It looks like America is getting the memo: The benefits of yoga are well worth it. A 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) concluded that almost 10 percent of all Americans, or over 21 million people, now regularly practice yoga (up significantly from 6 percent of all Americans in 2007 and 5 percent in 2002). (1)
Yoga has evolved to become one of the most commonly used complementary and alternative health practices in the world. Today, it’s even more popular than chiropractic adjustments and osteopathic manipulation, meditation, herbal treatments and massage therapy. The NHIS reports that the most common reasons both adults and children turn to yoga include easing chronic low-back pain, improving overall functioning, reducing stress and improving overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility. Yoga is also a wonderful way to counteract the effects to too much sitting.
One of the many beautiful things about yoga is there are so many different types of yoga, there’s sure to be one that fits your personality and inspires you.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is meditative, “mind-body” movement practice that first made its way to Europe and the United States from Asia (mostly India) around the mid-1800s. It didn’t really start gaining much popularity until about the 1960s and 70s here, though. Because it involves both movement and controlled breathing and focus, many of the benefits of yoga are similar to those of tai chi or martial arts.
Dozens of influential teachers throughout history have shaped yoga. Many actually created their own unique schools of yoga and started lineages which continue to attract millions of devoted followers. Yoga’s roots go back to ancient India, although the practice itself is not religious in nature. Today, the most popular schools of yoga include Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Bikram (also known as hot yoga) and Iyengar. All of these types of yoga stem from a form of yoga called Hatha. And each have their own set of unique core principles, teaching styles, methodologies and physical benefits.
Yoga Journal broadly defines Hatha Yoga as:
A set of physical exercises (known as asanas or postures), and sequences of asanas, designed to align your skin, muscles, and bones. The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body — especially the main channel, the spine — so that energy can flow freely. (2)
Compared to other popular forms of “exercise,” yoga is more holistic in nature because it combines physical movement with controlled breathing techniques. In yoga, the postures are known as asanas. The regulation of breath is referred to as pranayama. Together, these unite to bring great meditative focus and aspects of relaxation.(3) This is exactly why yoga devotees report benefits of yoga including both improvements in physical musculoskeletal conditions and mental health. (4)
According to hundreds of studies conducted over the past 40-plus years, benefits of yoga:
- Decreased stress and anxiety
- Fewer depression symptoms
- Better balance and flexibility
- Improved sleep quality
- Increased immunity due to stimulating the lymphatic system
- Detoxification through helping rid the body of toxins and heavy metals
- Increased strength and stamina
- Improved blood flow
- Better digestive functioning, including reduced symptoms of IBS
- Reductions in symptoms associated with pregnancy and postpartum depression
- Less chronic pain, including those caused by musculoskeletal problems like lower back pain, or from frequent headaches
- Better body acceptance and reduced body image disorder symptoms
And there are big investments in uncovering and proving even more yoga benefits. Large, government-funded studies are currently underway researching the benefits of yoga for: diabetes risk, HIV and low immune function, arthritis, menopausal symptoms, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and smoking cessation.
6 Health Benefits of Yoga
1. Lowers Anxiety & Controls Stress
Regular yoga practice — especially when combined with other stress relievers like walking outside or mindfulness meditation — can help combat many physical effects of stress and anxiety. That’s due to the benefits of yoga that impact the central nervous system (CNS) and immune system.
Research conducted by the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University found that yoga minimizes inflammatory responses to stressful encounters. That, in turn, reduced the health burden that stress places on an individual. After comparing 25 yoga novices to 25 yoga experts, researchers found that regular yoga sessions:
- boosted participants’ control over inflammatory or endocrine responses
- lowered serum interleukin (IL)-6 levels
- reduced C-reactive protein (CRP) levels
- decreased stimulation of lipopolysaccharides in response to stressful events. (5)
Yoga brings attention to the various ways we hold stress in our bodies: grinding our teeth, clenching the jaw (which can lead to TMJ symptoms), shrugging our shoulders, tensing our necks and stiffening our bellies and lower backs, for example. Research suggests yoga benefits also include reducing symptoms of anxiety. This means yoga can actually help ease anxiety side effects like a racing heart, high blood pressure and sleeping problems.
2. Improves Sleep Quality
Turns out yoga is one of the natural sleep aids you can trust. Studies show that 4 to 8 weeks of yoga results in a positive effect on sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency and wake time after sleep onset in patients with sleep disturbances including insomnia. (6)
For many adults, poor sleep is a result of either high stress levels, hormone imbalances or pain. Regularly taking time to tune into the ways that stress lives in your body can teach you to recognize its early warning signs. and then take action to stop the “fight or flight” stress response from getting worse, which has positive effects on sleep quality. Because yoga helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and decrease activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) it can lower sleep disturbances and help treat symptoms of insomnia.
