Yoga is an ancient practice of discipline that has benefits for both mind and body. It has become popular again in modern times because it can increase calm, decrease anxiety, and provide a strength-based workout that also improves flexibility.
Research has plenty to say about yoga, and study after study has found that it’s got numerous health benefits beyond being a great way to exercise.
This article discusses the top research-backed benefits of yoga.
Yoga is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “union,” since the purpose of the practice is to unite the mind and body. It’s a great way to undo the damage that modern, chaotic society does to our brains and bodies. (1)
There are many kinds of yoga with slight distinctions, but all methods are designed to combine exercise, deep breathing, and mindfulness to induce relaxation, strength, and stress-relief.
Yoga poses can range from beginner to advanced. Images of advanced yoga poses are often seen on social media, which can deter new people from giving the practice a try. In reality, you do not ever have to do a headstand or the complex poses to gain the unique benefits of practicing yoga. You do not even have to be flexible. You just have to be willing to put the time and focus in and you will see and feel improvements.
11 Evidence-Based Benefits of Yoga
Yoga has been around for centuries, but modern research is here to say that it’s good for you. These are the top reasons why yoga is such a dynamic practice for health, wellness, and mind-body balance.
1. Relieves Chronic Pain
Chronic pain can occur as a result of many different medical conditions ranging from back injuries to fibromyalgia or arthritis and beyond. Having a chronic pain condition can severely restrict the ability to function in daily life. Chronically taking pain relievers doesn’t always provide the necessary relief and comes with a host of negative side effects.
Studies have found that those experiencing chronic pain who turn to yoga to address it can get pain-relieving benefits. (2)
Specifically, yoga has helped fibromyalgia patients to decrease pain, improve strength, and find better balance, reducing the risk of injury. (3) It helped people with carpal tunnel syndrome find pain relief and turned out to be more effective than simply wearing a wrist splint. (4)
Yoga has effectively helped women address pelvic pain and has also been able to decrease pain and improve physical ability in patients with osteoarthritis. (5, 6)
2. Stress Relief
The world we live in is entirely stressed out. Almost everywhere you turn, you find people who are burnt out, stressed, or on the brink of mental breakdown. Yoga has long been used for providing stress relieving benefits by helping the body better handle what stress does to it.
Studies have found that yoga actually works to decrease cortisol, the stress hormone. (7, 8) When cortisol levels are high for extended periods of time, it can slow metabolism, lead to weight gain, increase inflammation, and contribute to the development of other chronic disorders.
Yoga can help to decrease the way that stress impacts the body in the following ways:
- Lowers heart rate
- Lowers blood pressure
- Slows and deepens breathing
Studies have found that yoga effectively lowers stress related to emotional problems, anxiety, and overwhelming workloads, and can actually improve one’s outlook and increase the ability to perceive and experience joy. (9, 10, 11)
3. Lowers Anxiety
Anxiety differs from stress in some key ways, although many who have anxiety would also categorize themselves as stressed. Anxiety is chronic worrying that can catastrophize scenarios either based in reality or not. Anxiety can have roots in trauma or can be a result of lived experiences. It can also be a result of neurotransmitter changes in the brain, or a combination of many factors.
Anxiety is one of the top reasons that people turn to yoga for relief, not only because it works, but because it has been well-studied and proven effective for combating anxiety and panic attacks.
You don’t even have to do yoga every day to see results. Research found that people with anxiety disorder who did yoga twice a week for two months found significant relief. (12)
While heading to a studio to start yoga classes might induce feelings of anxiety in someone looking to relieve it, the good news is that you can practice yoga in the comfort of your own home. There are many apps, YouTube videos, or at-home programs that can guide you through the process of beginning your own practice. If you’re new to yoga, get medical clearance from your doctor first, and then start slowly, with a few minutes of yogic stretching in the morning a few times a week or before bed. You can work your way up into a routine that works for your schedule and needs.
4. Improves Depression
Depression can occur for many reasons, but it’s often caused or worsened by a change in the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Research has found that yoga can help to lower the stress hormone cortisol which can suppress serotonin and lead to or worsen depression. (13)
For those who struggle with depression, a regular yoga practice has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, including those associated with postpartum, premenstrual disorder, and alcohol dependence. It can also help to prevent sudden drops in serotonin. (14, 15, 16, 17)
You should never stop taking antidepressants or change your treatment plan without speaking with your medical provider. Yoga can work in conjunction with antidepressants or other methods of care.
