part of every yoga practice. Yogic breathing techniques (called pranayama) focus on trying to slow down the breath and on breathing fully from the pit of your stomach to the top of your lungs.
These methods will make you feel more relaxed and balanced and will help you face the day with confidence and calm. They also have some great side benefits including increased lung capacity and more tidal volume (the total amount of air your lungs can hold at any one time). You can adopt these techniques whenever needed in daily life. They can help you stay calm in emergency situations, think clearer in stressful situations and they can help reduce pain.
7. Be happier
Adding a few yoga poses to your daily routine can make you an emotionally stronger and happier person. A recent study has shown that practicing regular yoga and meditation results in higher serotonin levels (the happiness hormone).
Just 15 minutes of yoga a day can change your brain chemistry and improve your mood.
The same study showed that long-term yoga practitioners have more mass in the areas of the brain associated with contentment. Another study has shown that the brain’s gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) levels are higher after practicing yoga. Higher GABA levels are associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety. To put it simply, just 15 minutes of yoga a day can start changing your brain chemistry and improving your mood.
8. Become more mindful
Yoga and mindfulness go hand-in-hand. When practicing yoga, you will shift your awareness to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany a given pose. That awareness will bring the mind back to the present moment – the main aim of mindfulness – where it can stay happy and focused.
Practicing mindfulness has lasting physical and psychological benefits that are very much in line with the benefits of yoga. You will feel more calm and relaxed, and less stressed and anxious. You will experience higher levels of energy and enthusiasm and more self-confidence and self-acceptance.
Ashley Corbin-TeichGetty Images
9. Improve concentration and think clearer
Yoga poses and meditation require you to concentrate on your breathing. This process of observing your breath calms your mind and makes you more mentally relaxed. As a result of this mental stability, you’ll able to recollect and retain more information. Meditating for just a few minutes in the morning can result in better concentration throughout the day.
The process of observing your breath calms your mind and makes you more mentally relaxed.
By reducing mental stress and physical tension, we are able to recall easier and have more organised thoughts. Improved cognitive function happens when we are able to clear our minds and refresh. From a place of peace and calm, we are able to use our mental facilities more efficiently. Overall, by reducing mental stress and physical tension through daily yoga, you’ll be able to think sharper and have more organised thoughts.
10. Live longer
As you now know, everyday yoga will help you increase your level of fitness, regulate your heart rate, reduce your stress levels and make you a happier person. All those elements may add valuable years to your life.
It’s also known that yoga decreases the risk of heart disease, and it reduces the pace of your breathing which has been directly linked to a longer lifespan. Recent studies have shown that the meditation element of yoga might help delay the process of ageing by protecting the telomeres (caps) at the end of our chromosomes, too.
What more excuses do you need to hit the mat?
Last updated: 31-10-19
Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) Dr Juliet McGrattan Dr Juliet McGrattan spent 16 years as a GP, two years as a Clinical Champion for Physical Activity for Public Health England and is the Women’s Health Lead for the 261 Fearless global running network. Her award winning book, Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.
I read more than 50 scientific studies about yoga. Here’s what I learned.
I’m a yogi. I’m also a skeptic. Sometimes I wonder if the two can go together. I cringe whenever an instructor claims I’m “wringing the toxins” out of my organs with a twisting pose, for instance. Still, after eight years, I keep going back. Post-yoga, I feel calmer and more aware of my body, and this seeps into everything I do: how I work and relate to others, how I eat and sleep.
What we know:
Yoga is probably just as good for your health as many other forms of exercise. But it seems particularly promising for improving lower back pain and — crucially — reducing inflammation in the body, which can actually help stave off disease. Yoga also seems to enhance “body awareness,” or people’s sense of what’s going on inside themselves.
What we don’t know:
Whether some forms of yoga are better than others, whether yoga should be prescribed to people for various health conditions, and how yoga compares with other forms of exercise for a good many specific health outcomes. There’s also no good evidence behind many of the supposed health benefits of yoga, like flushing out toxins and stimulating digestion.
What this means for you:
If you like yoga, keep doing it. There’s no evidence that it’s particularly harmful, and it can lead to a range of heath benefits. Depending on your goal, it’s important to find an appropriate style — from athletic ashtanga to gentle hatha. If you don’t like yoga, no sweat: Just try another physical activity.
Welcome to Show Me the Evidence, where we go beyond the frenzy of daily headlines to take a deeper look at the state of science around the most pressing health questions of the day.
It’s not just me.
The most recent survey suggests more than 20 million Americans practice yoga, making it one of the most popular forms of exercise. Even Vladimir Putin, a devotee of “macho sports,” added downward dog to his repertoire.
But is yoga really that great for health compared with other exercises? Does it really help improve our response to stress or correct bad posture, as often promised? Maybe our perceptions about yoga are biased. Or maybe, as some critics have pointed out, there are downsides to yoga. Who can forget the controversial New York Times story from 2012 suggesting that some people get seriously injured, or even die, on their yoga mats.
I wanted a more objective view on the health effects of yoga, so I turned to science, reading more than 50 studies and review articles and talking to seven of the world’s leading yoga researchers. Almost immediately, I was struck by how weak the research on yoga is. Most studies were small and badly designed or plagued by self-selection bias. Making matters worse, there are so many varying styles of yoga that it’s tough to say how meaningful evidence about one style is for others.
Still, what I learned is that there are a few things we can say about yoga, based on the available research. Yoga probably won’t hurt you, despite what haters claim, and it appears to be just as good for your health as other similar forms of exercise.
Even more, yoga seems to help alleviate lower back pain, improve strength and flexibility, and reduce inflammation in the body — which, in turn, can help stave off chronic disease and death. Emerging research suggests yoga can increase body awareness, or attention to the sensations and things going on inside you. That’s no small matter: Researchers think heightened body awareness can improve how well people take care of themselves.
Keep in mind, however, that other mind-body exercises — such as tai chi or meditation — can boost body awareness and reduce inflammation, too. That’s the catch with a lot of yoga research: It still hasn’t told us how much better or different yoga is for a number of health measures when compared with other forms of exercise. Finally, many of the most outlandish claims people make about yoga, like the idea that it can alleviate constipation or wring out toxins, either aren’t backed by science or haven’t been studied at all.
What is the state of yoga science?
The first randomized trial (or high-quality experiment) on yoga was published in 1975 in The Lancet. It showed that yoga was more effective than relaxation for reducing high blood pressure. But that trial only involved 34 participants, and all of them already had high blood pressure, so it is difficult to know whether the effect of the yoga would bear out in a larger trial of healthy people.
Since then, the number of yoga studies has dramatically increased, but the field is plagued by some of the same problems of that early study. Many yoga studies still involve small numbers of participants. Many lack a control group. Many don’t compare yoga to activities we’d be interested in comparing it to. (Ideally, for instance, we’d want to know how yoga measures against another form of exercise or mind-body practice — not, as one study examined, comparing whether it’s better for back pain than giving people a book on how to manage their back pain.)”For most conditions, the main problem is we don’t have enough evidence yet”
What studies do exist are often short term. There are no long-term studies on mortality or serious disease incidence. There are few long-term studies on the potential harms yoga can wreak on the body. “For most conditions,” says Holger Cramer, director of yoga research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Essen, Germany, “the main problem is we don’t have enough evidence yet.”
