When you think of yoga, what comes to mind? A serene monk in the Himalayas chanting mantras on one toe, having given up all of his worldly possessions? An impossibly slender Instagram model clad in a bikini contorting herself into a hazardous-looking pretzel on a Bahamian beach? Or a healthier, more peaceful, better version of yourself? Yoga can mean each of these things. By now you’ve probably heard from at least once person that you should try practicing yoga, and I’m here to emphatically back up that advice with the why behind it.
1. It’s good for your mental health
Though many early studies regarding the impact of yoga on mental health were poorly managed and small, many more recent studies have centered around randomized controlled trials, which is considered to be the “most rigorous standard for proving efficacy”. The results of these studies are finally leading science to back up what yogis have known for centuries – that those who practice yoga experience a reduction in depression, anxiety, and a multitude of other mental health issues. One likely reason behind this is that yoga has a profound effect on the endocrine system via the reduction of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, as well as the increase of “feel-good” hormones like serotonin and melatonin. A group of Vietnam veterans experiencing PTSD in Australia were subjected to a randomized controlled study regarding the effects of a yoga and breathing program. The veterans were all on at least one antidepressant and were all daily drinkers. One group practiced yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation each day for six weeks, while the control group lived their lives as usual. After six weeks, the group that had been practicing yoga and breathing dropped their CAPS (Clinician Administered PTSD Scale) scores from an average of 57 (moderate to severe symptoms) to 42 (mild to moderate) – and these results persisted at a 6-month follow-up. The control group showed no improvement. Considering the recent estimate that 20% of veterans come home from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing symptoms of PTSD, these results and the idea that there could be assistance outside of (and in addition to) medication is incredibly heartening.
2. It’s an excellent way to keep physically fit
Look, it’s completely understandable that some are skeptical of yoga as a viable means of building muscle and shedding fat. Many are trained to believe that unless a workout leaves us red-faced and struggling for breath, it must not be effective. But the secret is getting out – yoga’s benefits as a workout are on par with (and in some cases greater than) what immediately comes to mind for many of us when we think of a “good workout”. A study from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that, over the course of four years, a group of middle-aged adults who practiced yoga at least once a week gained three fewer pounds than a group who practiced other forms of exercise. The same study found that overweight adults who began practicing yoga lost five pounds, while a group who did not practice gained thirteen pounds; those results remained true even when accounting for differences in eating habits. Though most forms of yoga aren’t going to give you the most efficient calorie-burning workout of all time, it’s difficult to find another form of exercise that is so effective at working so many different muscle groups at once, while also normalizing the hormone levels that are responsible for how our body retains and carries weight.
3. You’ll sleep better
A study by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that after 8 weeks of a regular yoga practice, sufferers of both primary and secondary insomnia experienced marked improvements to sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency, and wake time after sleep onset. Another study of 410 cancer survivors found a link between a regular yoga practice and reduced fatigue, reduced use of sleep medication, and an overall sense of increased quality of life. So the research makes it clear that yoga helps you sleep better, but how is that possible? For reason number one, let’s circle back to this blog’s reason number one – it reduces stress and anxiety. Number two, many yoga poses also work directly with the nervous system to help it decrease its activity at crucial times. And number three, since yoga in the most basic sense is breathing, a regular practice over time can train your body’s breathing to decrease snoring/hitched breathing and increase oxygen levels, contributing to a much more peaceful night of sleep overall.
4. You’ll be less at risk for heart disease
Though the American Heart Association does not count yoga towards the 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week that they recommend for optimum heart health, they do acknowledge it as a means of helping prevent or even reversing existing heart disease. By lowering blood pressure, decreasing cholesterol levels, and decreasing stress, yoga helps keep your cardiovascular system in tip-top working order.
5. It increases balance and reduces fear of falling
For younger readers, it may or may not have crossed your mind that balance and a fear of falling is a very real issue for many of our population, especially seniors. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have determined that 11 different studies show a regular yoga practice increases balance and reduces fear of falling. Combined with its relatively low-impact nature and its ability to be adjusted to fit the practitioners’ needs, the benefits of yoga to seniors can hardly be overstated.
6. It can help prevent and heal injuries
It stands to reason that having better balance and flexibility would help prevent many common injuries such as sprains, pulls, and broken bones. What may be more surprising is that trials seem to indicate that yoga can even be used to accelerate healing for injuries, wounds, and even after major operations. One randomized control trial looked at two groups of 15 patients with relatively simple “long bone” fractures. Both groups received standard medical treatment for their fractures, but one group practiced yoga and visualization during two 30 minute sessions per day, while the control group did not. After 21 days, doctors compared the two groups’ healing based on an assessment of pain, swelling, and bone density – in every case, the group that had practiced yoga daily fared dramatically better. Another randomized control trial focused on a group of women with stage II and stage III operable breast cancer pre- and post-operatively. One group practiced yoga with regulated nostril breathing and relaxation techniques, while the control group received social support counseling sessions and rehabilitative shoulder exercises. Respective treatments were given at the hospital beginning post-op and continuing for 30 minutes per day for 3 weeks after the women were discharged. When doctors looked at factors like duration of hospital stay post-op, time to drain removal, time to suture removal, and post-op systemic inflammation, it was clear that the yoga group had fared much better, sometimes reaching these milestones in half the time it took the control group.
7. You’ll probably get sick less
Feel like you’re getting sick all the time? Yep, there’s yoga for that! If you look back at the past few times you caught a bug, there’s a good chance that they occurred when you were burning the candle at both ends. More and more, science seems to support the idea that the fatigue, hormonal imbalance, and poor sleep caused by high stress levels can compromise the immune system; asana practice provides a manageable, natural way to support it daily. It helps lower stress hormones that can trigger illness, conditions the lungs and respiratory tract, stimulates the lymphatic system to eliminate toxins, and brings a better flow of oxygenated blood to each organ, ensuring their peak performance. Certain poses can even be used to target the systems that need help the most, with poses that specifically support the thyroid, thymus, sinuses, and many other areas.
Yoga can mean absolutely anything you need it to mean. It can be a fast and vigorous hatha, it can be a slow, deep stretch, it can be deep breaths while lying comfortably on your back. After any amount of time away, your mat is always waiting. It will never judge you for any time away or physical limitation. You can devote as much or as little time to it as you have, but I promise*, after just a few weeks of learning how incredible you can feel, you will catch yourself finding more and more time.
*This claim is unsubstantiated-ish and can be proven only through the experiment of Life