Derived from the Sanskrit word “yuji,” meaning yoke or union, yoga is an ancient practice that brings together mind and body.
It incorporates breathing exercises, meditation and poses designed to encourage relaxation and reduce stress.
Practicing yoga is said to come with many benefits for both mental and physical health, though not all of these benefits have been backed by science.
This article takes a look at 13 evidence-based benefits of yoga.
CAN DECREASE STRESS
Yoga is known for its ability to ease stress and promote relaxation.
In fact, multiple studies have shown that it can decrease the secretion of cortisol, the primary stress hormone.
One study demonstrated the powerful effect of yoga on stress by following 24 women who perceived themselves as emotionally distressed.
After a three-month yoga program, the women had significantly lower levels of cortisol. They also had lower levels of stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression.
Another study of 131 people had similar results, showing that 10 weeks of yoga helped reduce stress and anxiety. It also helped improve quality of life and mental health.
When used alone or along with other methods of alleviating stress, such as meditation, yoga can be a powerful way to keep stress in check.
Many people begin practicing yoga as a way to cope with feelings of anxiety.
Interestingly enough, there is quite a bit of research showing that yoga can help reduce anxiety.
In one study, 34 women diagnosed with an anxiety disorder participated in yoga classes twice weekly for two months.
At the end of the study, those who practiced yoga had significantly lower levels of anxiety than the control group.
Another study followed 64 women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterised by severe anxiety and fear following exposure to a traumatic event.
After 10 weeks, the women who practiced yoga once weekly had fewer symptoms of PTSD. In fact, 52% of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD at all.
It’s not entirely clear exactly how yoga is able to reduce symptoms of anxiety. However, it emphasises the importance of being present in the moment and finding a sense of peace, which could help treat anxiety.
MAY REDUCE INFLAMMATION
In addition to improving your mental health, some studies suggest that practicing yoga may reduce inflammation as well.
Inflammation is a normal immune response, but chronic inflammation can contribute to the development of pro-inflammatory diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
A 2015 study divided 218 participants into two groups: those who practiced yoga regularly and those who didn’t. Both groups then performed moderate and strenuous exercises to induce stress.
At the end of the study, the individuals who practiced yoga had lower levels of inflammatory markers than those who didn’t.
Similarly, a small 2014 study showed that 12 weeks of yoga reduced inflammatory markers in breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue.
Although more research is needed to confirm the beneficial effects of yoga on inflammation, these findings indicate that it may help protect against certain diseases caused by chronic inflammation.
COULD IMPROVE HEART HEALTH
From pumping blood throughout the body to supplying tissues with important nutrients, the health of your heart is an essential component of overall health.
Studies show that yoga may help improve heart health and reduce several risk factors for heart disease.
One study found that participants over 40 years of age who practiced yoga for five years had a lower blood pressure and pulse rate than those who didn’t.
High blood pressure is one of the major causes of heart problems, such as heart attacks and stroke. Lowering your blood pressure can help reduce the risk of these problems.
Some research also suggests that incorporating yoga into a healthy lifestyle could help slow the progression of heart disease.
A study followed 113 patients with heart disease, looking at the effects of a lifestyle change that included one year of yoga training combined with dietary modifications and stress management.
Participants saw a 23% decrease in total cholesterol and a 26% reduction in “bad” LDL cholesterol. Additionally, the progression of heart disease stopped in 47% of patients.
It’s unclear how much of a role yoga may have had versus other factors like diet. Yet it can minimize stress, one of the major contributors to heart disease.
IMPROVES QUALITY OF LIFE
Yoga is becoming increasingly common as an adjunct therapy to improve quality of life for many individuals.
In one study, 135 seniors were assigned to either six months of yoga, walking or a control group. Practicing yoga significantly improved quality of life, as well as mood and fatigue, compared to the other groups.
Other studies have looked at how yoga can improve quality of life and reduce symptoms in patients with cancer.
One study followed women with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy. Yoga decreased symptoms of chemotherapy, such as nausea and vomiting, while also improving overall quality of life.
A similar study looked at how eight weeks of yoga affected women with breast cancer. At the end of the study, the women had less pain and fatigue with improvements in levels of invigoration, acceptance and relaxation.
Other studies have found that yoga may help improve sleep quality, enhance spiritual well-being, improve social function and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in patients with cancer.
MAY FIGHT DEPRESSION
Some studies show that yoga may have an anti-depressant effect and could help decrease symptoms of depression.
This may be because yoga is able to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that influences levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter often associated with depression.
In one study, participants in an alcohol dependence programme practiced Sudarshan Kriya, a specific type of yoga that focuses on rhythmic breathing.
After two weeks, participants had fewer symptoms of depression and lower levels of cortisol. They also had lower levels of ACTH, a hormone responsible for stimulating the release of cortisol.
Other studies have had similar results, showing an association between practicing yoga and decreased symptoms of depression.
Based on these results, yoga may help fight depression, alone or in combination with traditional methods of treatment.
COULD REDUCE CHRONIC PAIN
Chronic pain is a persistent problem that affects millions of people and has a range of possible causes, from injuries to arthritis.
There is a growing body of research demonstrating that practicing yoga could help reduce many types of chronic pain.
In one study, 42 individuals with carpal tunnel syndrome either received a wrist splint or did yoga for eight weeks.
At the end of the study, yoga was found to be more effective in reducing pain and improving grip strength than wrist splinting.
Another study in 2005 showed that yoga could help decrease pain and improve physical function in participants with osteoarthritis of the knees.
Although more research is needed, incorporating yoga into your daily routine may be beneficial for those who suffer from chronic pain.
MAY RELIEVE MIGRAINES
Migraines are severe recurring headaches.
Traditionally, migraines are treated with medications to relieve and manage symptoms.
However, increasing evidence shows that yoga could be a useful adjunct therapy to help reduce migraine frequency.
A 2007 study divided 72 patients with migraines into either a yoga therapy or self-care group for three months. Practicing yoga led to reductions in headache intensity, frequency and pain compared to the self-care group.
Another study treated 60 patients with migraines using conventional care with or without yoga. Doing yoga resulted in a greater decrease in headache frequency and intensity than conventional care alone.
Researchers suggest that doing yoga may help stimulate the vagus nerve, which has been shown to be effective in relieving migraines.