Yoga is an ancient form of exercise that brings body and mind together. Indeed, the word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yuji,” which means yoke or union. Comprised of a series of poses, the practice of yoga also requires mindful breathing and meditation in order to clear toxins, relax the body, and reduce stress. There are many claims about the mental and physical benefits of yoga, and while not all of these claims are backed by science, we’ve gathered 9 benefits that are soundly based in evidence. What more do you need to get out to a class?
1. Yoga Reduces Stress
There are multiple studies that point to yoga’s role as a stress-buster. In one, 24 women who described themselves as emotionally distressed were found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol (our primary stress hormone) after a three-month course of yoga. They also reported decreased anxiety, fatigue, and depression. Another study involved 131 people over 10 weeks. Participants likewise experienced lowered anxiety and depression, and reported improved quality of life and mental health.
2. Yoga Relieves Anxiety
Anxiety is that feeling of worry that something bad is going to happen, and it can persist even when we understand rationally that we’re safe. A study of 64 women with PTSD took place over 10 weeks, during which participants did yoga just once weekly. At the end of the trial, all of the women had reduced anxiety, with 52% of them no longer meeting the criteria for PTSD. While not understanding the mechanism entirely, researchers suspect that yoga can help reduce feelings of anxiety because of its focus on being present in the moment and finding peace in it.
3. Yoga Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is a normal and necessary part of our immune response, but when the condition becomes chronic, it can lead to diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Several studies have shown that yoga can help to reduce inflammation. In one, 218 participants were divided into two groups – those who practiced yoga and those who didn’t. Both groups took part in strenuous exercise to induce stress, but the group who also practiced yoga had lower levels of inflammatory markers. Another study of breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue found similar results over 12 weeks of yoga.
4. Yoga Improves Heart Health
Yoga is thought to improve heart health by its positive effect on blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major contributor to problems such as heart attack and stroke. One study determined that subjects over 40 years old who had practiced yoga for at least five years had lower blood pressure and pulse rate numbers than people who didn’t. Another study looked at 113 patients with heart disease, and prescribed yoga in combination with dietary changes and other stress reduction efforts. As a result, 47% of patients experienced a halt in the progression of heart disease.
5. Yoga May Help Treat Migraines
Migraines are an agonizing experience. Typically, medication is used to treat migraines, but many sufferers say that it only helps, not cures them. However, increasing evidence points to yoga as a useful addition to medication to relieve migraine symptoms. In a study of 60 migraine sufferers, yoga in conjunction with traditional treatment led to a reduction in headache intensity, frequency, and painfulness for those who practiced it compared to the control group. Researchers think this is because of yoga’s ability to stimulate the vagus nerve, already known to help reduce migraine intensity.
6. Yoga Fights Depression
Similar to the way that yoga can reduce anxiety, it also serves as an anti-depressant by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Participants in one particular study, all of whom were in an alcohol dependence program, were found after just two weeks to have lower levels of both cortisol and ACTH, a hormone that stimulates the release of cortisol. Other studies have backed these results, indicating that yoga can be a valuable part of an overall treatment plan for depression.
7. Yoga Can Reduce Chronic Pain
Chronic pain affects millions of people and seriously diminishes quality of life and mental wellbeing. It can be caused by a huge range of conditions from injuries to arthritis. In great news for people whose lives are negatively impacted, a couple of studies have indicated that yoga is an effective method of pain control. One was done on 42 people with carpal tunnel syndrome who either wore a wrist splint or did yoga over eight weeks. Yoga was found to be better at reducing pain. Another study of people with osteoarthritis of the knees produced similar results.
8. Yoga Promotes Better Sleep
Poor sleep in itself can lead to a host of health issues, including high blood pressure, obesity, and depression. Simply by reducing levels of cortisol, yoga may be able to help you sleep better. But yoga has also been shown to increase melatonin, the hormone that helps you drift off and then regulates sleep. A study of 69 elderly patients instructed participants in the lead up to their bedtimes to either do yoga, take an herbal preparation, or do nothing different as part of the control group. The yoga group not only fell asleep faster, members slept longer and felt more rested upon waking.
9. Yoga Improves Flexibility and Balance
With all that stretching and twisting of the body it stands to reason that yoga would help develop flexibility. And the need to hold poses, sometimes on one foot, really helps develop balance. In a study on the impact of 10 weeks of yoga, 26 male college athletes were able to significantly increase several measures of flexibility and balance, compared to the control group. We can’t help but wonder how many weeks they complained about it before seeing the results. On the other end of the age spectrum, a study of 66 elderly patients had them practice either yoga or calisthenics (a type of body weight exercise). The yoga group improved flexibility nearly 4x that of the calisthenics group.
As you can see, there are many great reasons to do yoga and pretty much no downside. Each pose is highly customizable so that anyone can participate and get benefits, whether you are young, old, recovering from an injury, or brand new to the practice. When done in a group, yoga also boosts feelings of community and friendship, but the quiet mindfulness can also help to center you when done at home alone. So what are you waiting for? Pull up a mat!