Studying yoga is also tricky. Researchers generally believe blinded studies are the highest quality of research, because participants involved don’t know what intervention (such as a drug) they are receiving and their biases and perceptions don’t color the outcomes. But you can’t blind people to the fact that they’re doing yoga.
Then there’s the biggest question at the center of yoga research: How do you define yoga? “Yoga is many things to many people,” said Karen Sherman, a researcher affiliated with the Group Health Research Institute. “What you put into a yoga intervention probably impacts what you get out.”
Yoga usually involves some combination of the following: postures and poses (asanas), regulated breathing (pranayama), and meditation and relaxation (samyana). But many classes mix in other elements, from chanting to heating to music. There’s also a lot of variation in teaching quality and style. Hatha and Iyengar yoga are mostly made up of stretches and restorative poses, while ashtanga and vinyasa tend to be more vigorous and athletic. Yin yoga probably won’t make you sweat: You mostly hold postures for long periods of time for very deep stretches. In Bikram, which consists of 26 postures repeated twice in a room that’s heated at 105 degrees, you can be sure you’ll drench your yoga clothes in perspiration.
Lorenzo Cohen, chief of the integrative medicine section at MD Anderson Cancer Center, told me: “Many papers don’t have enough of an in-depth description of what they mean by ‘yoga.’ What was the level of training of yoga therapists? How did they choose different postures or breathing exercises?”
What’s more, there are so many components in a yoga class, it’s tough to know what might be having an affect on health: If people report feeling better after a class, was that due to the experience of being part of a larger group? Was it the teacher’s style? Was it the breathing exercises? The heat? These factors are difficult to isolate, and some of the ways yoga helps people might be hard for scientists to measure.
Still, the yoga researchers I spoke to said the quality and quantity of studies has been improving, so we may get better answers soon. “There are more researchers conducting yoga therapy studies, and when the smaller trials suggest benefit, that leads to larger, better-designed trials,” said Cohen. There is also a move to study the biological outcomes of yoga — how classes affect things like hormone levels — which will lead us to a more objective picture of what yoga can do for the body.
1) Is yoga likely to hurt you?
No, probably not.
This question first came up in 2012, when the New York Times published a splashy article suggesting that yoga can wreck your body. The piece, adapted from the book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, suggested yoga caused widespread harm to its practitioners — from ruptured disks and stroke to brain injury.
But that piece was largely based on cherry-picked anecdotes, exaggerating these horrible cases to suggest they were representative of the broader yoga experience when they simply aren’t.
Cramer has studied published reports of injuries and other harms from yoga for several review and told me this: “We found yoga is as safe as any other activity. It’s not more dangerous than any other form of exercise.” He added: “Yoga is not 100 percent safe, but nothing is 100 percent safe.”
In a 2013 review of case studies, Cramer identified 76 unique incidents of adverse events from yoga. “Most adverse events affected the musculoskeletal, nervous, or visual system,” he concluded. “More than half of the cases for which clinical outcomes were reported reached full recovery, 1 case did not recover at all, and 1 case died.”
Most often, people got into trouble with the headstand pose, followed by shoulder stand and postures that required putting one or both feet behind the head
Most often, people got into trouble with the headstand pose, followed by shoulder stand, postures that required putting one or both feet behind the head, the lotus position, and forceful breathing. Pranayama-, hatha-, and Bikram-style yoga practices had the most adverse events associated with them.
Based on these cases, Cramer and his co-author had this practical advice for how to stay safe in yoga: Beginners should avoid advanced postures (such as headstands), and people with chronic health conditions (such as glaucoma) should consult their doctors before diving in. “Yoga,” they added, “should not be practiced while under the influence of psychoactive drugs.”
As for long-term yoga harms, Cramer pointed to two studies on joint and cervical disc degeneration in people who have been doing yoga for a while. But the studies had contradictory results, “so long-term health consequences cannot be clearly derived from the available evidence,” Cramer said.
I asked MD Anderson’s Cohen for his take. “There can, of course, be negative consequences if done incorrectly, like any body manipulation,” he said, “but if you have the right teacher this will not happen.” Even if a lot of yoga over a lifetime leads to injury, it’s not clear those harms outweigh the benefits, or that people would have been better off running or weightlifting all the time.
2) How does yoga compare with other forms of exercise?
The short answer is: It depends on the type of yoga. Yoga classes that involve nothing more than lying around on piles of blankets and breathing aren’t likely to build your muscles. But more strenuous types of yoga like ashtanga can be surprisingly similar to other forms of vigorous exercise.
“Some studies show, depending on yoga style, that it doesn’t improve fitness as much as other forms of exercise,” Cramer says. “But for rigorous and intense styles — that can be a form of exercise. It strongly depends on what you do when you do yoga.”
For example, a few high-quality studies have shown that certain types of yoga can indeed make people stronger. One small, randomized trial in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research — which compared eight weeks of Bikram yoga with no intervention in 32 young, healthy, adults — found that the yoga classes improved people’s deadlift strength.
The Bikram classes didn’t, however, improve the participants’ aerobic capacity. Another before-and-after study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, found that hatha yoga could improve aerobic fitness in older people. Still, it’s not clear that yoga is ideal here compared with, say, running or swimming.
Considering the mixed findings, a bit of common sense is helpful: If you go to a class mainly focuses on relaxation and doesn’t elevate your heart rate, you’re probably not getting a good cardio workout or building muscles.
If you go to a more athletic yoga class that tires out your muscles and makes you pant, you can probably count on it helping to make you stronger. If you are panting in a yoga class, you’re probably improving aerobic capacity to some extent. That said, if your main goal is building aerobic capacity, you might want to try running or swimming instead of or in addition to yoga.
1975: Lancet — “Randomised controlled trial of yoga and bio feedback in management of hypertension.” This is the first-ever randomized trial on yoga, and it found that yoga was more effective than relaxation in reducing high blood pressure.
1985:British Medical Journal — “Yoga for bronchial asthma: a controlled study.” This is the first randomized trial on yoga for asthma, and it was one of the first to show the effects of yoga on the inner organs.
1998: JAMA — “Yoga-based intervention for carpal tunnel syndrome.” This was a well-regarded randomized trial that showed the benefits of yoga for carpal tunnel syndrome compared with wrist splinting and no intervention.
2005: Annals of Internal Medicine — “Comparing yoga, exercise, and a self-care book for chronic low back pain.” This is the most important trial on yoga for lower back pain and the first really high-quality trial on yoga. Based on this trial, yoga had become increasingly recognized as an effective treatment for chronic lower back pain.
2013: Journal of the American College of Cardiology — “Effect of yoga on arrhythmia burden, anxiety, depression, and quality of life in paroxysmal atrial fibrillation.” One of the first trials to show that yoga may have an impact on life-threatening diseases such as atrial fibrillation.
2013: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research — “Bikram Yoga Training and Physical Fitness in Healthy Young Adults.” This trial showed Bikram yoga can improve strength and flexibility but not aerobic capacity.
