14 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Yoga
“But I can’t even touch my toes!” is an all-too-common rationalization for why people feel apprehensive to take up a yoga practice. While yoga can indeed help improve flexibility, its objective extends far beyond achieving impressively-contorted asanas. Those who do practice yoga know that its health benefits are actually quite extensive.
Perhaps that’s why the popularity of yoga continues to rise steadily. In the past decade alone, the percentage of U.S. adults who practiced yoga nearly doubled (1).
You may have heard about the various health benefits yoga offers, from lowering blood pressure to sleeping more restfully. As it turns out, science backs up numerous claims that yoga can positively affect your health in many different ways.
Whether a physical workout or mental relaxation is the motivation behind your interest in yoga, here are a few more reasons to roll out your mat and dive into a Downward Facing Dog.
Keep reading to learn about 14 scientifically-backed benefits of doing yoga.
1. Increases Mobility
From a physical standpoint, one of the most obvious benefits of yoga is increasing your overall mobility.
Although the ability to touch your toes is not required for practicing yoga, flexibility is an important part of maintaining physical health as we age. However, flexibility must be supported by muscle strength, healthy joints, and healthy connective tissues (2).
The physical benefits of yoga can help significantly with the effects of aging. In arthritis patients, practicing yoga showed improved range of joint movement (3).
No matter your age, yoga is an effective way to build and maintain muscle tone and keep your body functional over the course of a lifetime.
2. Promotes Heart Health
For many years, a leading cause of mortality is due to heart issues and related conditions like high blood pressure. There are numerous ways in which yoga benefits heart health.
At a cardiovascular level, yoga can contribute to lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol and glucose levels, and heart rate. Johns Hopkins reported than after just eight weeks of practicing yoga, patients showed reduced markers for inflammation that can lead to heart disease (4).
3. Can Improve Circulation
Like many other forms of exercise, yoga can get your blood pumping and stimulate the body’s complete circulatory system. Types of yoga such as Vinyasa that flow through a sequence of postures; this movement sends fresh blood flow to all of your limbs, keeping blood vessels and capillaries healthy and further reducing risk of heart disease.
Different types of yogic breathing exercises, or pranayama, can also increase oxygen levels in the blood. When your vital organs – especially your brain – receive more oxygen through blood circulation, they are able to function more efficiently (5).
4. Promotes Good Digestion
Any regular exercise is key to keeping your body functioning efficiently. Yoga is believed to aid in digestion and increase metabolism.
There are many specific yoga poses, especially twisting postures, that target the abdominal region and increase blood flow to the intestinal tract. The calming effects of practicing yoga also help to relax the digestive organs, reducing bloating and constipation (6).
For specific digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), practicing yoga may help decrease symptoms, reduce gastrointestinal pain, and improve the overall quality of life (7).
5. May Aid Weight Loss
Like many other forms of physical exercise, yoga can be an effective weight loss tool.
The more vigorous types of yoga such as Vinyasa or Ashtanga will help you work up a sweat and burn calories, the key factor in losing weight. Although it is a low-impact form of exercise, when practiced 4 to 5 times a week, yoga can also help increase your metabolism over time.
Even the more gentle forms like Hatha and Yin yoga can assist in weight loss by increasing self-awareness. This may translate to more mindfulness around eating, smaller portion sizes, and less impulsive eating (8).
6. May Help Reduce Belly Fat
If a flatter stomach is one of your fitness goals, trimming down on belly fat is another potential benefit of yoga. There are many factors that contribute to excess belly fat, including physical activity, types of calories consumed, stress management, and sleep habits. As it turns out, yoga offers benefits for all of these areas.
Experts suggest that engaging in moderate exercise 5 times per week for at least 30 minutes will yield results in trimming extra fat (9).
Power yoga, Ashtanga, and Vinyasa are all great options for getting your heart pumping and working up a sweat. These active styles of yoga often incorporate a significant amount of core strength to specifically target the abdominal area and can help trim down belly fat.
7. Can Contribute to Healthier Eating Habits
Keeping a healthy diet is a key factor in overall health. Making healthy food choices can help maintain healthy body weight while ensuring your body receives all the nutrients it requires to function properly.
