Yoga, the ancient Indian practice has been attracting followers from around the world. Its popularity is not without a reason as many people claim they have had a positive impact on their physical and mental health ever since they turned to yoga.
While the benefits of yoga are widely known and people have personal experiences to share about the changes they have seen in themselves after they started practicing yoga, not enough or extensive studies are done to support many of its positive effects. There may be many styles of yoga like ashtanga yoga, vinyasa, Bikram, Iyengar, kundalini, hatha, Sivananda etc but their benefits are largely the same.
Yoga consists of asanas (physical exercies), pranayama (breathing techniques), relaxation, meditation etc. Yoga can be practiced by people of all age groups be it kids, adults or elderly. At different stages of life, it brings along different benefits that could slow down the process of ageing, improve quality of life, increase brain power, keep certain diseases at bay, help manage chronic illnesses, keep the body flexible and strong, help manage mental health diseases, keep you calm and anxiety-free and delay degeneration. Several studies have been done over the years on the impact of yoga on our overall well-being.
Not all benefits of yoga are backed by Science, but in this article we will discuss those that are approved by scientists and experts.
- Yoga helps control weight
Let’s start with something which is of concern for many people, especially those who are leading a sedentary lifestyle and stressful worklife. When we are working continuously without getting time for workout and paying attention to our body and mind, the result is disastrous. The first harmful effect of this lifestyle we would see is increase in weight.
When we do not sleep and wake up on time, do not move enough, eat unhealthy and stress all the time, our body’s metabolic function gets affected. Practicing yoga can help with this problem. In studies of yoga in people who were overweight or obese, practicing yoga has been associated with a reduction in body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight).
A study by National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health compared different yoga-based programmes for weight control and found that the most helpful programmes had longer and more frequent yoga sessions, a longer duration of the overall programme, a yoga-based dietary component, a residential component, inclusion of a larger number of elements of yoga, and home practice. If gaining weight is becoming a problem for you, Yoga is one of the advisable modes to address it.
- Improves brain function
Yoga has been increasingly finding favour among people who are looking to improve their brain function, memory and concentration. While stress takes a toll on our ability to concentrate, with age studies show that certain areas of our brain starts shrinking and affects our ability to remember certain things.
A 2015 study funded by NCCIH found out that yoga may protect the brain against the decrease in the amount of gray matter that occurs due to ageing. The study compared 14 experienced yoga practitioners to 14 physically active control participants of similar ages. In the control group, the amount of gray matter was lower in older participants than younger ones while among yoga practitioners, there was no relationship between gray matter and age.
Among the yoga practitioners, the volume of certain brain regions increased with the number of years of yoga experience and weekly amount of yoga practice. Practicing yoga can thus help the brain to retain its grey matter and helps you lead a more qualitative life even in old age.
- Helps in managing pain
People with chronic pain also turn to yoga as many scientific studies show that yoga is extremely effective in conditions involving pain. Studies show that Yoga helps in reducing pain perception and people may feel their pain is less severe and tolerable than before. The reason this happens is that Yoga helps disassociating negative emotions from pains.
Yoga also controls inflammation by decreasing the body’s response to stress. Inflammation also occurs in case of autoimmune disorders. Yoga helps with fibromyalgia, back pain, neck pain, and headaches. Studies of yoga for low-back pain have shown that it may reduce the intensity of the pain and help people function better.
According to studies, people who practiced yoga regularly for at least six weeks reported reductions in pain and improvements in mobility. The benefits of yoga remains the same across various styles, including, Iyengar, ashtanga, hatha, etc.
- Helps in managing chronic diseases
Chronic diseases can affect the quality of life with the limitations that come along. There are studies to show that yoga can help in managing chronic diseases like Cancer, Blood pressure, Multiple Sclerosis, Asthma and cardiovascular disorders. Some studies have shown that yoga can help improve quality of life and reduce fatigue and sleep disturbances in cancer patients.
Also a small amount of research in people with multiple sclerosis found that yoga has short-term benefits on fatigue and mood, but it doesn’t affect muscle function, reasoning ability, or quality of life. Studies in people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) have shown that yoga may improve physical ability like the capacity to walk a certain distance in a specific length of time, lung function, and quality of life. Yoga is also useful in managing the symptoms in case of asthma patients.
- Yoga can help with mental health disorders
Mental health is something which has become as important as physical health due to the increasing complexities of our lifestyle and highly stressed routine. Yoga is the perfect way to connect with our inner self and the process itself could help with many stress related or mental health disorders. Studies have shown that Yoga may be helpful in easing symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.
However, the research on yoga for anxiety disorders, clinical depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although mildly positive, is still very preliminary. A report in International Journal of Yoga said that Yoga leads to an inhibition of the posterior or sympathetic area of the hypothalamus. This inhibition optimizes the body’s sympathetic responses to stressful stimuli and restores autonomic regulatory reflex mechanisms associated with stress.