2014: Journal of Clinical Oncology — “Randomized, controlled trial of yoga in women with breast cancer undergoing radiotherapy.” This high-quality trial demonstrated yoga can have benefits for women being treated for breast cancer.
2015: Brain, Behavior, and Immunity — “Mind-body therapies and control of inflammatory biology.” A review of the evidence on yoga and other mind-body activities, and their relationship to reducing inflammation.
3) Does yoga really reduce stress and anxiety?
For all the talk of yoga lifting moods and calming people, the studies on this question are still surprisingly inconclusive.
Karen Pilkington, a research fellow at the University of Westminster, knows this research better than anybody: She sifted through the science for systematic reviews on yoga for both anxiety and depression. (Here’s another, more recent systematic review of the evidence on yoga for depression by other authors.)
“There are indications that it might be helpful,” Pilkington says. “But lots of the studies are quite small, and we definitely need more and bigger studies.” In other words, yoga might help with mood disorders, but we don’t yet know for sure because the studies to date have generally been so badly designed. “We can’t say there’s conclusive evidence that yoga works for depression and anxiety,” she explained. “We’re still really exploring yoga as an idea for testing and the best ways of testing it.”
One complication here: When it comes to conditions like anxiety and depression, it can be difficult to untangle whether it’s the yoga that’s helping or simply the act of going out, joining a group on a regular basis, and so on. Even if yoga turns out to be unequivocally beneficial for depression, other research has shown that exercise in general can alleviate depression. So, again, it’s not clear that yoga is the only way to get this benefit.
As for stress reduction, there are a few randomized trials — the highest-quality evidence — that have suggested yoga is about as effective as simple relaxation programs, more helpful than no intervention, but not as effective as stretching. Pretty mixed results.
4) Does yoga have long-term health benefits?
Possibly. To be clear, there’s currently no direct evidence on yoga’s long-term benefits. Researchers simply haven’t tracked yogis over a span of 20 years or more and followed up to see whether they get diseases at a lower rate than non-yogis.
But that’s not the whole story. There are also some randomized controlled trials suggesting that yoga may improve quality of life for diabetes patients, reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors, and even help people manage high blood pressure
How can this be? One possibility is that yoga can help reduce inflammation in the body — which turns out to be surprisingly beneficial.
You can think about inflammation in two ways. There’s helpful inflammation, as when your body’s immune system mounts a response to bacteria in a cut. There’s also harmful inflammation. When you’re stressed, your body’s inflammatory response can go into overdrive, hampering its ability to fight off viruses and disease. People who are inactive, obese, or eat an unhealthy diet have higher levels of harmful inflammation. And researchers have found associations between inflammation and various chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
Yoga — like other mind-body exercises such as tai chi and meditation — seems to be particularly helpful at reducing harmful inflammation. A 2014 meta-analysis on the effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system found that yoga reduces inflammation-based blood markers. So did this 2014 randomized control trial looking at women with breast cancer and breast cancer survivors.
Michael Irwin at UCLA’s medical school, one of the authors of a 2015 descriptive review on inflammation and mind-body exercises, said, “When you look at the aerobic exercise necessary to decrease inflammation, people have to maintain very vigorous levels.” But not with yoga, he continued. “Even practices with minimum levels of physical activity can have large effect sizes.” Researchers don’t yet know why, though they think the meditative components of yoga, tai chi, and meditation may have something to do with it.
“When you compare long-term yoga practitioners to people doing other forms of exercise, you have better body awareness in yogis”
In the past few years, some academics have also begun to study “body awareness” and its relationship to a number of health outcomes. Body awareness, according to this article in PLOS One, “involves an attentional focus on and awareness of internal body sensations.” The idea is that in becoming more aware of your body, you might be more likely to notice when you’re stressed, in pain, or tired, and perhaps less likely to abuse your body.
This 2013 study, involving 18 people with chronic neck pain who practiced Iyengar yoga once a week for nine weeks, found that participants reported increased body awareness after practicing. In this 2005 study, which compared three groups of women — 43 doing Iyengar and ashtanga yoga, 45 doing aerobic exercise, and 51 who did neither activity — the yogis reported more body awareness and body satisfaction than the other groups. These were both qualitative studies, not experimental trials, so it’s difficult to know whether the yogic types are more “body aware” to begin with or whether the yoga made the difference.
“When you compare long-term yoga practitioners to people doing other forms of exercise,” said Cramer, “you have better body awareness in yogis.”
5) Does yoga help with lower back pain?
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Yes. Yoga does seem to help alleviate lower back pain, in both the short and long term. The evidence around this is some of the best yoga research we have. This meta-analysis of the evidence on yoga for back pain, from 2013, sums it up.
found strong evidence for short-term effectiveness and moderate evidence for long-term effectiveness of yoga for chronic low-back pain in the most important patient-centered outcomes. Given the low number of adverse events, yoga can be recommended as an additional therapy to patients who do not improve with education on self-care options.
That said, there are some caveats here, too. The leading researcher on this question, Karen Sherman, notes that it’s still not clear whether yoga is any better than any other form of exercise for back pain. “It’s certainly a viable form of exercise, but is it better than other exercises ? Probably not,” she says.
Some of the best research on lower back pain has only looked at one specific type of yoga — viniyoga.
Researchers haven’t figured out why yoga helps with back pain. This Cochrane Review protocol offered a few guesses, suggesting that improved flexibility and muscle strength, as well as relaxation and body awareness, may help.
6) Does yoga improve flexibility and balance?
The research here is limited. But there are a few high-quality controlled trials that suggest yoga can help increase flexibility in young people, healthy seniors, and computer users. One small study on stroke patients suggested that yoga may improve balance, as did this study in healthy young adults.
7) Can yoga really stimulate digestion or wring out toxins?
Anyone who has taken a yoga class has probably been exposed to wild claims by the teacher that certain poses will do anything from wring out toxins to stimulate a particular part of the colon and alleviate constipation. But the science backing up these kinds of very specific claims was scant, so I asked one of the researchers, Cohen, about where they come from.
” basing it on personal experience, on anecdote, on the lineage of practice that’s been handed down,” he said. “They are probably not basing it on Western-style analytic techniques that followed a control trial design. We just haven’t gotten there yet with yoga research, testing particular poses or breathing techniques for particular outcomes.”
What happens to your brain and body when you do yoga regularly
- Over 36 million Americans practice yoga — a popular exercise that can have profound benefits to your mental and physical health.
- Studies show yoga can improve flexibility, which in turn can help treat and prevent back pain.
- Yoga and meditation have also been shown to lower inflammation, which is linked to serious issues like cardiovascular disease and cancer.
- Studies also suggest it might reduce stress by interfering with your brain’s ability to release stress hormones.
Over 36 million Americans practice yoga, which really can have profound health effects on your body and brain. Studies show yoga can improve flexibility, which in turn can prevent and treat back pain. It also lowers inflammation in the body, which has been linked to serious issues like cardiovascular disease, and like other forms of exercise, yoga may reduce stress.
Following is a transcript of the video.
This year is the year that you start doing yoga, and I mean for real this time. You’re going to join the 36 million-plus Americans who have taken up this beautiful practice, connecting yourself with a millennia-old tradition and helping you flush out those nasty toxins, or, you know, probably not.
