Have you ever wondered what exactly yoga is good for and how it works? The benefits are yoga are broad and varied and often quite strange in how they operate. When in my high school studies I was given the opportunity to study an area of my own interest for a whole year, I chose to investigate the benefits of yoga.
Of course, I knew yoga was good for me, but how exactly did these seemingly simple exercises produce such amazing outcomes and ‘miracles’? The answer is not so simple, but what I found astounded even me, a yoga believer. Here is my outcome – the final report that culminates almost a full semester of research. I had to, for the sake of word counts, cull a lot of evidence and benefits out, but I will attach all the web links at the bottom if you want to read more. Thanks to everyone who provided information and a special mention to all the sources that I used, I have referenced them in a full bibliography for my project. If you are interested in learning about the benefits of yoga, please read on:
How can practicing yoga be beneficial?
Yoga is an ancient form of mental and physical practice that originated in India more than 3500 years ago. In recent times it has become increasingly popular in Western society (Schöps, I., 2010). Yoga practice involves a combination of three elements: asanas, pranayama and dhyana. Since its creation, hundreds of forms of yoga have evolved, from restorative Hatha yoga to vigorous Bikram yoga. Many people claim the benefits of yoga, with results ranging from weight loss, improved flexibility and strength, to stress relief and mental clarity. The overwhelming majority of evidence supports the notion that yoga is entirely beneficial, whilst a few critics claim the benefits are intangible or unquantifiable. Yoga practice is beneficial in many ways, with the benefits generally falling into the physical, health or mental and spiritual categories.
Physical Benefits of Yoga
The physical benefits of yoga practice are varied, and are generally the result of the asanas – or physical postures that feature in yoga. One of the key benefits attributed by numerous sources, including WebMD (2012), Yoga Alliance (2013), CNCA (2013) and the American Osteopathic Association (2013), is increased flexibility. The stretching nature of asanas aids in the release of muscle stiffness, tension, pain and fatigue, lactic acid and “increases the range of motion in joints.” (WebMD, 2012) Often this is one of the initial benefits observed, with one study finding that “participants had a 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga.” (WebMD, 2012). Increased strength and muscle tone are noticeable benefits of yoga, even from the less vigorous styles, which “can provide strength and endurance benefits.” (WebMD, 2012) Additionally, as explained by Timothy McCall M.D in Yoga Journal (2013), “when you build strength through yoga, you balance it with flexibility.” This equilibrium between strength and flexibility is crucial in preventing injuries, improving posture, relieving pain from “conditions like arthritis and back pain” and it “helps to prevent falls in elderly people.” (Yoga Journal, 2013) The Guardian (2012) supports this connection, as does CNCA (2013), which states “through improvements in balance, posture, and flexibility, yoga can help keep you nimble and active at any age.” With regard to chronic pain, yoga has proven to be “wonderful form of natural pain relief.” One CNCA (2013) article highlighted that only 12 weeks of yoga practice “led to greater improvements in back function than usual care”, whilst “yoga for 6 months has been linked to significantly less disability, pain…” Yoga Alliance (2013) linked yoga with reduced pain from chronic conditions including “multiple sclerosis, auto-immune diseases and hypertension as well as arthritis, back and neck pain…” In addition to previously mentioned strength benefits, yoga is beneficial for weight loss and overall body toning and composition (Yoga Alliance, 2013, Yoga Journal, 2007). Whilst more vigorous styles, such as Bikram and Ashtanga, aid weight loss through the intensity of the practice, gentle, restorative styles may also prove beneficial due to their stress reducing nature and the health benefits of this. The application of yoga as a weight loss tool is supported by Yoga Alliance (2013), CNCA (2013) and Yoga Journal (2007), in which Alka Kanaya states, “Restorative yoga isn’t aiming to get you to lose weight… but by reducing stress, you’ll automatically be putting less weight on your belly.” Finally, yoga practice is beneficial due to its ability to increase cardiovascular endurance and lung capacity, supported by CNCA (2013) “yoga involves deep, purposeful breathing, and research suggests that such exercises…improve your breathing capacity and respiratory function.” Thus, yoga practice is physically beneficial, with regard to strength, flexibility, posture, balance, and the prevention of injuries, pain relief and weight loss and body toning.
