If you’ve never tried yoga and wonder whether there's actually any health benefits to it, then you might be surprised to find out there are plenty. Meaning union in Sanskrit, yoga is an age old traditional practice focused on bringing the mind and body together. It not just about holding positions, it also involves breathing exercises and meditation aimed at encouraging mental relaxation and states of calmness. Let’s take a look at 7 ways science has found that yoga can actually improve your health.
Yoga is increasingly being associated with good living, and it turns out there might just be something to it. Research has found that yoga may generally help improve sense of wellbeing and social function.
Researchers sought to find out if yoga could have a positive influence on quality of life when used as an adjunct therapy. In a placebo controlled study, yoga was found to significantly the improve quality of life of older people. This included improved mood and reduced fatigue, compared to the control participants.
Similarly yoga has shown positive effects as treatment to help patients with cancer manage their symptoms. This included reducing the common side effects of the symptoms of chemotherapy, such as nausea and vomiting, and for recovering levels of invigoration and relaxation.
In manic schedules of today’s information infused lifestyles, yoga is seen as a way to switch focus from the outer world, to the inner world. Accordingly, studies have shown that yoga can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This has been found to be true in people who were in a state of on-going emotional distress when they starting practicing. Though yoga isn’t mastered overnight, a three month program showed lowered levels of stress, fatigue and depression. Other studies have shown similar effects over 10 weeks.
A study with 34 women diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, showed that twice weekly classes for two months significantly improved their condition. This has also been backed by positive effects shown for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some theories suggest that the act of being present in the moment, rather than worrying about the future, could be an important factor. Some research also shows that yoga may have an anti-depressant effect.
It’s well known that aerobic exercise helps keep your heart in good shape, which is a bedrock of a healthy body. It seems that yoga may also improve heart health and reduce risk factors for heart disease.
A major cause of heart problems is high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Long term yoga practice has been found to result in lower blood pressure and pulse rate compared to normal people that don’t practice.
There are also other indications that yoga as a lifestyle choice may slow the progression of heart disease. When combined with diet changes, study participants who were considered at risk, exhibited a 26% reduction in “bad” LDL cholesterol. For many of the participants this had a direct effect on their condition.
Evidence shows that adding regular yoga into your routines could help promote better sleep. Specifically it appears that benefits apply to falling asleep faster, sleeping longer, and feeling better rested in the morning.
It has also been found to help people with medical conditions that cause sleep disturbances, reducing the need for sleep medications. It could be that yoga increases the secretion of melatonin, a hormone which regulates sleep cycles.
Probably one of the more intuitive expectations of yoga benefits. As such, it is well established that specific poses which target flexibility and balance, do actually improve them.
It’s not just about unfit people either. In fact, even collegiate athletes have been found to get measureable gains following a 10 week yoga program. In non-athlete populations, one year of yoga practice has been seen to improve total flexibility to four times that of normal people. Other findings show better balance and mobility in older people.
As we mentioned earlier, breathing techniques are a central component of yoga. Yogic breathing focuses on slowing and controlling inhalation and exhalation through conscious control.
The benefits of this practice were shown in 287 university students with a 15 week class. The classes measurably increased the maximum amount of air that can be expelled from the lungs. Known as ‘vital capacity’, this measure is important for anyone with lung diseases, heart problems, or asthma.
Supporting this, another yoga study with people with asthma conditions, saw that breathing improved symptoms and lung function in patients with mild-to-moderate asthma.
There are many degrees of exertion in yoga, which generally vary in accordance with the type of positions used, and how long they are held for. Though they are not very dynamic, many poses involve applied static strength for a variety of muscle groups across the body. Or they use steady movements which expand range of motion.
A study using repeated cycles of sun salutations (raising upper body and straight arms from the toes to the air), revealed a significant increase in upper body strength over 24 weeks of practice. For female particpants this also came with the benefits of a decrease in body fat percentage.
Other studies correlate with these findings, along with gains in endurance. Though it’s likely that newcomers to yoga will be guided through gentler exercises and poses, before moving onto advanced practices.
Considering the surprising amount of research into yoga, the wellness hype for both body and mind appear well justified. From improving your mental state, to priming your physical fitness and health - a regular yoga routine can deliver wide benefits. If you haven’t tried it, or done it for a while, it might just be worth signing-up for some local weekly classes.
If you found the sleep aspect of yoga interesting, then also check out this blog.
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