Before you grab a mat, here’s what yoga really does to your body and brain. First of all, yoga comes in many, many different styles, but generally speaking, it involves some amount of stretching and meditation. Now, despite what you may have read, there’s no scientific evidence to support the idea that yoga will flush out toxins from your colon or anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean these techniques can’t help your body in many other ways.
Take back pain for instance. An estimated 80% of Americans will suffer from back pain at one point in their lives. But one study found that after just six to 12 yoga sessions, participants reported significantly less pain in their lower back. That’s because certain yoga poses stretch out your hamstrings, which, when they’re too tight, can yank on your hip flexors and strain your lower back. But the more you practice yoga, the more flexible your hamstrings get.
For example, in a 2015 study, women practiced a type of hatha yoga, which involves positions like downward dog and triangle pose. They practiced 90 minutes each week for around 16 weeks straight. And by the last week, they could reach four centimeters closer to their toes than before thanks to those loose hamstrings. Now, if you’re also meditating during those yoga sessions, the flexibility might not be the only benefit. After seven to 16 weeks of meditative activities, participants in one study saw a huge drop in C-reactive proteins in their blood. Those proteins are linked to inflammation, which, when you’re overly stressed, can kick into overdrive. And over time, that inflammation may contribute to serious illnesses like cardiovascular disease and cancer. That’s where yoga’s meditative qualities can help.
Researchers suspect that yoga may reduce stress by interfering with the central nervous system’s ability to release stress hormones. Plus, studies show that meditation-focused types of yoga, like yoga asana, boost levels of feel-good hormones like oxytocin in the brain. Plus, yoga is an exercise, and exercise in and of itself is a stress reliever. In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends two and a half to five hours a week of light to moderate exercise.
That can include workouts like yoga, brisk walking, or swimming. And to be fair, any amount of regular exercise is most likely going to reduce anxiety, elevate mood, and improve sleep and self-esteem. So while yoga might have an edge in the flexibility department and mindfulness department, there are plenty of other activities you can try to get fit. But as long as it gets you moving and maybe gives you some new friends, why not give it a try?
The Truth About 7 Big Yoga Claims
The myriad benefits attributed to yoga-weight-loss, heart disease protection, freedom from depression-are enough to get anyone on the mat, but do they hold up to modern scientific investigation? New York Times science writer and long-time yogi William J. Broad decided to find out. For his latest book, The Science of Yoga, Broad took a deep dive into the research to reveal which promises the ancient tradition can-and can’t-deliver on. “Yoga makes you feel good-every practitioner knows that. But the science is catching up to explain why,” he says.
Here’s the real deal on seven big claims yoga makes:
Claim 1: Yoga Makes You Feel Good
True. One of the major reasons for yoga’s popularity-and perhaps why devotees are reluctant to critically assess the practice-is that yoga just makes people feel good.
Recent research is able to put that feeling in more technical terms. In 2005 a pair of comprehensive reviews of the research on yoga’s effects on anxiety and depression found that yoga helps moderate reactions to and perceptions of stress, as well as significantly lifting depression-especially for women. Yoga bumps up levels of the neurotransmitter GABA which both lifts mood and suppresses anxiety.
“Yoga calms everything down. It helps me remember to take a breath no matter what life throws at me,” says Heidi Kristoffer, certified yoga instructor at Strala Yoga in New York City.
Claim 2: Yoga is All the Cardio You Need
False. Anyone who’s ever left a yoga class soaked in sweat, breathing heavy, and walking funny the next day might find this hard to believe, but yoga doesn’t even meet minimum standards for aerobic exercise. In fact, even sun salutations, one of the more aerobically challenging yoga progressions, barely gets halfway to the American College of Sports Medicine’s baseline standard for aerobic exercise.
Claim 3: Yoga Can Help Prevent Heart Disease
True. Wait a minute. Yoga isn’t cardio, but it helps prevents heart disease? Sure does, just not the way you’d expect. While the exact mechanisms through which yoga helps aren’t understood, The Science of Yoga points to dozens of studies from around the world that show yoga lowers some of the most common risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and atherosclerosis.
Claim 4: Yoga Will Help You Lose Weight
False. And true. The lithe appearance of the instructors and regulars at your average yoga class would suggest the practice turns you into a veritable calorie furnace. But one of the more surprising findings detailed in The Science of Yoga is that yoga actually decreases your metabolism. Broad recognizes that yoga may help people lose weight but that they do so despite the acute physiological effects of a yoga session.
“Yoga helps you lose weight because it changes how you think,” Kristoffer says. “When I first started practicing yoga, I was young, but I stopped partying so much because I wanted to feel good in class. It makes you want to take care of your body and I hear that from my students all the time.”
Claim 5: Yoga Makes You More Flexible
True. This might seem like an obvious benefit of an activity non-devotees equate with “stretching.” But the active, engaged flexibility work done in yoga is a far cry from the casual reach for the toes one might do before a treadmill run. A 2010 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that active stretching (where the muscle opposite the one being stretched is contracted, as is often the case in yoga poses) resulted in lasting, improved range of motion, while passive stretchers actually decreased their range of motion.
“People need strong, flexible muscles, but most of us have weak, tight muscles. Yoga helps you release muscular tension and start getting stronger,” says Chrissy Carter, a New York-based yoga instructor.
Claim 6: Yoga Can Make You Look and Feel Younger
True. Yoga shows promise not only in slowing down the aging process (by increasing DNA-protecting telomerase), but also in helping older adults deal with some of the most common age-related health woes.
Loren Fishman, M.D., yogi, and author of Yoga for Osteoporosis, is conducting a study to confirm his belief that yoga helps build stronger bones (stay tuned for that). Yoga may also help prevent fractures (often deadly for seniors) by improving balance and reducing the fear of falling. Yoga has also been shown to be an effective therapy for musculoskeletal pain and rheumatoid arthritis.
Claim 7: Yoga Improves Your Sex Life
True. Studies into the effects of yoga on sexual experience show that both men and women who regularly practice yoga (in the study, subjects practiced for an hour each day) report increased arousal, better orgasm, and more overall satisfaction-at least in part due to increased testosterone.
“Cobra pose improves your testosterone. Then maybe you don’t need the little blue pills,” Broad says. What’s more, a Canadian study of one yogic breathing technique found that it increased sexual arousal, even in women with Sexual Arousal Disorder.
The Bottom Line
If all this science still doesn’t seem to capture what yoga does for you, it may just be hard for science to quantify some of yoga’s greatest attributes.
“Arguably, yoga’s enduring fascination comes from its capacity to exceed rational or empirical investigation,” says Dr. Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body, the Origins of Modern Posture Practice. “The fact is that yoga ultimately deals with states of being that cannot be reduced to the biological or psychological.”
In the epilogue of his book, Broad suggests that there might be many benefits to yoga beyond what science can currently quantify for us. “Many of yoga’s truths surely go beyond the truths of science,” he says.
- By Justin Park
If you’re a passionate yoga practitioner, you’ve probably noticed some yoga benefits—maybe you’re sleeping better or getting fewer colds or just feeling more relaxed and at ease. But if you’ve ever tried telling a newbie about the benefits of yoga, you might find that explanations like “It increases the flow of prana” or “It brings energy up your spine” fall on deaf or skeptical ears.
