The Benefits of Yoga: Seven Powerful Reasons to Begin Practicing Yoga Today
According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Yoga Alliance, yoga in America is expanding at an almost exponential pace, with some 37 million people in the U.S. (nearly 1 in 10 Americans!) practicing it on a regular basis. What is behind yoga’s explosive growth and popularity? Why are both men and women of all ages flocking to this ancient practice?
Traditional yoga, which originated in ancient India more than 2,000 years ago, is a complex, rather esoteric system involving eight different “arms” or divisions. These arms include such disciplines as breathing, postures, concentration, meditation, withdrawal of the senses, and other practices, beginning by focusing on the outer world, then turning the focus inward until liberation or enlightenment, known as samadhi, is achieved.
Modern yoga, especially in the West, is almost exclusively focused on the physical postures known as asanas, as well as breathing and concentration. But even this mostly physically focused yoga is much more than just a set of physical poses, and it differs exponentially from simple stretching or other fitness routines. Yoga connects everything, including the movements of your body and the oscillation of your thoughts, to the rhythm of your breath.
Through this connection, your attention is naturally directed inward. And it’s this inward directedness that helps you to become “friends” with your thoughts. Instead of trying to suppress them or judge them or change them, you simply become aware of them and how they change from moment to moment. Gradually, you become more aware, and over time, as your body becomes more flexible, so does your mind.
Ask anyone who practices yoga on a regular basis why they do it, and you’ll get a variety of reasons from “yoga just makes me feel better” to “I like being more flexible.” But as it turns out, there is a plethora of scientific studies to back up yoga’s impressive effects on physical and mental health.
Here are seven powerful reasons, all backed by science, why you should begin your yoga practice today:
Yoga alleviates stress.
In our modern, 24-7, always-on society, almost no one escapes the effects of stress. Whether it’s a demanding boss, relationship woes, financial difficulties, or caring for a sick child or an aging parent, your body reacts the same: Your body’s natural “fight or flight” reaction kicks in. Your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate increases, and cortisol, the stress hormone, pours into your bloodstream. Over time, this can wreak havoc on your health.
Yoga is well known for its ability to leave practitioners feeling relaxed and at ease. And science confirms that practicing yoga1 can have a direct effect in reducing cortisol levels,2 the body’s primary stress hormone.
Yoga reduces anxiety.
Anxiety, just like stress, is rampant in our modern world, with 1 in 4 adults suffering from a full-blown anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Even without being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it’s highly likely that you’ve experienced periods of debilitating anxiety, brought on by life circumstances.
Yoga has been proven to be highly effective at reducing anxiety symptoms3 and has also been found to be effective in the treatment of depression.4
Yoga may decrease inflammation.
Inflammation is now thought to be at the root of many modern illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Because of the increasing evidence that inflammation is playing a major role in many health conditions, the National Institutes of Health announced in 2015 that inflammation is one of its top research priorities.
A regular yoga practice has been shown to reduce blood markers for inflammation. In a 2017 study published in Frontiers In Human Neuroscience,5 38 people participated in a three-month yoga and meditation retreat. In addition to self-reported decreases in anxiety and depression, participants had reduced levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (special molecules in your body that regulate inflammation) and increased levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines.
Yoga lowers your risk of heart disease.
Yoga is known to reduce blood pressure,6 which alone can decrease a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but a new study presented at the American College of Cardiology Middle East Conference October 19-21, 2017, in Dubai, looked at 750 patients who had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. The patients who practiced yoga in addition to aerobic exercise (which is commonly prescribed for heart disease patients under close medical supervision) had an astounding two times reduction in blood pressure, body mass index (an indicator of obesity), and cholesterol levels over those who only practiced the aerobic exercise or yoga alone. This suggests that yoga, when combined with traditional modalities, can be a powerful adjunct in prevention and recovery from heart disease.
Yoga enhances your sleep quality.
Quality sleep is essential for good health. Poor sleep puts you at increased risk for a number of diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Combine our “always on” world with its constant demands plus exposure to sleep-disrupting blue light waves from your electronic devices, and it’s no wonder the majority of people have trouble sleeping at one time or another.
Yoga, with its ability to induce physical as well as mental relaxation, is a natural ally in getting better sleep. Older people in particular have problems with sleep, including difficulty staying asleep. This naturally results in daytime sleepiness and decreased ability to function effectively. A 2005 study looked at 120 residents of a home for the elderly in which a yoga-based intervention was compared to an herbal preparation and a no-treatment control group. Those residents who received the yoga-based intervention7 took less time to fall asleep, stayed asleep longer, and felt more rested in the daytime. The other groups showed no change.
Yoga upgrades your flexibility, balance, and strength.
Increased flexibility, balance, and strength are some of the most well-known and obvious benefits of a yoga practice. With age, all three of these tend to decline, and it’s the loss of flexibility and balance, as well as strength, that can lead to debilitating falls, which can on occasion result in a permanent loss of independence.
And it’s not only the elderly who can benefit. Athletes are incorporating yoga workouts8 for these same benefits.
Yoga helps with chronic pain.
Chronic pain is a serious cause of suffering, with over 1.5 billion people worldwide experiencing its devastating effects. Low back pain and knee pain from osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) are significant contributors to this total.
Yoga, with its combination of postures, controlled breathing, and meditation, has been shown to both reduce pain and improve both flexibility as well as mobility in people who suffer from many of the conditions causing chronic pain, including low back pain9 and knee pain.10
So now you have seven powerful, research-backed reasons to begin your yoga practice. What’s your next step? A qualified, well-trained integrative yoga practitioner is a must if you want to get the most from your yoga journey. You should look for a teacher who is patient, who communicates well, who is attuned to your needs, and who is always looking to advance his or her own practice, as well as guide you in yours.
- Kishore Kumar Katuri, Ankineedu Babu Dasari, Sruthi Kurapati, et al., Association of yoga practice and serum cortisol levels in chronic periodontitis patients with stress-related anxiety and depression, J Int Soc Prev Community Dent. 2016 Jan-Feb; 6(1):7-14.
- Vedamurthachar A1, Janakiramaiah N, Hegde JM, et al., Antidepressant efficacy and hormonal effects of Sudarshana Kriya Yoga (SKY) in alcohol dependent individuals. J Affect Disord. 2006 Aug;94(1-3):249-53.
- Woodyard C, Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga, 2011 Jul-Dec; 4(2):49-54.
- Pilkington K1, Kirkwood G, Rampes H, et al., Yoga for depression: the research evidence. J Affect Disord. 2005 Dec;89(1-3):13-24
- Cahn BR, Goodman MS, Peterson CT, et al., Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression after a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017 Jun 26;11:315.
- Bharshankar JR, Bharshankar RN, Deshpande VN, et al., Effect of yoga on cardiovascular system in subjects above 40 years. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2003 Apr;47(2):202-6.
- Manjunath NK, Telles S., Influence of Yoga and Ayurveda on self-rated sleep in a geriatric population. Indian J Med Res. 2005 May;121(5):683-90.
- M Jay Polsgrove, Brandon M Eggleston, and Roch J Lockyer, Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes. Int J Yoga. 2016 Jan-Jun; 9(1): 27-34.
- Williams KA, Petronis J, Smith D, et al., Effect of Iyengar yoga therapy for chronic low back pain. Pain. 2005 May;115(1-2):107-17.
- Kolasinski SL, Garfinkel M, Tsai AG, et al., Iyengar yoga for treating symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knees: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2005 Aug;11(4):689-93.