Health Benefits of Yoga
Not only is yoga highly physically beneficial, but research also indicates that it can be employed to treat health conditions and improve overall health. Currently, the Western World is suffering a plague in the form of metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of the “interrelated maladies – abdominal obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and insulin resistance.” As highlighted by Yoga Journal article, Metabolic Makeover (2007), this condition leads to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Yoga has great potential to prevent and even reverse metabolic syndrome, through its ability to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure and increase insulin sensitivity and weight loss. Evidence also suggests that, “yoga could increase insulin sensitivity and lower cholesterol by as much as 19 and 23 percent respectively.” (Yoga Journal, 2007) Similarly, sources including WebMD (2012), CNCA (2013) and Yoga Journal (2007), conclusively agree that yoga practice reduces the prevalence and severity of chronic lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Furthermore, the Yoga Health Foundation (2013) states that several trials have found that “yoga can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and resting heart rates…”, whilst another study found that an hour of daily yoga practice resulted in “a decrease in blood pressure…blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides.” Another key finding is the positive impact yoga practice has on stress hormones and the consequent reduction in stress-related inflammation and disease, which in turn aids the improvement of immunity and cardiovascular health (Harkess, 2013). One study explored the link between yoga and reduced stress-related inflammation and concluded that regular yoga practice “could have substantial health benefits.” (Kiecolt et al, 2010). Yoga has also been proven to be beneficial for cancer patients, as it “increased their energy levels and improved their quality of life.” (Yoga Health Foundation, 2013) Due to the bone and muscle strengthening abilities of yoga, it can help prevent and reverse age-related conditions such as osteoporosis. When two groups of osteoporosis suffers were compared, the control group lost or maintained bone density, whilst the yoga group, “85% gained it in the spine and hip.” (The Guardian, 2012) Finally, yoga is a natural detoxifier, as the stretching and compressing nature of the asanas assists the body in releasing toxins, whilst also creating a ‘self-massage’ in which the lymph and circulatory systems are activated. (Yoga Alliance, 2013) Therefore, yoga is beneficial for general wellbeing, as well as the prevention or treatment of many chronic health problems.
Mental and Spiritual Benefits of Yoga
Although yoga offers impressive physical and health benefits, the area in which yoga excels beyond all other exercise is that of mental and spiritual clarity. The major finding of this research was the evident connection between yoga and stress, in that it is a powerful stress-reliever. This is evident as 87% of people surveyed, who had practiced yoga before, said they felt ‘more relaxed’ afterwards. The positive impact of yoga on stress levels is supported by Yoga Alliance (2013), Kaitlin Harkess (2013), and WebMD (2012), which states that, “among yoga’s anti-stress benefits are a host of biochemical responses.” These responses include quantifiable drops in the stress hormone cortisol as a result of yoga and an increase in oxytocin, the ‘feel good’ hormone (WebMD, 2012). The stress-relieving properties of yoga are also likely the catalyst for many of the benefits experienced, as a reduction in stress causes a consequent reduction in inflammation and cell damage, thereby decreasing the prevalence of disease, in particular cardiovascular disease, through the reductions in blood pressure. Also, as stress hormones cause weight gain, the decrease of stress through yoga can trigger natural weight loss with minimal effort (Yoga Journal, 2007). Overall, a significant decrease in stress is the key way in which yoga is beneficial. Furthermore, the dhyana, or meditative, component of yoga appears to amplify the benefits and provide some of its own. Yoga Alliance (2013) states that, “the meditative effects…of yoga practice help many to cultivate inner peace and calm.” WebMD (2012) and the Huffington Post (2013) support this statement, whilst others sources add that yoga practice leads to a clear mind, less mental ‘chatter’, increased awareness of body and mind, improved mood and self-esteem, and could even be an alternative treatment for anxiety and depression (Yoga Alliance, 2013, CNCA, 2013, Harkess, K., 2013). One study found that the psychological benefits of yoga can even help people who suffer from anorexia, with regular practice resulting in reduced “food preoccupation” (Time, 2009). Therefore, the key finding with regard to the mental benefits was the stress-reducing properties of yoga and the flow on effects of this for general health, as well as the benefits of meditation on the human psyche.
Other Benefits of Yoga
Yoga is a gentle form of physical activity, making it an ideal alternative for those such as the elderly, people with mental or physical disabilities, children and people who suffer from illness. Additionally, yoga is low-risk, supported by CNCA (2013), which states, “the evidence is growing that yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health.” Yoga is cost effective, as it requires only a mat or towel and can be practiced in a studio, outside or at home. Finally, as explained in previous paragraphs yoga offers the uniquely powerful combination of a mental, spiritual and physical practice through the asanas, dhyana and pranayama, which appears to create the myriad of benefits cited.
It is evident that yoga is vastly beneficial, from stress reduction to body toning and the treatment of chronic disease, whilst also being nearly risk-free. Thus, yoga proves highly valuable to people who practice it. However, there is one obvious catch to the yoga panacea, these benefits can only be fully realised through regular, preferably daily, practice, as yoga is best practiced on a regular basis. 10 minutes everyday is better than a one hour class once a week. Therefore, practicing yoga appears to be infinitely beneficial and hold a great deal of worth as a holistic antidote to our stressful, modern-day lives.