Researchers Are Catching On to Yoga’s Benefits
As it happens, Western science is starting to provide some concrete clues as to how yoga works to improve health, heal aches and pains, and keep sickness at bay. Once you understand them, you’ll have even more motivation to step onto your mat, and you probably won’t feel so tongue-tied the next time someone wants Western proof.
First-Hand Experience With the Benefits of Yoga
I myself have experienced yoga’s healing power in a very real way. Weeks before a trip to India in 2002 to investigate yoga therapy, I developed numbness and tingling in my right hand. After first considering scary things like a brain tumor and multiple sclerosis, I figured out that the cause of the symptoms was thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve blockage in my neck and chest.
Despite the uncomfortable symptoms, I realized how useful my condition could be during my trip. While visiting various yoga therapy centers, I would submit myself for evaluation and treatment by the various experts I’d arranged to observe. I could try their suggestions and see what worked for me. While this wasn’t exactly a controlled scientific experiment, I knew that such hands-on learning could teach me things I might not otherwise understand.
“…for more than a year, I’ve been free of symptoms.”
My experiment proved illuminating. At the Vivekananda ashram just outside of Bangalore, S. Nagarathna, M.D., recommended breathing exercises in which I imagined bringing prana (vital energy) into my right upper chest. Other therapy included asana, Pranayama, meditation, chanting, lectures on philosophy, and various kriya (internal cleansing practices). At the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai and from A.G. Mohan and his wife, Indra, who practice just outside of Chennai, I was told to stop practicing Headstand and Shoulderstand in favor of gentle asana coordinated with the breath. In Pune, S.V. Karandikar, a medical doctor, recommended practices with ropes and belts to put traction on my spine and exercises that taught me to use my shoulder blades to open my upper back.
Thanks to the techniques I learned in India, advice from teachers in the United States, and my own exploration, my chest is more flexible than it was, my posture has improved, and for more than a year, I’ve been free of symptoms.
38 Ways Yoga Improves Health
My experience inspired me to pore over the scientific studies I’d collected in India as well as the West to identify and explain how yoga can both prevent disease and help you recover from it. Here is what I found.
1. Improves your flexibility
Improved flexibility is one of the first and most obvious benefits of yoga. During your first class, you probably won’t be able to touch your toes, never mind do a backbend. But if you stick with it, you’ll notice a gradual loosening, and eventually, seemingly impossible poses will become possible. You’ll also probably notice that aches and pains start to disappear. That’s no coincidence. Tight hips can strain the knee joint due to improper alignment of the thigh and shinbones. Tight hamstrings can lead to a flattening of the lumbar spine, which can cause back pain. And inflexibility in muscles and connective tissue, such as fascia and ligaments, can cause poor posture.
2. Builds muscle strength
Strong muscles do more than look good. They also protect us from conditions like arthritis and back pain, and help prevent falls in elderly people. And when you build strength through yoga, you balance it with flexibility. If you just went to the gym and lifted weights, you might build strength at the expense of flexibility.
See alsoWhy You Should Add Weights to Your Yoga Practice
3. Perfects your posture
Your head is like a bowling ball—big, round, and heavy. When it’s balanced directly over an erect spine, it takes much less work for your neck and back muscles to support it. Move it several inches forward, however, and you start to strain those muscles. Hold up that forward-leaning bowling ball for eight or 12 hours a day and it’s no wonder you’re tired. And fatigue might not be your only problem. Poor posture can cause back, neck, and other muscle and joint problems. As you slump, your body may compensate by flattening the normal inward curves in your neck and lower back. This can cause pain and degenerative arthritis of the spine.
4. Prevents cartilage and joint breakdown
Each time you practice yoga, you take your joints through their full range of motion. This can help prevent degenerative arthritis or mitigate disability by “squeezing and soaking” areas of cartilage that normally aren’t used. Joint cartilage is like a sponge; it receives fresh nutrients only when its fluid is squeezed out and a new supply can be soaked up. Without proper sustenance, neglected areas of cartilage can eventually wear out, exposing the underlying bone like worn-out brake pads.
5. Protects your spine
Spinal disks—the shock absorbers between the vertebrae that can herniate and compress nerves—crave movement. That’s the only way they get their nutrients. If you’ve got a well-balanced asana practice with plenty of backbends, forward bends, and twists, you’ll help keep your disks supple.
See alsoHow to Build a Home Practice
6. Betters your bone health
It’s well documented that weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis. Many postures in yoga require that you lift your own weight. And some, like Downward- and Upward-Facing Dog, help strengthen the arm bones, which are particularly vulnerable to osteoporotic fractures. In an unpublished study conducted at California State University, Los Angeles, yoga practice increased bone density in the vertebrae. Yoga’s ability to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (see Number 11) may help keep calcium in the bones.
7. Increases your blood flow
Yoga gets your blood flowing. More specifically, the relaxation exercises you learn in yoga can help your circulation, especially in your hands and feet. Yoga also gets more oxygen to your cells, which function better as a result. Twisting poses are thought to wring out venous blood from internal organs and allow oxygenated blood to flow in once the twist is released. Inverted poses, such as Headstand, Handstand, and Shoulderstand, encourage venous blood from the legs and pelvis to flow back to the heart, where it can be pumped to the lungs to be freshly oxygenated. This can help if you have swelling in your legs from heart or kidney problems. Yoga also boosts levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. And it thins the blood by making platelets less sticky and by cutting the level of clot-promoting proteins in the blood. This can lead to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes since blood clots are often the cause of these killers.
8. Drains your lymphs and boosts immunity
When you contract and stretch muscles, move organs around, and come in and out of yoga postures, you increase the drainage of lymph (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells). This helps the lymphatic system fight infection, destroy cancerous cells, and dispose of the toxic waste products of cellular functioning.
See alsoLymphedema Relief Through Yoga
9. Ups your heart rate
When you regularly get your heart rate into the aerobic range, you lower your risk of heart attack and can relieve depression. While not all yoga is aerobic, if you do it vigorously or take flow or Ashtanga classes, it can boost your heart rate into the aerobic range. But even yoga exercises that don’t get your heart rate up that high can improve cardiovascular conditioning. Studies have found that yoga practice lowers the resting heart rate, increases endurance, and can improve your maximum uptake of oxygen during exercise—all reflections of improved aerobic conditioning. One study found that subjects who were taught only pranayama could do more exercise with less oxygen.
10. Drops your blood pressure
If you’ve got high blood pressure, you might benefit from yoga. Two studies of people with hypertension, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, compared the effects of Savasana (Corpse Pose) with simply lying on a couch. After three months, Savasana was associated with a 26-point drop in systolic blood pressure (the top number) and a 15-point drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number—and the higher the initial blood pressure, the bigger the drop.