Yogic practices inhibit the areas responsible for fear, aggressiveness and rage, and stimulate the rewarding pleasure centers in the median forebrain and other areas leading to a state of bliss and pleasure. This inhibition results in lower anxiety, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and cardiac output in students practicing yoga and meditation.
The study also says consistent yoga practice improves depression and can lead to significant increases in serotonin levels coupled with decreases in the levels of monamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters and cortisol.
- Yoga helps improve eating habits
What you eat has a huge impact on your overall well being. Yogic way of life supports this theory. It is the other way round too. Practicing yoga results in better eating and helps in inculcating physical activity in the routine. A survey of young adults showed that practicing yoga regularly was associated with better eating and physical activity habits, such as more servings of fruits and vegetables, fewer servings of sugar-sweetened beverages, and more hours of moderate-to-vigorous activity.
This study however doesn’t establish whether yoga motivates people to practice better health habits or whether people with healthier habits are more likely to do yoga. In another study, previously inactive people were randomly assigned to participate or not participate in 10 weeks of yoga classes, those who participated in yoga increased their total physical activity. So it can be said that Yoga inculcates healthy habits in you including eating healthy and indulging in more physical activities.
Many face problems of insomnia due to stressful conditions in their life, faulty sleep routine or with increasing age. Research has shown that practicing yoga may improve sleep people with chronic diseases, elderly, arthritis patients, pregnant women, or women with menopause symptoms.
A report published in International Journal of Yoga, the ancient practice’s ability to increase relaxation and induce a balanced mental state was studied to evaluate its effect on sleep quality and improving insomnia. Regular practice of yoga resulted in a significant decrease in the time taken to fall asleep, an increase in the total number of hours slept, and in the feeling of being rested in the morning. Additionally, yoga had a positive influence on sleep patterns in individuals with lymphoma.
Furthermore, participation in yoga classes improved self-reported quality-of-life as well as measures of physical function among an elderly population.
- Yoga improves flexibility
Yoga is very good for your bone health and flexibility. In fact it can help keep conditions like arthritis and join problems at bay. Studies vouch for improved flexibility as the first and obvious benefits of yoga. This will of course not happen in a couple of days.
Many months of practicing yoga under the guidance of a trainer can help in gradual loosening of the muscles and connective tissues surrounding the bones and joins. This is also one of the reasons why people who practice yoga experience reduction in pain due to aches, osteoporosis and back pain. Yoga helps to build muscle mass and makes them strong.
Yoga stretches and poses improve your range of motion and improves oxygen and blood circulation. It also takes care of the cartilage areas that are not used and eventually wear out and affect the bone. Many studies have shown that asana, meditation or a combination of the two reduced pain in people with arthritis, Carpel Tunnel syndrome, back pain and other chronic conditions. Yoga also improves balance.
- Yoga helps control addiction
Anything which is done in excess, harmful and which makes us addicted should be avoided at all costs. The roots of the addiction are in mind and yoga can help remove it as one develops awareness and mindfulness. Yoga is all about mindfulness and by doing asanas and meditation we are training our mind to observe and correct. Through the practice of yoga, addicts shift from self-inflicted harm and disrespect toward their bodies to more respectful, caring, and loving behaviors.
For example, eating disorders are also a kind of addiction. Such disorders may happen when we have a negative self image. Yoga is helpful in improving our body image and is thus effective in the recovery from eating disorders. One study found that female yoga practitioners attribute their positive feelings and sense of well-being to yoga practice and report less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance and fewer disordered eating attitudes compared to non-yoga practitioners.
- Yoga may prevent cardiac diseases
Stress and an inactive lifestyle are the culprit behind many of the lifestyle diseases that put people’s life at risk. Yoga is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Yoga increases blood circulation and more oxygen reaches the body cells enhancing their function. Yoga also reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke as it thins the blood.
Twisting poses wring out venous blood from internal organs and allow oxygenated blood to flow in when the twist is released. Inverted poses also improves the blood flow from the legs and pelvis back to the heart and then pumped through the lungs where it becomes freshly oxygenated. Many studies show yoga lowers the resting heart rate, increases endurance, and can improve the maximum uptake and utilization of oxygen during exercise.
- Yoga makes menopause easier for women
There are hormonal changes in a woman’s body while going through Menopause around middle age. During this time, some women have hot flashes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping, or other troublesome symptoms. Studies find out that yoga may help to keep these symptoms in check and make the transition to this phase easier for women.
Many women also face mental health issues like depression, anxiety during this time. Yoga is also helpful in dealing with nearly all the symptoms surrounding menopause in women.