Asanas – the Sanskrit word for the physical poses or postures practiced in a yoga class. (The Free Dictionary, 2013).
Ashtanga – an ancient form of yoga that links postures and breath in a dynamic flow (Adelaide Ashtanga Yoga Shala, 2013). It is generally more aerobically challenging than most yoga classes.
Bikram – a form of Hatha yoga, a set series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises practiced in a room heated to 40oC, created by Indian yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury. (Bikram Yoga Adelaide, 2013).
Dhyana – the Sanskrit word for meditation; the practice of meditation and the “absorbed state of mind brought about by about by meditation.” (About.com, 2013).
Hatha – stemming from the Sanskrit words ‘ha’ meaning sun and ‘tha’ meaning moon, hatha is the unifying and balancing of the body and mind through yoga. It is one of the traditional forms of yoga.
Pranayama – stems from the Sanskrit word ‘prana’ meaning breath, it is the controlling and holding of breath in the form of breathing exercises (The Free Dictionary, 2013).
- American Osteopathic Association, The Benefits of Yoga, http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-health/health-conditions-library/general-health/Pages/yoga.aspx.
- Belling, N., Yoga: a union of mind and body, New Holland Publishers, UK, 2002.
- CNCA Health, 5 Benefits of Yoga – No Matter What Your Age, http://www.cncahealth.com/explore/learn/exercise-or-fitness/5-benefits-of-yoga—-no-matter-what-your-age-(plus-what-type-is-right-for-you).
- CNCA Health, Yoga Health Benefits Outperform Aerobic Exercise, http://blog.cncahealth.com/post/2011/09/09/Yoga-Health-Benefits-Outperform-Aerobic-Exercise.aspx.
- Cowen and Adams, Physical and perceptual benefits of yoga asana practice, 2005, Arizona State University (study).
- Field, Yoga clinical research review, 2011, Touch Research Institute University of Miami School of Medicine (study).
- How yoga helped an anorexic recover [CNN 12/15/2012], http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXhwVYRu8X8
- Huffington Post Canada, 7 Benefits of Yoga: Amazing Ways Yoga Makes Your Life Better, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/07/18/7-benefits-of-yoga_n_1683059.html
- Journal of Adolescent Health, Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial of Yoga in the Treatment of Eating Disorders, http://www.jahonline.org/article/PIIS1054139X09003346/abstract (Study upon which Downward Dogs Fight Eating Disorders is based).
- Kiecolt-Glaser et al, Stress, Inflammation and Yoga Practice, 2010, The Ohio State University (study).
- Lorr, B., Hell Bent, St. Martins Press, New York, 2012.
- Luby, T., Yoga for Teens, Clear Light Publishers, New Mexico, 2000.
- Medical Search, Benefits of yoga for stress – what’s the reality?, http://www.medicalsearch.com.au/Benefits-of-yoga-for-stress-what-s-the-reality/f/11803
- Mercola.com, Benefits of Yoga: what research says about its use for common health problems, http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2013/02/22/yoga-benefits.aspx
- Mind Body Green, 5 Ways Yoga Helped Me Beat Anorexia, http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-5262/5-Ways-Yoga-Helped-Me-Beat-Anorexia.html
- Pilkington et al, Yoga for Depression, 2005, School of Integrated Health University of Westminster (study).
- Pullen et al, Benefits of yoga for African American heart failure patients, 2010, Georgia State University (study).
- Rodale, Is Yoga all the Exercise You Need?, http://www.rodale.com/yoga-benefits
- Schöps, I., Yoga: Theory and Practice for Beginners and Advanced Students, Parragon Books Ltd, UK, 2010.
- The Guardian, Yoga: it’s never too late to reap the benefits, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/may/01/yoga-benefits-never-too-late,
- The New York Times, Going to the Mats: ‘The Science of Yoga’ considers the practice’s benefits, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/books/review/the-science-of-yoga-considers-the-practices-benefits.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
- Time, Downward Dogs Fight Eating Disorders, http://healthland.time.com/2009/11/04/downward-dog-fights-eating-disorders/
- WebMD, The Health Benefits of Yoga, http://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/the-health-benefits-of-yoga
- Women’s Health, Benefits of Yoga: Does Yoga Really Burn Fat?, http://www.womenshealthmag.com/yoga/yoga-fitness-workout
- Yoga Alliance, Benefits of Yoga, http://www.yogaalliance.org/ya/Yoga_Basics/Benefits_of_Yoga.aspx,
- Yoga Health Foundation, Health Benefits of Yoga explained, http://yogahealthfoundation.org/health_benefits_of_yoga_explained
- Yoga Journal, Can you relax your way to a slimmer body – and starve off a dangerous ailment, too?, http://www.yogajournal.com/health/2527
- Yoga Journal, How yoga improves health, http://www.yogajournal.com/health/1634