3. Improves Flexibility & Range of Motion
A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga showed that regular yoga practice can increase flexibility, balance and even various measures of performance in athletes. (7) After 10 weeks of yoga practice, measurements of flexibility and balance improved in the following tests: Sit-reach, shoulder flexibility, stork stand and joint angles. Yoga postures known to benefit flexibility include: downward-facing dog, forward folds, twists, lunges and postures that bring the knees toward the chest.Yoga is also one of the go-to practices to improve functioning of the psoas muscle, a deep abdominal core muscle known as the body’s “soul muscle.” A healthy psoas muscle is linked to not only improved movement but also better emotional health, too.
4. Helps Improve Balance & Prevent Falls
Retaining balance is a lifeline for older adults. It helps them stay healthy and maintain independence. So while younger folks may take balance for granted, it’s vitally important for all of us, especially older people.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that about 75 percent of the 15 studies reviewed detected very strong positive results in regards to yoga improving one more outcomes in balance tests and measurements. The benefits were particularly strong among older adults practicing yoga. The review included 5 randomized controlled trials, 4 quasi-experimental, 2 cross-sectional and 4 single-group studies. (8)
The authors of the meta-analysis report that in adults older 65, impaired balance and fear-of-falling are often the result of multiple shared risk factors, such as psychosocial factors, health status and physical fitness. They found that when it comes to preventing falls in older adults, yoga is a “strong candidate for therapeutic intervention, since it provides a comprehensive, integrated approach that can address multiple risk factors at once … this includes fear of falling, which can further limit activity level, increase anxiety, and reduce confidence.” Furthermore, the authors say the practice of yoga has a low rate of side-effects, low risk of injury and no known interactions with prescription medications.
5. Reduces Fatigue & “Brain Fog”
Fatigue in response to poor sleep, along with experiencing brain fog during the afternoon, are actually normal signs that your “internal clock” (circadian rhythm) is running smoothly. While it’s completely natural to feel a dip in energy following a long night, or for some people late in the afternoon, unexplained fatigue and lack of concentration at other times can cause problems at work and elsewhere.
Yoga is often considered an effective way to boost clarity, focus and energy. These are three very important qualities for physical and mental performance. Stretching, even for short periods of just 1 to 2 minutes, can provide huge effects on energy levels, especially for people who spend many hours a day sitting at desks or staring into a computer screen.
Yoga exercises to help you feel more awake and alert include: bending and touching your toes (forward fold), alternating squatting and then standing with your hands above your head, any form of back-bending or even taking a short 10 minute break to practice a breathing or meditation exercise.
6. Might Help Reduce Pain & Improve Quality of Life
Studies show that certain yoga poses can help decrease lower back pain, neck pain and migraine headaches. Aside from this, the benefits of yoga also include improving the ability to walk and move, managing arthritis symptoms and easing digestive discomfort. One National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health-funded study investigating treatments for chronic low-back pain found that yoga participants enjoyed significantly less disability, pain and depression after 6 months of regular Iyengar practice. (9)
Not only does improved flexibility and blood flow help to control pain, but the mental components of yoga also improve pain tolerance. That’s right. We now actually know how yoga changes your brain. People who practice yoga regularly have healthier levels of gray matter in their brains, particularly in areas involved with pain modulation. (10) This makes yoga one of the most ideal natural painkillers out there.
7. Can Help Boost Weight Loss & Build Muscle
You may sometimes wonder: Does yoga count as exercise? The quick answer is no. That’s when you’re considering the 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended each day. But as you can see by the research I’m sharing, there are a ton of other reasons to tap into the benefits of yoga. And those include building muscle and losing weight, things we often associate with exercise.
Certain styles of yoga can help promote weight loss (or maintenance of a healthy weight) by reducing inflammation, balancing hormones, controlling your appetite, increasing muscle mass and benefitting your metabolism. Although certain yoga classes can certainly make you sweat, burn lots of calories and tone up all over, the real benefits of yoga when it comes to weight loss might be due to its effects on stress.
Because trust in your own body, believing you have the ability to heal or change, and giving up resistance to aging are emphasized in yoga, many studies have found that yoga can help with overcoming various body insecurities. These include managing symptoms of body image or eating disorders, digestive disorders that affect appetite or food choices, and even serious diseases tied to obesity like heart disease for example.
Different Types Of Yoga
Part of what makes yoga seem intimidating to beginners is that there are dozens of different yoga schools, classes and styles available today, including (but not limited to):
- Kali Ray Tri
Vinyasa Yoga vs. Bikram “Hot” Yoga vs. Ashtanga Yoga:
- Although most styles of yoga can be suited for different levels of fitness and experience — plus many teachers offer modifications depending on someone’s abilities — certain yoga styles tend to be more challenging and physically demanding than others. Benefits of yoga workouts can vary substantially depending on the specific type practiced.
- If you’re looking for relaxing yoga classes that soothe stress or pain, yoga styles to try include Yin, Gentle and Restorative yoga. (10)
- If you are looking for a vigorous class, on the other hand, that challenges your stamina, strength and coordination, styles to try include Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Bikram, and certain Iyengar and Hatha classes, depending on the specific teacher. (11)
- Ashtanga and Vinyasa are similar because both pair the breath and postures together and have “flow-like” qualities. Depending on the speed of the class, temperature of the room (some classes are heated) and specific postures performed, these styles can be challenging and cause you to really work up a sweat.
