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Yoga is a type of movement routine that combines strength and cardiovascular exercise. Some forms of yoga promote relaxation, while other options include faster-paced yoga flows. Most types include both yoga poses and breathing techniques.
No matter which form you practice, yoga has many physical and mental health benefits.
What is yoga?
Yoga has been used throughout the centuries. While it has become more popular as a workout method, it was long practiced as a form of spiritual meditation.
Yoga combines movement, poses, breathing exercises, and meditation into routines to help multiple areas of health and well-being. Although some yogis may choose to practice their routines alone, many people will attend classes led by a yoga teacher.
A yoga practice can be adapted to any fitness level (it isn’t just for flexible people). When done regularly, yoga provides many different benefits to both physical and mental health.
Types of yoga
There are many different styles of yoga available. Here are six popular types of yoga you may encounter:
- Hatha yoga is usually done at a slower pace. It focuses on controlled movements, breathing techniques, and stretching.
- Asana yoga refers to body positions and yoga postures. It’s often used in other types of yoga.
- Ashtanga yoga focuses on following the same pattern of poses in a specific order. This is considered a very physically demanding type of yoga that builds body awareness and body strength.
- Iyengar yoga focuses on alignment and often uses props (like pillows, yoga blocks, or belts) to help. It’s slower-paced and very focused on the small details of form.
- Vinyasa yoga often is done at a quicker pace with a focus on connecting movements to the breath. This type is often called flow yoga or vinyasa flow.
- Kundalini yoga is designed to “unlock energy” through repeating poses, chants, or breathing exercises.
3 mental benefits of yoga
Many people practice yoga as a spiritual practice or a practice that helps them deal with the daily stresses of life. Here are three of the primary mental benefits of yoga.
1. Helps with stress management
Practicing yoga promotes relaxation in the body. Some research suggests it has the opposite effect of the “fight-or-flight” response to stress (Woodyard, 2011).
A regular yoga practice helps to lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone). One study suggests that yoga is more effective than some other relaxation methods at reducing stress and improving mental health (Smith, 2007).
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2. Reduces anxiety and depression symptoms
Many people may benefit from using yoga to help cope with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
There are a lot of studies to support the beneficial effects of yoga on anxiety symptoms. A 2018 study with 52 women found that yoga effectively reduced anxiety and depression symptoms after just 12 sessions (Shohani, 2018).
Another study found that yoga helps reduce depressive symptoms in people with other mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The more yoga sessions completed each week, the greater improvements in symptoms (Brinsley, 2021).
3. Improves quality of life
Because of the physical and mental health benefits of a regular yoga practice, yoga helps to improve people’s overall quality of life.
A 2020 meta-analysis found that yoga, ideally 150 minutes or more per week, increases older adults’ health-related quality of life and mental well-being (Kelley, 2020).
Yoga may also boost the quality of life in people with serious medical conditions. One study showed yoga was valuable in helping breast cancer patients relax, decrease stress, and improve their overall quality of life (Ulger, 2010).
8 physical benefits of yoga
While yoga offers significant mental and emotional benefits, many people use it as a physical exercise routine. And it provides a lot of physical benefits! Let’s take a look at eight of the most significant physical benefits of yoga.
1. Helps reduce chronic pain
Yoga may help reduce existing pain and prevent the development of chronic pain. As people age, it’s common for them to develop joint pain and lower back pain. Research suggests yoga may help alleviate some of this pain (Woodyard, 2011).
Multiple studies show that certain types of yoga, like asana, vinyasa, and iyengar, help to reduce pain while increasing flexibility and range of motion to help correct movement problems. This means that over time, yoga may help to correct the underlying cause of your chronic pain (Woodyard, 2011).
2. Improves range of motion and flexibility
Your range of motion and mobility play a big role in healthy aging and preventing injury. Poor posture and incorrect form when lifting objects increase your risk for pain and developing an injury.
Over time, poor posture may affect your bone, ligament, and muscle health. Forms of yoga that focus on alignment, range of motion, and posture may help to increase flexibility and prevent injury (Woodyard, 2011).
3. Reduces inflammation
Chronic inflammation has been associated with an increased risk for developing multiple chronic diseases and autoimmune diseases. Inflammation is a normal body response to injury or illness. The problem comes when inflammation lingers in the body, adding unhealthy stress to the body.
A 2019 review of research found that yoga may help to reduce chronic inflammation. They included studies with multiple yoga styles and found that blood inflammation biomarkers decreased after going through a yoga program. What’s more, a more significant amount of time spent practicing yoga was shown to have an even greater impact on reducing inflammatory markers (Djalilova, 2019).
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Reducing inflammation in your body may lower your risk for health conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis (Djalilova, 2019).
4. May improve heart health
Yoga may help multiple factors that impact your cardiovascular health, like blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol levels, and triglycerides. High blood pressure is a risk factor for many cardiovascular conditions such as a heart attack and stroke, and it even affects your kidney health.
It’s believed the combination of exercise and relaxation techniques in yoga provides a large benefit to blood pressure. Research shows yoga significantly helps reduce blood pressure levels and heart rate (Woodyard, 2011).
When combined with a healthy diet and other positive lifestyle changes, yoga has also been shown to help to lower “bad” cholesterol levels while increasing “good’’ cholesterol (Stephens, 2017; Yadav, 2014).
