While modern media and advertising may have us think that yoga is all about physical poses, the entirety of yoga includes a wide range of contemplative and self-disciplinary practices, such as meditation, chanting, mantra, prayer, breath work, ritual, and even selfless action.
The word “yoga” comes from the root word “yuj,” which means “to yoke” or “to bind.” The word itself has numerous meanings, from astrological conjunction to matrimony, with the underlying theme being connection.
Yoga asana is the physical practice and postures of yoga.
The scientific research into yoga’s benefits is still somewhat preliminary. Still, much of the evidence supports what practitioners have known for millennia: Yoga benefits our overall well-being.
Let’s look at 16 of the many benefits of yoga in greater depth.
1. Yoga improves flexibility
In 2016, two of yoga’s leading organizations, Yoga Journal, and Yoga Alliance, conducted a worldwide survey looking at a variety of statistics about yoga in an attempt to quantify its value amid ever-increasing popularity.
The most cited reason people selected for doing yoga was to “increase flexibility”.
Flexibility is an essential component of physical health. Yoga offers many styles, varying in intensity from high to moderate to mild. Even the lowest intensity styles have been found to increase flexibility.
Yoga seems to be especially helpful for improving flexibility in adults ages 65 and older. Reduced flexibility is a natural part of aging, and a 2019 study found that yoga slowed down loss and improved flexibility in older adults.
2. Yoga helps with stress relief
The American Psychological Association recently shared that 84% of American adults feel the impact of prolonged stress.
So, it makes sense that the second most cited reason people selected as to why they do yoga was to relieve stress. Thankfully, science supports that yoga, especially asana, is excellent at reducing stress.
But remember — the physical practice is just one aspect of yoga. Meditation, breath work, and auditory rituals, like chanting and sound baths, have also been shown to significantly lessen tension and relieve stress.
3. Yoga improves mental health
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is thought to be one of the world’s most common mental health disorders.
A 2017 meta-analysis of 23 interventions looking at the effects of yoga-based treatments on depressive symptoms overwhelmingly concluded that yoga can now be considered an effective alternative treatment for MDD.
Movement-based yoga and breathing-based practices have been shown to significantly improve depressive symptoms.
4. Yoga may reduce inflammation
Often, the precursor to illness is chronic inflammation. Heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and many other conditions are linked to prolonged inflammation.
One review examined 15 research studies and found a common result: Yoga — of various styles, intensities, and durations — reduced the biochemical markers of inflammation across several chronic conditions.
5. Yoga will likely increase your strength
While most people associate yoga with stretching and flexibility, some yoga classes can also be considered strength-building. It just depends on the class level, approach, and teacher. This makes yoga asana a multimodal form of exercise.
Yoga’s effectiveness at building strength has been studied in several specific contexts — concerning people with breast cancer, older adults, and children.
Another study on air force personnel found yoga to be an effective strength-building practice across many age groups of healthy participants.
6. Yoga may reduce anxiety
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recently stated that anxiety disorders might be the most common mental health disorders in the United States.
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Several different anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and specific phobias. Even chronic stress can sometimes be categorized as an anxiety disorder.
Numerous studies suggest that yoga asana may be effective as an alternative treatment for anxiety disorders, though several researchers request additional replicated studies before conclusively stating as much.
Yoga nidra, a body scan/guided meditation, has been shown to conclusively reduce anxiety symptoms.
7. Yoga may improve quality of life
The World Health Organization defines the quality of life as “an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards, and concerns”.
Factors affecting the quality of life are relationships, creativity, learning opportunities, health, and material comforts.
For decades, researchers have viewed the quality of life as an essential predictor of people’s longevity and patients’ likelihood of improvement when treated for a chronic illness or injury.
A 2019 meta-analysis shows promising potential for yoga to improve the quality of life in people with chronic pain.
8. Yoga may boost immunity
Chronic stress negatively affects your immune system.
When your immunity is compromised, you’re more susceptible to illness. However, as discussed earlier, yoga is considered a scientifically backed alternative treatment for stress.
The research is still evolving, but some studies have found a distinct link between practicing yoga (especially consistently over the long term) and better immune system functioning.
This is due partly to yoga’s ability to fight inflammation and the enhancement of cell-mediated immunity.
9. Yoga can improve balance
Balance is not just important when standing on one leg in Tree Pose in yoga class. It’s also essential for simple everyday movements such as picking something off the floor, reaching up to a shelf, and descending stairs.
