How Practicing Yoga Benefits Your Health – Everyday Health

Yoga can boost your mental and physical fitness by improving sleep, busting stress, strengthening your heart, and more.
For thousands of years yogis have been touting yoga's mental and physical powers. Luckily, you don't have to be an expert to reap the benefits — adding just a few poses to your daily routine can help your health in all kinds of unexpected ways.
"On a physical level, yoga helps improve flexibility, strength, balance, and endurance," says Linda Schlamadinger McGrath, the founder of YogaSource Los Gatos in Los Gatos, California, who is certified by Yoga Alliance, the world's largest nonprofit yoga association that certifies teachers and schools. “And on a psychological level, yoga can help you cultivate mindfulness as you shift your awareness to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany a given pose or exercise."
And there’s also a growing body of science showing that a regular yoga practice may benefit people with a host of chronic health conditions, including asthma, heart disease, and MS. That literature is not as established as the practice of yoga itself, but a lot of work has been done. Here’s what we know.
Exercise boosts energy and mood, and yoga is no exception. Many who practice it do so for its benefits in terms of relaxation and stress management. (1) And studies have shown yoga interventions are linked to improved objective measures of stress levels in the body, like reduced evening cortisol levels, reduced waking cortisol levels, and lower resting heart rate, according to a review published in 2017 the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. (2)
Yoga can yield emotional health benefits because it’s an exercise that works both the body and the mind, says Manuela Kogon, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford Health Care and an internal medicine doctor at Stanford University's Center for Integrative Medicine in California.
“Yoga practice comprises not just movement, but dynamic movements tied to breath,” Dr. Kogon says. “Focusing on body postures can shift attention away from negative thinking.”
And individuals with and without mental health conditions can benefit, she says. Research shows yoga can benefit people with depression and schizophrenia, according to a review published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. (3)
The relaxation associated with yoga can be beneficial for sleep, Kogon says. Gentle yoga before bed is recommended as a lifestyle change that can help people with insomnia, but it can be a great pre-bed routine for anyone.
Practicing relaxing asanas, or postures, such as forward fold (Uttanasana) or lying on your back with your feet up the wall can be great to help you relax shortly before bedtime, says Tamal Dodge, the founder of Yoga Salt in Los Angeles. (4) "They’ll help calm your body and, most importantly, your mind."
The morning after a night of drinking, yoga may be the last thing on your mind, but maybe it shouldn’t be.
Kogon says that while she’s not aware of scientific studies on yoga's ability to temper hangovers, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that it works. “It could be that the increased blood flow that comes with doing yoga helps eliminate the toxic effect of alcohol,” she says.
Start with gentle poses, and if you feel any nausea, slow it down.
Back pain is eased with yoga because the practice helps improve flexibility and muscular strength,” says Kogon. Research suggests that yoga is a more effective treatment for chronic back pain than the usual care for improving back function. (5)
If you do have back pain, opt for gentler types of yoga, like hatha or Iyengar, rather than more vigorous practices, to avoid injury, Kogon says. And remember, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before starting a new type of physical activity if you do have an existing back problem or other medical condition.
There’s a growing body of evidence that yoga can benefit your heart. Several studies suggest yoga can help reduce known heart disease risk factors, like high blood pressure among those who are hypertensive, according to a review published in 2017 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. (6)
Another study that followed patients with heart failure found that adding eight weeks of yoga to their treatment increased the patients’ capacity for exercise, improved their heart health, and enhanced their overall quality of life compared with patients who did not do yoga in addition to regular treatment. (7)
“Yoga increases blood flow and gets oxygen to the periphery of the body and relaxes blood vessels, which is good in heart failure. It eases the workload on the heart,” Kogon says.
Physical activity, breathing exercises, and meditation separately are all known to help buffer cardiovascular disease risk factors, so it’s not a stretch to understand why studies have found yoga (which combines all three of these) helps do the same. (8)
Regular exercise can help keep joints flexible, muscles toned, and weight under control, which is what people with arthritis need to manage pain. Yoga can be a great way for people with arthritis to stay active, because the gentle pace of movement can be less stressful than other types of workouts, according to the Arthritis Foundation. (9) Studies have shown practicing yoga is linked to less pain and improved joint function in people with different types of arthritis. (10)
“We speculate that the increase in flexibility, increased muscle strength, and stress reduction are modifying factors in arthritis pain,” Kogon says. So it would make sense that yoga may help with symptoms. There isn’t hard evidence that one form of yoga is better than another for pain. As always, if you have a medical condition, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before trying a new type of physical activity.
Yoga has certainly not been proved as a cure for asthma, but there is some evidence it might help with symptoms. A review published in 2016 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews that included 15 randomized controlled trials found that yoga was associated with improvements in quality of life and symptom management for people with moderate asthma. (11) But more research is needed to determine the mechanisms of how yoga helps and whether or not it improves lung function (which causes asthma in the first place).
Kogon says it makes sense that yoga would help with asthma symptoms because breathing exercises help relax the muscles in different parts of our lungs, which tighten and tense up during an asthma attack. “Asthma attacks can be quite stressful. Controlled breathing helps reduce stress which in turn helps regulate breathing,” she explains.
The loss of muscle function, coordination, and other issues that come with multiple sclerosis can be frustrating, but some research indicates that yoga might help with MS by improving both physical function and mood. Practicing yoga can help with day-to-day functioning by improving balance and muscle alignment, strengthening muscles, and promoting relaxation, which helps with overall stress levels, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (12)
Research has found that for people with MS, a regular yoga practice improved flexibility, along with quality of life factors like fatigue, well-being, and energy levels.
Because yoga promotes well-being and helps with stress, many people turn to it after facing trauma or while dealing with difficult events to promote mental wellness. More and better-designed clinical trials are needed to better establish yoga as a tool to help with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the evidence that does exist suggests yoga can help, according to a review published in 2018 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. (13)
With additional reporting by Tiarra Mukherjee.
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