5. Helps you sleep better
Yoga helps people of all ages get a better night’s rest. Research shows yoga helps make sleep patterns more regular and improves sleep quality (Woodyard, 2011).
You can use more intense yoga workouts during the day to boost physical activity and exercise time, which is known to help improve sleep quality. Or, you can complete a relaxing yoga routine close to bedtime to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and help you wind down.
Yoga is even useful for helping young children sleep better. Research shows yoga breathing techniques may help distract toddlers from temper tantrums and help them fall asleep quicker (Stephens, 2017).
6. Improves balance
Any type of yoga that focuses on alignment and postures can help you build muscle strength, flexibility, muscle tone, and balance (Stephens, 2017). Balance is essential at any age, but this especially helps older adults. As people age, there is a higher risk of falling and breaking a bone. Exercises that improve balance and strength are important for decreasing the risk of falling.
7. Strengthens lung health
Nearly all yoga practices incorporate breathing techniques into the practice. Regularly practicing yoga can improve the health of the respiratory system and lung capacity (Stephens, 2017).
Yoga may help with specific lung conditions, such as asthma. One study found that yoga may slightly improve quality of life for people with asthma and help improve symptoms (Yang, 2016).
8. Reduces migraines
Migraines are a common problem in the U.S., affecting about one out of every seven adults each year. Around 14% of people in the U.S. have experienced at least one migraine within a 3-month period (Burch, 2015).
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Migraines aren’t fully understood. Possible triggers for migraines include sleep problems, hormone changes, stress, muscle tension, and other factors.
A 2019 study found that yoga may help reduce the number of headaches migraine sufferers experience, how long their headaches last, and the amount of pain they experience from migraines and tension headaches (Anheyer, 2019).
How to start practicing yoga
Yoga may look intimidating if you’ve never practiced it before. Don’t worry, you don’t have to start with handstands or complicated pretzel-like poses. You can get started with beginner routines or just practicing a few poses.
At first, it may be easier to practice yoga led by a yoga teacher. There are options to watch videos online, or you could consider going in person. Attending yoga classes helps you follow a routine without having to decide on poses yourself and provides cues to direct your movements.
If you’re struggling, it may be helpful to go to a live class a few times so a yoga teacher can guide you through poses and help correct your form. If you prefer to stay home for yoga, you could line up a mirror so you can check your form yourself. Remember to be patient. It takes time to learn anything new. With practice, your form will improve, and you’ll start to see the benefits of yoga in your life.
- Anheyer, D., Klose, P., Lauche, R., Saha, F. J., & Cramer, H. (2020). Yoga for treating headaches: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal Of General Internal Medicine, 35(3), 846–854. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05413-9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7080891/
- Brinsley, J., Schuch, F., Lederman, O., Girard, D., Smout, M., Immink, M. A., et al. (2021). Effects of yoga on depressive symptoms in people with mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal Of Sports Medicine, 55(17), 992–1000. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2019-101242. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32423912/
- Burch, R. C., Loder, S., Loder, E., & Smitherman, T. A. (2015). The prevalence and burden of migraine and severe headache in the United States: updated statistics from government health surveillance studies. Headache, 55(1), 21–34. doi: 10.1111/head.12482. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25600719/
- Djalilova, D. M., Schulz, P. S., Berger, A. M., Case, A. J., Kupzyk, K. A., & Ross, A. C. (2019). Impact of yoga on inflammatory biomarkers: a systematic review. Biological Research For Nursing, 21(2), 198–209. doi: 10.1177/1099800418820162. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6700894/
- Kelley, G. A. & Kelley, K. S. (2020). Yoga, health-related quality of life and mental well-being: A re-analysis of a meta-analysis using the quality effects model. The Journals Of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences And Medical Sciences, 75(9), 1732–1736. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glz284. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31814012/
- Shohani, M., Badfar, G., Nasirkandy, M. P., Kaikhavani, S., Rahmati, S., Modmeli, Y., et al. (2018). The effect of yoga on stress, anxiety, and depression in women. International Journal Of Preventive Medicine, 9, 21. doi: 10.4103/ijpvm.IJPVM_242_16. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5843960/
- Smith, C., Hancock, H., Blake-Mortimer, J., & Eckert, K. (2007). A randomised comparative trial of yoga and relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety. Complementary Therapies In Medicine, 15(2), 77–83. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2006.05.001. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17544857/
- Stephens, I. (2017). Medical yoga therapy. Children, 4(2), 12. doi: 10.3390/children4020012. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5332914/
- Ulger, O. & Yağli, N. V. (2010). Effects of yoga on the quality of life in cancer patients. Complementary Therapies In Clinical Practice, 16(2), 60–63. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2009.10.007. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20347834/
- Woodyard, C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal Of Yoga, 4(2), 49–54. doi: 0.4103/0973-6131.85485. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3193654/
- Yadav, R. K., Magan, D., Yadav, R., Sarvottam, K., & Netam, R. (2014). High-density lipoprotein cholesterol increases following a short-term yoga-based lifestyle intervention: a non-pharmacological modulation. Acta Cardiologica, 69(5), 543–549. doi: 10.1080/ac.69.5.3044881. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25638842/
- Yang, Z. Y., Zhong, H. B., Mao, C., Yuan, J. Q., Huang, Y. F., Wu, X. Y., et al. (2016). Yoga For Asthma. The Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews, 4(4), CD010346. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD010346.pub2. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6880926/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.