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Yoga has been shown to improve balance and overall performance in athletes.
Likewise, a review of the research conducted on healthy populations suggests balance may improve for most people after consistently practicing yoga.
Still, falling can have severe effects on specific populations. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, falls are incredibly common among older adults in nursing facilities. Even the simplest ones can lead to an increased risk of death.
Newer research suggests yoga can improve balance in older populations.
However, more studies with large sample sizes are needed before a general conclusion can be drawn.
Yoga asana can also help improve balance in people with brain injuries.
Adaptive or chair yoga can be especially helpful for older adults or people with less mobile injuries or for whom balance is a concern.
10. Yoga may improve cardiovascular functioning
Pranayama often referred to as “yogic breathing,” is an important and beneficial aspect of yoga.
The Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine published a review of 1,400 studies looking at the overall effects of pranayama. One key takeaway was that yogic breathing could improve the functioning of several systems in the body.
Specifically, the research summarized in the review found that the cardiovascular system benefited mightily from controlling the pace of breathing, as evidenced by favorable changes in heart rate, stroke capacity, arterial pressure, and contractility of the heart.
This research indicates that yogic breathing may influence the brain’s cardiorespiratory center to improve functioning.
11. Yoga may help improve sleep
When measuring sleep, researchers look at a person’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Insomnia can affect one or both of these aspects.
Yoga has been shown to improve both how quickly people fall asleep and how deeply they stay asleep. This is partly due to the aftereffects of exercise and the mind-calming and stress relief provided by yoga expressly.
In addition to improving anxiety (or perhaps because of it), numerous studies show yoga nidra to be particularly helpful at improving sleep.
12. Yoga may improve self-esteem
Body image and self-esteem are often particularly challenging for adolescents and young adults. The good news is that several recent studies show positive results when using yoga to improve self-esteem and perceived body image in these populations.
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There have also been promising evidence that yoga could help with the accompanying symptoms of obsession, anxiety, and depression in patients with anorexia nervosa.
13. Yoga may improve bone health
Many postures in yoga are isometric contractions, meaning the length of the muscles holding the pose doesn’t change though they are fully engaged.
For example, in Plank Pose, an upper pushup position, the arms, trunk, and legs are all engaged without shortening or lengthening as they would if you were moving through a pushup.
In Warrior II, you hold a position with the lead leg bent at both the hip and knee. Isometric exercises — primarily when performed with the joints in flexion — have been found to increase bone density.
Yoga asana may also reverse the bone loss associated with osteopenia and osteoporosis. One study showed that 12 minutes of yoga daily could significantly improve bone health.
That said, it’s important to note that the findings related to yoga’s impact on bone density have been mixed and, therefore, inconclusive.
14. Yoga can promote better posture and body awareness
As a modern society reliant on technology, we seem to be spending more and more time sitting or hunched over devices.
But one recent review of 34 research studies found an emerging pattern: Yoga improved brain functioning in the centers responsible for interoception (recognizing the sensations within your body) and posture.
Additionally, yoga’s focus on mobility and flexibility can contribute to better alignment by releasing muscles often tight, such as the hamstrings, and improving the spine’s mobility.
Doing yoga poses during breaks in your workouts can also promote better posture.
15. Yoga can improve brain functioning
Yoga truly is a mind-body exercise, studies suggest.
The above review found that practicing yoga activated brain areas responsible for motivation, executive functioning, attention, and neuroplasticity.
16. Yoga can help with burnout
It seems like burnout — excessive exhaustion that affects one’s health — is at an all-time high.
A recent study looking at burnout among hospice workers during the COVID-19 pandemic concluded that yoga-based meditation interventions helped significantly reduce the effects of burnout by improving interoceptive awareness.
This is the ability to notice internal signals and respond appropriately — meaning yoga may help people become more in tune with, and even more likely to listen to, their body’s signals.
While the research is still young (especially in comparison with how long people have been practicing yoga), the results are promising and confirm what yoga practitioners have been touting for thousands of years: Yoga is beneficial for our overall health.
Numerous practices fall into the category of yoga, and most do not involve physical activity but instead focus on meditation techniques. Even karmic or philanthropic action can qualify as yoga!
Because yoga is not limited to physical movement, it’s a practice you can do every day.
Find the modality that works best for you and remember: Investing in a yoga practice is investing in you!