11. Regulates your adrenal glands
Yoga lowers cortisol levels. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider this. Normally, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol in response to an acute crisis, which temporarily boosts immune function. If your cortisol levels stay high even after the crisis, they can compromise the immune system. Temporary boosts of cortisol help with long-term memory, but chronically high levels undermine memory and may lead to permanent changes in the brain. Additionally, excessive cortisol has been linked with major depression, osteoporosis (it extracts calcium and other minerals from bones and interferes with the laying down of new bone), high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. In rats, high cortisol levels lead to what researchers call “food-seeking behavior” (the kind that drives you to eat when you’re upset, angry, or stressed). The body takes those extra calories and distributes them as fat in the abdomen, contributing to weight gain and the risk of diabetes and heart attack.
12. Makes you happier
Feeling sad? Sit in Lotus. Better yet, rise up into a backbend or soar royally into King Dancer Pose. While it’s not as simple as that, one study found that a consistent yoga practice improved depression and led to a significant increase in serotonin levels and a decrease in the levels of monoamine oxidase (an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters) and cortisol. At the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson, Ph.D., found that the left prefrontal cortex showed heightened activity in meditators, a finding that has been correlated with greater levels of happiness and better immune function. More dramatic left-sided activation was found in dedicated, long-term practitioners.
13. Founds a healthy lifestyle
Move more, eat less—that’s the adage of many a dieter. Yoga can help on both fronts. A regular practice gets you moving and burns calories, and the spiritual and emotional dimensions of your practice may encourage you to address any eating and weight problems on a deeper level. Yoga may also inspire you to become a more conscious eater.
14. Lowers blood sugar
Yoga lowers blood sugar and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and boosts HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In people with diabetes, yoga has been found to lower blood sugar in several ways: by lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels, encouraging weight loss, and improving sensitivity to the effects of insulin. Get your blood sugar levels down, and you decrease your risk of diabetic complications such as heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness.
15. Helps you focus
An important component of yoga is focusing on the present. Studies have found that regular yoga practice improves coordination, reaction time, memory, and even IQ scores. People who practice Transcendental Meditation demonstrate the ability to solve problems and acquire and recall information better—probably because they’re less distracted by their thoughts, which can play over and over like an endless tape loop.
16. Relaxes your system
Yoga encourages you to relax, slow your breath, and focus on the present, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system (or the fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is calming and restorative; it lowers breathing and heart rates, decreases blood pressure, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs—comprising what Herbert Benson, M.D., calls the relaxation response.
17. Improves your balance
Regularly practicing yoga increases proprioception (the ability to feel what your body is doing and where it is in space) and improves balance. People with bad posture or dysfunctional movement patterns usually have poor proprioception, which has been linked to knee problems and back pain. Better balance could mean fewer falls. For the elderly, this translates into more independence and delayed admission to a nursing home or never entering one at all. For the rest of us, postures like Tree Pose can make us feel less wobbly on and off the mat.
See alsoPoses for Back Pain
18. Maintains your nervous system
Some advanced yogis can control their bodies in extraordinary ways, many of which are mediated by the nervous system. Scientists have monitored yogis who could induce unusual heart rhythms, generate specific brain-wave patterns, and, using a meditation technique, raise the temperature of their hands by 15 degrees Fahrenheit. If they can use yoga to do that, perhaps you could learn to improve blood flow to your pelvis if you’re trying to get pregnant or induce relaxation when you’re having trouble falling asleep.
19. Releases tension in your limbs
Do you ever notice yourself holding the telephone or a steering wheel with a death grip or scrunching your face when staring at a computer screen? These unconscious habits can lead to chronic tension, muscle fatigue, and soreness in the wrists, arms, shoulders, neck, and face, which can increase stress and worsen your mood. As you practice yoga, you begin to notice where you hold tension: It might be in your tongue, your eyes, or the muscles of your face and neck. If you simply tune in, you may be able to release some tension in the tongue and eyes. With bigger muscles like the quadriceps, trapezius, and buttocks, it may take years of practice to learn how to relax them.
20. Helps you sleep deeper
Stimulation is good, but too much of it taxes the nervous system. Yoga can provide relief from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Restorative asana, yoga nidra (a form of guided relaxation), Savasana, pranayama, and meditation encourage pratyahara, a turning inward of the senses, which provides downtime for the nervous system. Another by-product of a regular yoga practice, studies suggest, is better sleep—which means you’ll be less tired and stressed and less likely to have accidents.
See alsoSavasana (Corpse Pose)
21. Boosts your immune system functionality
Asana and pranayama probably improve immune function, but, so far, meditation has the strongest scientific support in this area. It appears to have a beneficial effect on the functioning of the immune system, boosting it when needed (for example, raising antibody levels in response to a vaccine) and lowering it when needed (for instance, mitigating an inappropriately aggressive immune function in an autoimmune disease like psoriasis).
22. Gives your lungs room to breathe
Yogis tend to take fewer breaths of greater volume, which is both calming and more efficient. A 1998 study published in The Lancet taught a yogic technique known as “complete breathing” to people with lung problems due to congestive heart failure. After one month, their average respiratory rate decreased from 13.4 breaths per minute to 7.6. Meanwhile, their exercise capacity increased significantly, as did the oxygen saturation of their blood. In addition, yoga has been shown to improve various measures of lung function, including the maximum volume of the breath and the efficiency of the exhalation.
Yoga also promotes breathing through the nose, which filters the air, warms it (cold, dry air is more likely to trigger an asthma attack in people who are sensitive), and humidifies it, removing pollen and dirt and other things you’d rather not take into your lungs.
23. Prevents IBS and other digestive problems
Ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation—all of these can be exacerbated by stress. So if you stress less, you’ll suffer less. Yoga, like any physical exercise, can ease constipation—and theoretically lower the risk of colon cancer—because moving the body facilitates more rapid transport of food and waste products through the bowels. And, although it has not been studied scientifically, yogis suspect that twisting poses may be beneficial in getting waste to move through the system.
24. Gives you peace of mind
Yoga quells the fluctuations of the mind, according to Patanjali’sYoga Sutra. In other words, it slows down the mental loops of frustration, regret, anger, fear, and desire that can cause stress. And since stress is implicated in so many health problems—from migraines and insomnia to lupus, MS, eczema, high blood pressure, and heart attacks—if you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll be likely to live longer and healthier.
25. Increases your self-esteem
Many of us suffer from chronic low self-esteem. If you handle this negatively—take drugs, overeat, work too hard, sleep around—you may pay the price in poorer health physically, mentally, and spiritually. If you take a positive approach and practice yoga, you’ll sense, initially in brief glimpses and later in more sustained views, that you’re worthwhile or, as yogic philosophy teaches, that you are a manifestation of the Divine. If you practice regularly with an intention of self-examination and betterment—not just as a substitute for an aerobics class—you can access a different side of yourself. You’ll experience feelings of gratitude, empathy, and forgiveness, as well as a sense that you’re part of something bigger. While better health is not the goal of spirituality, it’s often a by-product, as documented by repeated scientific studies.
26. Eases your pain
Yoga can ease your pain. According to several studies, asana, meditation, or a combination of the two, reduced pain in people with arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other chronic conditions. When you relieve your pain, your mood improves, you’re more inclined to be active, and you don’t need as much medication.
