More than 36 million people are practicing yoga in the U.S., according to the recent statistics. Over the years, yoga has assumed the role of a ‘panacea exercise.’ Dealing with stress or anxiety? Try yoga. Need to get your blood sugar down? Get in Bow Pose. Cutting down on smoking? Well, that’s a no-brainer. Practice Bridge Pose instead.
Despite the hype about yoga and all the advantages it brings into your life, there is still limited scientific research on whether yoga is actually doing what people claim it to.
The worst thing is that you can’t trust the results of every research just because they were published in a scientific journal. Some studies are just too small to make a definite claim that yoga benefits a particular condition. Like this study on the effects of yoga on people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, for example. The study involved only three participants, which is definitely not enough to send off every person with the disorder to do yoga.
Some of the studies are not of high quality and are limited by methodological weaknesses. There are also so many types of yoga and methods of teaching that it is a bit of a stretch to associate the general yoga practice with the proved advantages. Some findings on the effects of yoga have also been somewhat inconsistent.
We have researched over 40 studies to check what science has to say about the actual health benefits of yoga, and whether it can be used as an additional treatment for certain conditions. Without further ado check the seven ways yoga improves your health:
One of the most significant benefits of yoga is that it has been proved to reduce inflammation in the short and long term.
But why is this so important?
We usually view inflammation as the sign of disease or injury when your body is trying to fight and get rid of pathogens, and heal itself. Acute inflammation due to infection, injury, etc. is easy to diagnose by measuring the level of biomarkers in the blood.
However, there is also another type of inflammation – chronic, low-grade inflammation also referred to as “inflammaging.” Inflammaging occurs when your body produces low concentrations of inflammatory factors. Their levels are slightly higher than in healthy populations and thus are harder to detect in the blood. According to Johns Hopkins University, low-grade inflammation can be caused by unhealthy diet, extra weight, sedentary lifestyle, and chronic stress and can lead to long-term adverse health outcomes such as premature aging, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Yoga helps with emotional regulation, stress response system, and cortisol levels – a hormone of stress, and subsequently leads to lower levels of inflammation.
A 2016 descriptive review of 26 randomized controlled trials (the results of which are usually the most reliable) on mind-body therapies for inflammation reported that yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation reduce blood markers signaling inflammation both in the short- and long term.
The mechanism behind mind-body therapies reducing inflammatory response remains to be studied in detail. Researchers believe that the answer hides in their effect on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Mind-body therapies are associated with the decreased sympathetic activity, a bodily ‘fight or flight’ response responsible for preparing you for danger. Due to this, yoga helps with emotional regulation, stress response system, and cortisol levels – a hormone of stress, and subsequently leads to lower levels of inflammation.
The results on anti-inflammatory properties of yoga were also confirmed by a 2017 exploratory study on yoga and meditation for preventing cellular aging. 96 healthy subjects underwent a 12-week pretested yoga and meditation program, which included asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), and dhayna (meditation). The participants showed an improvement in stress and inflammatory responses and as a result a significantly reduced rate of cellular aging.
Helps Manage Type 2 Diabetes
Thanks to its ability to reduce inflammation, yoga can have a positive effect on increasing the life quality for people with a range of chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes among them.
Small randomized research in India aimed to compare the effects of yoga with those of walking for people with elevated fasting blood glucose. After the 8-week intervention, participants who were practicing yoga lost more weight and waist fat compared to the control group. The study proved the potential of yoga for decreasing weight-related type 2 diabetes risk factors and increasing psychological well-being.
Yoga improves blood sugar control, reduces cortisol and total cholesterol, and shows promise in decreasing body mass index according to a 2017 meta-analysis of 23 studies on diabetes management involving 2,473 participants in total. However, we still don’t know whether yoga influences the life quality of patients with diabetes in the long term.
Improves General Well-Being
There is promising evidence that yoga may help reduce stress, manage anxiety, improve mental health and adopt a healthier lifestyle. However, we still lack profound research with large sample size, adequate control groups, randomization, and long duration.
A 2018 study on the effect of yoga on stress, anxiety, and depression recruited 52 female participants who engaged in 12 sessions of regular Hatha yoga three times a week. The results after the interventions showed that yoga contributed significantly to reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. However, since the study involved only female participants, it cannot be representative of the entire population. It is also questionable whether it was yoga that helped the women or the act of regular socializing in a group.
Exercise has been linked to improved mood and mental well-being for a long time. But the question is whether it is specifically yoga that greatly improves well-being or any physical activity. In 2010 study on the effects of yoga on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels (a neurotransmitter that controls behavior and stress; low levels of GABA are linked to depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia), healthy subjects were randomized to 12 weeks of Iyengar yoga or metabolically matched walking activity. The findings suggest that yoga was associated with greater increases in thalamic GABA levels and improvements in mood and anxiety compared to walking.
There is also evidence that yoga is as effective as or superior to exercise in improving psychological outcomes in both healthy and diseased adult populations. As to the teens and young adults, yoga also seems to provide a positive and immediate effect on mood and psychosocial well-being, which is slightly larger than the standard physical education session.
A meta-analysis of 12 randomized controlled trials studying the effect of yoga on participants with clinical depression found that “yoga was significantly better than usual care, relaxation exercises, or aerobic exercise in decreasing depressive symptoms.”
Helps to Stay Fit & Flexible
Many people are curious whether yoga alone is sufficient to meet the recommended level of physical activity mark for maintaining cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness. In short, it can. But it depends on the type of yoga you’re practicing, frequency, and duration of each yoga session.