Research has shown that a significant percentage of people who practice yoga felt increased motivation to eat healthier (10).
Practicing yoga regularly also increases mindfulness and body awareness. This leads to healthier eating habits, reducing impulsive overeating.
8. Can Alleviate Stress and Anxiety
One popular reason many people choose to take up a yoga practice is to help lower stress levels.
If you’ve ever practiced yoga before, you’re likely familiar with the deeply relaxed sensation of savasana. Even just one yoga class can temporarily decrease feelings of tension, anxiety, and fatigue (11).
Over time, regular yoga practice helps re-train the body’s response to stress. Breath-based movement and meditation practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping to lower heart and breathing rates when faced with a stressful situation. Furthermore, just one yoga class has shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (12).
The main objective of yoga is to keep oneself focused on the present moment. This promotes peace of mind, which can help you cope with feelings of anxiety.
9. Promotes Better Sleep
For those who struggle with poor sleeping habits or insomnia, yoga can be incredibly beneficial. Getting quality sleep is imperative to overall health as it contributes to prevalent issues like depression, cognitive function, and cardiovascular health.
There is a growing body of evidence showing how yoga is connected with more restful sleep. In one study, researchers observed improvements in sleep quality as well as the amount of time asleep (13).
Yoga helps relax the body and calm the mind, preparing you for a good night’s sleep.
10. Can Help Relieve for Chronic Pain
For people who suffer from chronic pain, there is growing evidence that yoga may be an effective non-pharmacological treatment for coping with pain. One study suggested that individuals who practice yoga showed a different sort of physical response to pain; rather than a “fight or flight” stress reaction, yogis were more likely to take a “rest and digest” approach to pain (14).
Whether you suffer from migraines, arthritis, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis (MS), or fibromyalgia, for example, it is highly likely that yoga can help both the body and the state of mind while dealing with chronic pain. Yoga can help increase mobility, improve daily bodily function, and boost mood.
Furthermore, because of its adaptable nature, even those with limited mobility or confined to wheelchairs are able to experience the benefit of yoga (15).
11. Encourages Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Beyond healthier eating, yoga may encourage you to improve your health in other areas of life as well.
Many people who begin a yoga practice find greater success in curbing unhealthy habits, like quitting smoking. Yoga and meditation can positively influence other addictive behaviors like eating disorders and self-harming.
The introspective nature of yoga can inspire you to take better care of your body and your mind and adopt more loving behaviors toward yourself (16).
12. May Help You Breathe Better
An essential aspect of practicing yoga is developing awareness of your breath. Many yoga instructors will guide you in pranayama, or breathing exercises, as part of a yoga class. Even as you move through yoga postures, you will learn how to connect your movement to your breath.
Although not a prescribed treatment, there is evidence to suggest that regular yoga practice may help alleviate symptoms of asthma. One study of a small group showed significant reduction of day and nighttime asthma attacks, as well as a decreased need for medication (17).
13. Can Improve Spinal Health
If you commute long hours in a car or sit at a desk for work, you’ve likely experienced back pain at some point. Another of the many benefits of yoga is keeping your back and spine healthy.
Some studies have shown practicing yoga to be a good option for reducing back pain. One particular study from 2017 showed that participants who practiced yoga experienced improvement in pain, and were less likely to use pain medications after 3 months (18).
More specifically, practicing yoga is recommended by the American College of Physicians as a non-invasive treatment for degenerative disc disease. Yoga can help strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine, creating space between the intervertebral discs, preventing their decay (19).
Due to the sedentary nature of life these days, taking care of your posture and spinal health is increasingly important. Yoga can have a positive effect on well-being and longevity by keeping your body mobile.
14. Can Contribute to Positive Mental Health
Aside from all the physical benefits of yoga, it can also help maintain positive mental health. In treatment of depression, practicing yoga can have significant positive impacts.
Participants of a study on depression who practiced yoga showed a notable drop in cortisol levels at the end of a 3-month treatment. This evidence suggests that yoga can be an effective treatment for depression, whether practiced alone or in combination with taking medication (20).
Another benefit of yoga is an increased sense of compassion for oneself, as well as heightened awareness of one’s own thoughts and emotions. These qualities are beneficial in coping with mental health issues and helping maintain a positive mental outlook.