27. Gives you inner strength
Yoga can help you make changes in your life. In fact, that might be its greatest strength. Tapas, the Sanskrit word for “heat,” is the fire, the discipline that fuels yoga practice and that regular practice builds. The tapas you develop can be extended to the rest of your life to overcome inertia and change dysfunctional habits. You may find that without making a particular effort to change things, you start to eat better, exercise more, or finally quit smoking after years of failed attempts.
28. Connects you with guidance
Good yoga teachers can do wonders for your health. Exceptional ones do more than guide you through the postures. They can adjust your posture, gauge when you should go deeper in poses or back off, deliver hard truths with compassion, help you relax, and enhance and personalize your practice. A respectful relationship with a teacher goes a long way toward promoting your health.
29. Helps keep you drug free
If your medicine cabinet looks like a pharmacy, maybe it’s time to try yoga. Studies of people with asthma, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes (formerly called adult-onset diabetes), and obsessive-compulsive disorder have shown that yoga helped them lower their dosage of medications and sometimes get off them entirely. The benefits of taking fewer drugs? You’ll spend less money, and you’re less likely to suffer side effects and risk dangerous drug interactions.
30. Builds awareness for transformation
Yoga and meditation build awareness. And the more aware you are, the easier it is to break free of destructive emotions like anger. Studies suggest that chronic anger and hostility are as strongly linked to heart attacks as are smoking, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol. Yoga appears to reduce anger by increasing feelings of compassion and interconnection and by calming the nervous system and the mind. It also increases your ability to step back from the drama of your own life, to remain steady in the face of bad news or unsettling events. You can still react quickly when you need to—and there’s evidence that yoga speeds reaction time—but you can take that split second to choose a more thoughtful approach, reducing suffering for yourself and others.
31. Benefits your relationships
Love may not conquer all, but it certainly can aid in healing. Cultivating the emotional support of friends, family, and community has been demonstrated repeatedly to improve health and healing. A regular yoga practice helps develop friendliness, compassion, and greater equanimity. Along with yogic philosophy’s emphasis on avoiding harm to others, telling the truth, and taking only what you need, this may improve many of your relationships.
32. Uses sounds to soothe your sinuses
The basics of yoga—asana, pranayama, and meditation—all work to improve your health, but there’s more in the yoga toolbox. Consider chanting. It tends to prolong exhalation, which shifts the balance toward the parasympathetic nervous system. When done in a group, chanting can be a particularly powerful physical and emotional experience. A recent study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute suggests that humming sounds—like those made while chanting Om—open the sinuses and facilitate drainage.
See alsoYoga 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Practice, Meditation, and the Sutras
33. Guides your body’s healing in your mind’s eye
If you contemplate an image in your mind’s eye, as you do in yoga nidra and other practices, you can effect change in your body. Several studies have found that guided imagery reduced postoperative pain, decreased the frequency of headaches, and improved the quality of life for people with cancer and HIV.
34. Keeps allergies and viruses at bay
Kriyas, or cleansing practices, are another element of yoga. They include everything from rapid breathing exercises to elaborate internal cleansings of the intestines. Jala neti, which entails a gentle lavage of the nasal passages with salt water, removes pollen and viruses from the nose, keeps mucus from building up, and helps drains the sinuses.
35. Helps you serve others
Karma yoga (service to others) is integral to yogic philosophy. And while you may not be inclined to serve others, your health might improve if you do. A study at the University of Michigan found that older people who volunteered a little less than an hour per week were three times as likely to be alive seven years later. Serving others can give meaning to your life, and your problems may not seem so daunting when you see what other people are dealing with.
36. Encourages self care
In much of conventional medicine, most patients are passive recipients of care. In yoga, it’s what you do for yourself that matters. Yoga gives you the tools to help you change, and you might start to feel better the first time you try practicing. You may also notice that the more you commit to practice, the more you benefit. This results in three things: You get involved in your own care, you discover that your involvement gives you the power to effect change, and seeing that you can effect change gives you hope. And hope itself can be healing.
37. Supports your connective tissue
As you read all the ways yoga improves your health, you probably noticed a lot of overlap. That’s because they’re intensely interwoven. Change your posture and you change the way you breathe. Change your breathing and you change your nervous system. This is one of the great lessons of yoga: Everything is connected—your hipbone to your anklebone, you to your community, your community to the world. This interconnection is vital to understanding yoga. This holistic system simultaneously taps into many mechanisms that have additive and even multiplicative effects. This synergy may be the most important way of all that yoga heals.
38. Uses the placebo effect, to affect change
Just believing you will get better can make you better. Unfortunately, many conventional scientists believe that if something works by eliciting the placebo effect, it doesn’t count. But most patients just want to get better, so if chanting a mantra—like you might do at the beginning or end of yoga class or throughout a meditation or in the course of your day—facilitates healing, even if it’s just a placebo effect, why not do it?
Maintaining a regular yoga practice can provide physical and mental health benefits
Learn about the different types of yoga and how it can be used as a tool to help you stay healthy.
Like yoga, the osteopathic approach to wellness focuses on your body’s natural tendency toward health and self-healing.
“The purpose of yoga is to build strength, awareness and harmony in both the mind and body,” explains Natalie Nevins, DO, a board-certified osteopathic family physician and certified Kundalini Yoga instructor in Hollywood, California.
While there are more than 100 different types, or schools, of yoga, most sessions typically include breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures (sometimes called asana or poses) that stretch and flex various muscle groups.
“As an osteopathic physician, I focus a lot of my efforts on preventive medicine and practices, and in the body’s ability to heal itself,” says Dr. Nevins. “Yoga is a great tool for staying healthy because it’s based on similar principles.”
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, focus on prevention by examining how your lifestyle and environment impact your health, rather than just treating your symptoms. They also complete extensive postgraduate and clinical training before becoming fully licensed physicians. Compare physician training requirements to those required for other types of clinicians.
Is group exercise more beneficial than working out alone?
Find out on DoctorsThatDO.org
Because there are so many different kinds of yoga practices, it is possible for anyone to start. “Whether you’re a couch potato or a professional athlete, size and fitness levels do not matter because there are modifications for every yoga pose and beginner classes in every style,” says Dr. Nevins. “The idea is to explore your limits, not strive for some pretzel-like perfection. It is a great way to get in tune with your body and your inner self.”
“The relaxation techniques incorporated in yoga can lessen chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome,” explains Dr. Nevins. “Yoga can also lower blood pressure and reduce insomnia.”
Other physical benefits of yoga include:
- increased flexibility
- increased muscle strength and tone
- improved respiration, energy and vitality
- maintaining a balanced metabolism
- weight reduction
- cardio and circulatory health
- improved athletic performance
- protection from injury
Aside from the physical benefits, one of the best benefits of yoga is how it helps a person manage stress, which is known to have devastating effects on the body and mind. “Stress can reveal itself in many ways, including back or neck pain, sleeping problems, headaches, drug abuse, and an inability to concentrate,” says Dr. Nevins. “Yoga can be very effective in developing coping skills and reaching a more positive outlook on life.”
Yoga’s incorporation of meditation and breathing can help improve a person’s mental well-being. “Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness; increases body awareness; relieves chronic stress patterns; relaxes the mind; centers attention; and sharpens concentration,” says Dr. Nevins. Body- and self-awareness are particularly beneficial, she adds, “because they can help with early detection of physical problems and allow for early preventive action.”