Bikram yoga is a widely popular style of yoga nowadays in which practitioners perform a series of 26 postures in a heated room. It has been proven to meet the requirements for exercise of light-to-moderate intensity and can be beneficial for weight loss and fitness maintenance if practiced several times per week. Individuals who practiced Bikram yoga for eight weeks showed an increase in “deadlift strength, substantially increased lower back/hamstring flexibility, increased shoulder flexibility, and modestly decreased body fat compared with control group,” according to research on the effect of Bikram on physical fitness. At the same time, there were no improvements in cardiovascular or aerobic capacity, making yoga not as efficient as swimming or running.
Hatha yoga may have little, if any, cardiovascular benefit but is acceptable for enhancing muscular flexibility.
The findings are not so positive for the traditional Hatha yoga, popularly called as the yoga for beginners or the gentler version of yoga. Research reported that one session of Hatha yoga fails to meet the recommended level of physical activity and doesn’t improve or maintain cardiovascular fitness. Another study concludes that “hatha yoga may have little, if any, cardiovascular benefit,” but is acceptable for enhancing muscular flexibility. There is evidence though that Surya Namaskar (‘sun salutation’), an integral part of hatha yoga, can have a beneficial effect on the cardio-respiratory fitness of unfit or sedentary individuals, but only if performed regularly.
Don’t expect to lose weight or improve fitness while you’re practicing slow-paced and restorative types of yoga such as Kundalini or Yin Yoga. If you feel your heart rate doesn’t go up and you don’t really engage your muscles, then make sure to include other physical activities into your routine, such as gym, HIIT training, running, etc. depending on your goals. Only intense, physically challenging, longer and more frequent yoga sessions together with a balanced diet will improve your chances for building strength and weight loss.
Increases Body Awareness
Yoga helps to increase the sense of body awareness. Among many benefits, developed body awareness gives you the ability to focus on your inner emotions and sensations, such as pain, for example, thus successfully regulating them. It also becomes easier to recognize disease symptoms or stress at an early stage before they affect you adversely. Researchers suggest that the sense of body awareness may be useful in the management of various chronic diseases, including low back pain, congestive heart failure, chronic renal failure, irritable bowel syndrome.
A qualitative study of yoga for neck pain studied the possible positive effects of the Iyengar yoga on 18 individuals with chronic neck pain who attended the classes once a week for nine weeks. Most participants reported increased body awareness during their practice and in their daily lives. They also attributed better pain acceptance and control over their health to their yoga practice.
When yoga was compared to other forms of exercise, namely kung fu, ballroom dance and aerobic, yogis who engaged in their practice for more than half a year showed the highest levels of body awareness, according to a 2016 cross-sectional study involving 1,057 individuals in total. However, there were no significant differences found in beginners.
Partially due to the ability to increase the sense of body awareness, yoga has been proven to alleviate certain types of pain, such as lower back or neck pain, and reduce the painful sensations for people with carpal tunnel syndrome.
A 2018 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality assessed eight trials (with 1,466 participants in total) studying the effects of yoga on lower back pain and concluded that yoga relieves back pain and improves function both in the short and long term. However, this beneficial outcome is not unique to yoga only. According to studies, the effects were similar to those of the exercise as well as stretching.
Those who practice yoga may be more skillful in regulating their pain responses.
A pretty old, but high quality 1998 randomized trial on yoga for carpal tunnel syndrome randomly assigned participants to either a group who practiced yoga or to a control group who were offered wrist splint in addition to their current treatment. Yoga classes proved to be more effective in alleviating the pain and increasing grip strength than wrist splinting or no treatment. Subjects also reported improvement in their symptoms four weeks after the program conclusion.
But it’s not only about relieving the pain. Yogis are also more resistant to pain, according to a small study from the University of Utah. The subjects included yoga practitioners, people with fibromyalgia (hypersensitivity to pain), and healthy volunteers who were subjected to thumbnail pressure. Yoga practitioners showed ‘the highest pain tolerance and lowest pain-related brain activity during the MRI.’ The study suggests that those who practice yoga may be more skillful in regulating their pain responses.
Yoga is widely advised for people with arthritis. However, as far as the joint pain is concerned, there isn’t much evidence on the effects of yoga on arthritis or other associated conditions. The available studies are inconclusive about yoga benefit for arthritis due to their small size and scope, lack of control groups, and sometimes biased group assignment.
May Promote Better Sleep
There haven’t been many large high-quality research studies on the connection between yoga and sleep. The studies are either too small or use a limited number of qualitative methods that can’t provide deep insight into additional factors for sleep and life quality.
However, the available data shows that yoga may help manage sleep disorders as well as improve its overall quality.
A small study on the impact of long-term yoga practice on sleep quality suggested that yoga promotes better overall sleep quality in older adults. The yogis also experienced less sleep disturbance, took less time to fall asleep, used sleep medication less often, and felt more refreshed in the morning compared to the control group who didn’t engage in yoga practice.
A 2013 randomized controlled trial involving 120 elderly subjects also showed significant improvement in all the domains of the quality of life as well as and total sleep quality compared to the control group who received no yoga intervention.
Results from several individual studies showed that yoga may prove to be beneficial for addressing sleep disorders in other populations such as pregnant women, women with menopause symptoms, and people with arthritis.
In case you’re thinking of taking up yoga to fight back insomnia, then you might want to employ ‘additional tools,’ such as a weighted blanket, for example.
If you’re doing yoga for any other reason that is not mentioned here, that’s absolutely fine. Everything is individual. Even though there might be no scientific evidence, sometimes just believing can work wonders. So why not keep practicing as long as it makes you feel better and healthier?
Why do you practice yoga?
Share your story in the comments!
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