- Ashtanga/Vinyasa classes involve synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of asanas (postures). According to Ashtanga yoga practitioners, the goal of Ashtanga yoga is to produce intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. Many practitioners feel that this style is one of the most rigorous. Something that is unique about Ashtanga yoga is that it involves performing the exact same poses in the exact same order, making it a more disciplined and progressive practice than some other styles.
- Iyengar yoga is most well-known for attention to detail and precise alignment of postures. Classes tend to move at a slower pace and are learned over time with regular practice and effort. (13)
- Hot yoga/Bikram yoga is performed in very heated rooms, sometimes which are more than 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat can help increase flexibility, has detoxifying effects (since it causes increased perspiration, similar to a sauna/steam room) and can be soothing for tight or tense muscles.
- Many also find hot/Bikram yoga to be relaxing and to promote better sleep, especially when practiced at night in cooler months. However hot yoga can sometimes cause dizziness or dehydration, so stay safe by drinking plenty of water, wearing suitable clothing and avoiding this style if you have a history of heart disease (without clearance from your doctor), lung disease, heatstroke or fainting.
Meaning of Vinyasa & Brief History of Yoga
One of the oldest known forms of “exercise,” it’s estimated that yoga’s origins go back more than 5,000 years. Yoga has evolved drastically over this timespan, and today there are now dozens of different styles in existence. Each stems from a wide range of people and belief systems. In the early days of yoga, teachers and practitioners were highly focused on the mental benefits of yoga, even more so than the physical. The earliest yoga practitioners had in common several goals including: connecting the body and mind, encouraging “mindfulness”, uniting people with their communities and fellow practitioners, and also improving physical health even into older age. (14)
Ashtanga yoga is considered by many to be the most popular system of yoga practiced in The West today, and one of the styles most similar to classical yoga. Ashtanga stems from classical yoga practices originating in Ancient India and was brought to the West primarily by a man named Sri K. Pattabhi Jois starting around the 1960’s. In Sanskrit, (an ancient language used to describe yoga postures that is no longer in existence) the word Ashtanga means “eight-limbed,” which refers to the eight limbs of yoga that are mentioned in the classical yogic text Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Although most people assume that yoga is merely a series of physical “asanas” (postures), these are actually only one of the ancient limb of yoga. Pranayama (controlled breathing) and meditation are two other limbs of yoga that are still incorporated into many different yoga teachings. (15)
Yoga itself is not a religious practice and can be practiced secularly or in combination with any form of spirituality. Many people mistakenly assume that yoga is a branch of Hinduism, but in fact it’s believed that yoga existed even before Hinduism and was later incorporated into this religion due to its various benefits. Although different types, or “schools,” of yoga have been established that promote learning from “gurus” and teachers, it’s entirely possible to benefit from yoga even without ascribing to any specific belief system. People of all ages, religions, physical abilities and nationalities are now taking advantage of the many benefits of yoga — and you can too.
What Is the Meaning of Vinyasa?
In yoga classes, teachers often direct students to “perform a vinyasa”, which is short for a series of postures including: Plank Pose, Chaturanga Dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), Upward-Facing Dog and Downward-Facing Dog poses. However, Vinyasa also has a broader, more important meaning in yoga tradition.Vinyasa stands for “gradual progression” or “breathing system,” according to authors of Yoga Journal. (16)
It’s used to describe the flow of movement in yoga linked to the breath, and the energy/force that takes yoga students through a planned yoga series which helps them release tension and benefit mentally and emotionally in other ways.
Precautions Regarding Yoga
- Yoga is considered to be very safe, even for older adults or those with disabilities. However, it’s still important to be cautious when first getting started.
- Although yoga can be customized to meet your specific goals and needs, the National Institutes of Health recommends that anyone with high blood pressure, asthma, glaucoma, sciatica and women who are pregnant receive clearance from their doctor before beginning. It’s also smart to speak to the yoga teacher about tips for safely modifying or avoiding certain yoga poses that might aggravate your symptoms, especially if you have a recent injury.
- The best way to locate a yoga class that is appropriate for you is to ask a trusted source for a recommendation, such as your doctor or chiropractor.
- Especially if you are new to yoga, look for an accredited instructor with certification through a trusted organization like The Yoga Alliance. The Yoga Alliance requires at least 200 hours of hands-on yoga training. That includes a specified number of required hours in areas including techniques, teaching methodology, anatomy, physiology and philosophy.
Final Thoughts on the Benefits of Yoga
- Yoga is a mind-body practice that includes elements of breath control, meditation and the adoption of specific bodily postures (called asanas).
- Yoga benefits include reducing pain and improving balance and flexibility. This helps to reduce anxiety, improve sleep and build and maintain muscle mass.
- The most popular styles of yoga practiced in the U.S and Europe are rooted in Hatha yoga methods. These include Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Kundalini, Yin, Bikram/hot yoga and Iyengar.
- Yoga is usually very safe, even for older adults or those with limitations due to injuries, but if you have high blood pressure, asthma, glaucoma, sciatica or are pregnant, it’s best to be cautious and get your doctor’s clearance first.