10 Great Resources for Online Yoga Classes
Online yoga classes are everywhere these days. Just Google “online yoga” and you’ll see what we mean. But don’t trust that the top Google results are actually the best options for your online needs. Those are typically just the brands paying the most to show up first on the list.
There are plenty of options for great online yoga; honestly, way more than 10. But the online yoga websites we’ve listed below are our favorites. All of them differ in one way or another so read on and see which one sounds like the best fit for you.
These Are 10 Great Resources For Premium Online Yoga Classes:
1. Alo Moves
Alo Moves is great place to practice with the yoga celebrities of Instagram like Patrick Beach, Dylan Werner, and Kino MacGregor to name just a few. The online yoga classes are all beautifully filmed and offered as programs or individual online classes. An Alo Moves subscription is $20 a month but they do offer a free 7-day trial.
Speaking of Kino MacGregor, OmStars is her baby. OmStars is real, watchable, entertaining, enlightening, authentic content made for yogis by yogis. Classes are offered as “series” like your favorite TV shows. An OmStars membership will run you $14.99 a month.
3. YA Classes
YA Classes by YogiApproved.com is a fantastic resource for premium online yoga classes and programs. If you want to grow your practice in specific areas like gaining flexibility, learning how to Handstand, and building strength, YA Classes is a great place to go. Once you purchase a program, you own it for life and can watch it anytime. All programs and classes can be purchased individually from $7 – $27 or you can become a member for just $10 a month and enjoy unlimited access to all programs and classes. Try it free for 7 days.
Best of all, as a member, a tree gets planted every time you complete a yoga class. Making you feel even better about getting on your mat. Try it FREE for 7-days here.
BullDogOnline is “fitness-fueled yoga with a musical heart.” Their online offerings are recorded live classes so it feels like you’re right there in the studio. You’ll get fitness-focused yoga and great music in one sweaty, energetic, heart-pumping brew. Bulldog is yoga rebooted – no chanting, and free from instructions in Sanskrit. A membership to BullDogYoga will run you $16 a month. They also offer daily passes for $5 a day.
Grokker is the “wow they have a lot of classes” type of online yoga resource. With over 4,000 videos you’re sure to find something that interests you, and you’ll also get more than just yoga. Grokker offers fitness videos, cooking classes, and even “sleep” videos. A Grokker membership is $14.95 a month.
DoYouYoga offers both free and premium (paid) classes in the form of multi class programs and bundles. Their offerings are extensive and cater to a wide range of yogis. DoYouYoga also offers a social media aspect to their platform where you can follow other yogis and share your progress. A membership is $15 a month.
YogaToday produces what are arguably some of the most beautiful online yoga videos around. This is because all the online yoga classes are filmed outside in the beautiful Northwest US. If you want to practice in a serene setting, you should definitely check out this online yoga site. A YogaToday membership will run you $14 a month. They also offer a 14-day free trial.
@YogaGirl Rachel Brathen created oneOeight, an online platform offering video-based yoga classes, meditation classes, cooking inspiration, life coaching, and more. The bright website is inviting and easy to navigate. With over 1,000 online classes there is much to choose from. A oneOeight membership is $14 a month after the 10-day free trial.
This is the online offering from the popular real life yoga studio, YogaWorks. MyYogaWorks offers online yoga classes by the handfuls, most of which are filmed in their studio, bringing a sense of consistency to their classes. A MyYogaWorks membership is $15 a month after their 14-day free trial.
If you’re looking for free yoga classes that may be a little less polished, then YouTube is a fantastic resource for free online yoga classes. Check out this article that highlights some of our favorite yoga channels on YouTube.
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Ashtanga (meaning “eight limbs”) is a term commonly used in modern Yoga circles, associated with the yoga philosophy elaborated in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. That means any yoga class that bases its philosophy on the Yoga Sutras could be called “Ashtanga Yoga”. In a sense, that could be the end of the story, but in this case, it’s just the beginning.
The Yoga Sutras are the fundamental yoga scripture that most yoga practitioners refer to even though there are many different scriptures in the wider yoga tradition. Ashtanga, or the “eight limbs”, is a short-hand way of describing the key aspects of the path of yoga, from ethical principles, postural and breathing practices to meditation. What the eight limbs are and how they should be practiced is a whole additional question, which can be addressed separately. But , we are here to see where the confusion is and possibly create clarity.
The name “Ashtanga Yoga” has, confusingly, also been used to refer to the vigorous Hatha Yoga practice method taught by the late Shri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore. Using the name Ashtanga implies a connection to Patanjali’s eight limbs. So, what is the real relationship between Ashtanga of Patanjali and the Ashtanga Yoga method of Pattabhi Jois and by extension what is the origin of the method of Pattabhi Jois’ Yoga Teaching? Is there a discernible line between them or is it a connection in name only?
A line to Patanjali’s Ashtanga would mean either a yoga practitioner is actually practicing all “eight limbs” or that there is a direct lineage connection back to Patanjali, or both. To really practice the eight limbs means that besides practicing a vigorous postural practice, it means also practicing the other seven limbs of Yoga of Patanjali. Exactly how is not always totally explained by Pattabhi Jois or various other teachers for that matter. A common perspective is that all eight limbs are being practiced within the postural practice itself. This leaves certain limbs like meditation being interpreted as movement meditation. Also, what about the rest of our lives? Many yoga schools say they believe in practicing the eight limbs, or in other words, practicing the yoga philosophy of Patanjali, but again exactly how would be spelled out by each teacher.
The idea of a direct connection to Patanjali turns us to the origin of the “Ashtanga Yoga Method” of Pattabhi Jois. As it turns out, it does not have as clear of an origin story as many of us had been told. The original story was about a lost scripture, the “Yoga Kurunta” that had been found and was the basis of the system. Pattabhi Jois would quote Vamana Rishi, the author of the Yoga Kurunta, saying “Oh Yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa”. But the scripture was nowhere to be found, as Jois said “it was eaten by ants.”
Using the phrase “Ashtanga Vinyasa” becomes helpful to give a distinction between the philosophical principles (Ashtanga) and the Hatha Yoga practice method (Ashtanga Vinyasa). The origin of Ashtanga Vinyasa points back to Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, Krishnamacharya and possibly his teacher in Tibet. The current version of the evolving story seems to be that Krishnamacharya learned the system from his teacher in Tibet. With the origin story continually changing plus aspects of the practice being changed over time, the idea that there is one true “vinyasa system” or direct line back to Patanjali is not clear at all.
All this really means, however, is that all the references to “Ashtanga” are not the absolute definitive formulation that some are seeking and that it is simply a convenient name to indicate a general philosophical perspective. This may seem like bad news, for those who want the set system with hard and fast rules. But it can also be seen as the beauty of real life Yoga transmission at work, leaving the door open for real inquiry into what the eight limbs mean for each practitioner in their encounter with the principles and practice frameworks given by Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and others. They keep pointing us in the direction of the growth of the limbs of our own Yoga and life.
Next time, I will discuss the “eight limbs” themselves!