I resisted doing yoga for many years. It just didn’t seem like a real exercise to me.
But once I started with basic yoga poses, I was shocked at the welcome changes I began noticing in both my body and mental outlook.
And I’m not alone. The yoga health success stories I hear are astounding.
They include everything from lowering high blood pressure, getting off heart medications, improving flexibility, relieving back pain, and decreasing depression to avoiding a pending hip replacement operation.
So how does yoga work, what are the known health benefits and how could such a simple little thing like yoga postures make such a big difference?
What Can Yoga Do for You?
Yoga means union. And its aim is to release body tension and increase mental clarity for an overall ongoing life experience of well-being.
Although yoga research is still in its infancy and there are several dozen scientific studies on the health benefits of yoga, here’s what’s known so far about this ancient practice’s health effects on both mind and body.
1. Improves your heart health: According to Harvard Health Publications, yoga, combined with a healthy lifestyle, has been shown to lower risk factors, like high blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and stress hormones, ease palpitations and improve cardiac rehabilitation.
2. Lowers high blood pressure: A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that regular yoga practice helped to reduce blood pressure levels.
3. Relieves back & neck pain: Research done in Germany and at West Virginia University found that yoga was more effective in reducing chronic neck and lower back pain than standard medical treatment.
4. Increases your brains ability: A University of Illinois study showed that participants performed significantly better on tests after just 20 minutes of yoga. Yoga was found to boost cognitive function, focus and memory.
5. Improves immune response: A Norwegian study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggested that yoga’s many health benefits might come from its ability to alter gene expression in your immune cells.
6. Raises flexibility & balance: A Colorado State University study found yoga decreases body fat and increases flexibility in hamstrings, back, shoulders and hips. And Temple University showed that yoga improves balance, eases arthritis and helps prevent falls in women over 65.
7. Heightens sexual experience: A Harvard study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that yoga has the ability to boost arousal, desire, orgasm and overall sexual satisfaction for women.
8. Steadies blood sugar levels: According to a Diabetes Care study yoga can cause muscles to become more sensitive to insulin and help control blood sugar, resulting in steadier blood sugar levels.
9. Builds bone, muscle & strength: Yoga poses build strength and help shape long, lean muscles. And a study done by Dr. Loren Fishman showed that practicing yoga improves bone density among older adults.
10. Improves breathing & lungs: Yoga teaches deep breathing, which benefits your entire body. A Ball State University study found that 15 weeks of yoga practice significantly increased lung capacity. Yoga breathing also helps clear nasal passages and calm the central nervous system.
11. Reduces feelings of stress: Boston University research showed 12 weeks of yoga helped relieve anxiety and depression and a University of California study found yoga increased feel-good chemicals in your brain.
12. Helps you manage your weight: Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found a link between regular yoga practice and lower weight. According to researcher Alan Kristal, DPH, MPH, who studied more than 15,000 healthy adults, “Those practicing yoga that were overweight to start with lost about five pounds during the same time period those not practicing yoga gained 14 pounds.”
How to Begin Your Yoga Practice
The first step is to find a great yoga teacher. If you’re new to yoga, have a few (or more) gray hairs or are physically challenged in some way, it’s important to find someone who doesn’t push a strenuous agenda.
Ask around until you find the best teacher and the perfect class.
A good yoga instructor will create a safe environment for you and help you to modify the yoga poses to meet your own abilities and limitations.
If you already practice yoga, what yoga health benefits have you noticed?
Qu S, Olafsrud SM, Meza-Zepeda LA, Saatcioglu F. PLoS One. Rapid gene expression changes in peripheral blood lymphocytes upon practice of a comprehensive yoga program. PLoS One. 2013;8(4):e61910.
Pal A, Srivastava N, Tiwari S, Verma NS, Narain VS, et al. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Effect of yogic practices on lipid profile and body fat composition in patients of coronary artery disease. Complement Ther Med. 2011;19(3):122-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2011.05.001.
Khalsa SB, Hickey-Schultz L, Cohen D, Steiner N, Cope S. The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research. Evaluation of the mental health benefits of yoga in a secondary school: a preliminary randomized controlled trial. J Behav Health Serv Res. 2012;39(1):80-90.
Kuntsevich V, Bushell WC, Theise ND. Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine. Mechanisms of yogic practices in health, aging, and disease. Mt Sinai J Med. 2010;77(5):559-69. doi: 10.1002/msj.20214.
Cheema BS, Marshall PW, Chang D, Colagiuri B, Machliss B. BioMed Central Public Health. Effect of an office worksite-based yoga program on heart rate variability: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Public Health. 2011;11:578. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-11-578.
Innes K E, Bourguignon C, Taylor A G. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. Risk indices associated with the insulin resistance syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and possible protection with yoga: a systematic review. J Am Board Fam Pract. 2005;18(6):491-519.
Ross A, Thomas S. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(1):3-12. doi:10.1089/acm.2009.0044.
Black DS, Cole SW, Irwin MR, Breen E, St Cyr NM, et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Yogic meditation reverses NF-κB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013;38(3):348-55.