The Final Word
Yoga, while a popular form of physical exercise, offers numerous other health benefits. When practiced regularly, it can have a positive impact on several areas of life, as scientific research shows.
You might be in optimum health, coping with chronic pain, recovering from an injury, at risk for certain conditions, or concerned about the effects of aging. No matter your situation or stage of life, adding in yoga classes to your regular workouts will positively affect your health across the board.
New to practicing yoga? Here are 24 best yoga poses to get you started
- CDC. “Use of Yoga and Meditation Becoming More Popular in U.S.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 Nov. 2018, www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2018/201811_Yoga_Meditation.htm.
- Haley, Jimmy. “The Importance of Flexibility and Mobility.” Center For Fitness and Wellness, Penn State Kinesiology, 31 Oct. 2016, sites.psu.edu/kinescfw/health-education/exercise-articles/the-importance-of-flexibility-and-mobility/.
- Christiansen, Cory. “Joint Mobility.” Joint Mobility – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, Geriatric Physical Therapy – 3rd Edition, 2012, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/joint-mobility.
- JohnsHopkins, Medicine. “The Yoga-Heart Connection.” The Yoga-Heart Connection | Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-yoga-heart-connection.
- ASMY. “Yoga and the Circulatory System – Australian School of Meditation & Yoga.” Australian School of Meditation and Yoga, 12 Oct. 2016, asmy.org.au/yoga/yoga-circulatory-system/.
- Nayyar, Namita. “Improve Digestion With Yoga.” Women Fitness, 30 Sept. 2016, www.womenfitness.net/digestion-yoga/.
- Schumann, Dania, et al. “Effect of Yoga in the Therapy of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Systematic Review.” Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, W.B. Saunders, 22 Apr. 2016, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S154235651630088X.
- Cox, Lauren. “5 Experts Answer: Can Yoga Help You Lose Weight?” LiveScience, Purch, 30 May 2013, www.livescience.com/35962-yoga-weight-loss.html.
- Collins, Sonya. “How To Lose Belly Fat – 4 Tips for a Flatter Stomach.” WebMD, WebMD, 20 Mar. 2014, www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-truth-about-belly-fat#2.
- NHIS. “Wellness-Related Use of Common Complementary Health Approaches Among Adults: United States, 2012.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012, www.nccih.nih.gov/research/wellness-related-use-of-common-complementary-health-approaches-among-adults-united-states-2012.
- Harvard Mental Health Letter. “Yoga for Treatment of Anxiety and Depression.” Psych Central, 8 Oct. 2018, psychcentral.com/lib/yoga-for-treatment-of-anxiety-and-depression/.
- Pfefferle, Eileen. “The Benefits of Yoga on the Parasympathetic Nervous System.” Healthy Living, USA Today Network, 21 Nov. 2017, healthyliving.azcentral.com/benefits-yoga-parasympathetic-nervous-system-1519.html.
- Breus, Michael J. “Yoga Can Help With Insomnia.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 4 Oct. 2012, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201210/yoga-can-help-insomnia.
- Bergland, Christopher. “How Does Yoga Relieve Chronic Pain?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 27 May 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201505/how-does-yoga-relieve-chronic-pain.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Yoga for Pain Relief.” Harvard Health, Apr. 2015, www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/yoga-for-pain-relief.
- Woodyard, Catherine. “Exploring the Therapeutic Effects of Yoga and Its Ability to Increase Quality of Life.” International Journal of Yoga, Medknow Publications Pvt Ltd, July 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3193654/.
- Mekonnen, Demeke, and Andualem Mossie. “Clinical Effects of Yoga on Asthmatic Patients: a Preliminary Clinical Trial.” Ethiopian Journal of Health Sciences, Research and Publications Office of Jimma University, July 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3275836/.
- B. Saper, Robert. “Yoga, Physical Therapy, or Education for Chronic Low Back Pain.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 18 July 2017, www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/P17-9039.
- Booe, Martin. “Degenerative Disk Disease & Yoga.” Healthfully, 27 Feb. 2020, healthfully.com/degenerative-disk-disease-yoga-6793661.html.
- Thirthalli, J, et al. “Cortisol and Antidepressant Effects of Yoga.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, July 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768222/.