5. Helps Address PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can happen for many reasons. Whatever the cause, research has shown that yoga can help to diminish the stress response activation that can happen in people with PTSD and help to reduce overall anxiety and responses to triggers. (18, 19)
A regular yoga practice not only helps to reduce chronic symptoms associated with PTSD, but can reduce the chance of being diagnosed with it in the first place. (20) Yoga works to help those with PTSD by improving resilience and mindfulness and giving the body alternative ways to react to triggers than trauma. It is effective for women and children who have been subjected to abusive situations, but also works for soldiers returning from or actively serving in military duty. (21) Yoga can work so effectively at reducing PTSD that in one study, after participants went through a 10-week yoga program, more than half of them no longer qualified for diagnosis with PTSD. (22)
6. Decreases Inflammation
Inflammation is a necessary healing response in the body, but when it becomes chronic, it can lead to heart disease, autoimmunity, chronic pain, cancer, and more. (23) Research finds that a regular yoga practice can help to lower inflammation levels in the body. (24)
Yoga works to decrease inflammation by helping to optimize antioxidants in the body, including glutathione, the body’s main antioxidant. By doing this it fights oxidative stress which can lead to aging, cell damage, cancer, and disease. (25, 26, 27) The key though is that you have to make yoga a normal part of your life to harness these benefits.
7. Improves Relationship with Food
How people view food can be complicated. Between eating disorders, overeating, stress in figuring out which diet is “right,” and more, it’s not easy to just choose a meal and eat it. Adding mindfulness to meals and to an overall lifestyle—like yoga—can help to support healthy eating practices.
Not only that, but a regular yoga practice can help to support healthy blood sugar, support natural weight loss, and improve eating disorders (especially binge eating or purging) and perception of food. (28, 29, 30)
Yoga can also improve leptin sensitivity—the hormone that plays a role in appetite—by lowering inflammation levels. When chronic inflammation is present, it can alter hormones that can lead to increased appetite and stress-eating. (31)
Inflammation is also a big factor in obesity, and regular yoga practice can help to address weight by improving food relationships, balancing hormones, and decreasing stress factors that lead to inactivity and depression. (32)
8. Supports a Healthy Heart
The cardiovascular system is responsible for getting blood throughout the entire body, which is essential for carrying oxygen and nutrients to cells, tissues, and organs. When the heart is weak or the arteries and veins are inefficient, the entire body suffers. Heart disease is the leading cause of death across the world and numbers continue to rise.
Yoga can improve many risk factors for heart disease, including: (33, 34, 35, 36)
- Lowering blood pressure
- Lowering heart rate
- Lowering LDL cholesterol
- Lowering triglycerides
- Lowering stress
- Improves oxygen transport and breathing
A regular yoga practice can stop the progression of cardiovascular disease in close to 50 percent of those who try it. (37)
9. Improves Sleep
If you aren’t getting good quality sleep, then no matter how healthy you are otherwise, your overall wellbeing will suffer. Not getting enough sleep has been associated with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, hormone imbalances, stress, depression, anxiety, and more. (38, 39, 40)
While many rely on over-the-counter, herbal, or prescription sleep aids, these do not address underlying causes of poor sleep or insomnia. Research has found that yoga can help people fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more rested when they wake up. (41) A regular yoga practice can also decrease sleep disturbances and the number of times people wake through the night. It can also reduce the need for sleep aids. (42)
Yoga is thought to work for sleep improvements by naturally increasing melatonin, which regulates the circadian rhythm, and also by decreasing stress hormones and promoting mental calm and relaxation. (43)
10. Increases Flexibility
Some people are more naturally flexible than others, but without regular stretching, muscles will become less flexible with age. Agility is a key way to remain young physically and to prevent injury. Being flexible is also a crucial component to having good balance, which is also important for preventing falls and other accidents.
Yoga has been shown to improve both flexibility and balance in both younger and older adults, as well as those who are athletes and those who are not. (44, 45, 46)
Even just 15 minutes per day has been shown to be effective at increasing flexibility and balance.
11. Increases Health of Muscle & Bone
Strength-training exercises not only optimize muscular tone but also work to support healthy bone density. You don’t have to lift heavy weights to get these results either. Bodyweight strength exercises, like yoga, use your own weight and specific poses to increase muscle tone and strength and can help prevent bone density losses. (47)
Research has found that people who regularly practice yoga have better upper body strength, increased endurance, improved core strength, and overall higher stability. (48, 49, 50)
Another study found that women who already had bone density loss were able to improve bone health without medication. (51)
Yoga can be a beneficial physical and mind-body wellness practice for many reasons. You don’t have to be perfectly in shape or flexible to begin a program either. However, it’s always important to check with your doctor before changing your fitness routine or starting something you’ve never done before.
Pregnant women and those with certain other medical conditions need to be cleared for physical activity and may need to modify several common yoga positions.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.