By Emma Gerrard,
Yoga is a spiritual discipline, practiced with the goal of bringing harmony between the mind and the body.1 Its creation can be traced back to India over 5,000 years ago.2 Since its establishment, yoga has become increasingly mainstream in Western culture. In the United States, 9.5% of adults (21 million people) practice yoga as a “complementary health approach”.3 Over the past ten years, yoga research in clinical settings has tripled.4 This is mainly due to the interest that health care professionals have developed in identifying viable preventive self-care and adjunctive therapies in an effort to manage rising health care costs, in addition to a desire amongst leaders in the yoga community to have their traditional practice validated. According to research, yoga has been found to improve quality of life, mental health, brain health, and pain management.
Quality of Life, Mental Health and Brain Health
The practice of yoga has been associated with health-related quality of life improvements. According to a cross-sectional analysis of 308 healthy adults, those who practiced community based meditation and breathing exercises (included in most yogic practices), showed higher scores in mental health life quality.5 It was also found that yogic practices may progressively tune the brain towards a parasympathetically driven mode and positive mood states.6 Specifically, yogic practices which include breathing, movement, and deep relaxation appear to modulate stress response systems and can help people regulate stress and pain responses, in addition to improving short term depressive symptoms.7 Lastly, regular yoga practice may lead to neuroprotective effects against age related whole brain decline in gray matter.6
Yoga has been found to be an effective way of managing mild to moderate chronic pain. According to a meta-analysis of 12 clinical trials with 589 total participants, yoga was found to assist individuals who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.8 This was evidenced by reduced pain, stiffness, and swelling.8 In terms of lower back pain, yoga may be as effective as physical therapy9.
General Health Conditions
According to the American Heart Association, yoga can be used to improve heart health, both as a preventive measure or after a cardiac event.10 The practice of yoga has been shown to improve blood pressure, lung capacity, respiratory function, heart rate, circulation, and heart rate variability.11 This is likely due to yoga’s beneficial effects on emotional regulation and chronic stress.11
Yoga has also been shown to decrease inflammatory markers, increase the chemicals that fight inflammation, and increase levels of antibodies in the blood.11 In a randomized control trial containing women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, those who practiced yoga experienced less fatigue, fewer inflammatory markers, and more vitality.11 The practice of yoga can also positively affect gene expression, boost telomere length, and may even affect longevity.12
Researchers are only beginning to understand the depth of yoga’s healing and health promoting abilities. While a lack of standardization in yoga research remains a challenge, the use of yoga as a validated alternative therapy and form of self-care appears to be promising. In general, research has shown that yoga improves physical pain, vitality, activities of daily living, balance, upper body strength, and mental health. So what are you waiting for? Grab your mat and start your practice today!
1. Clarke, T.C., et al. 2015. Trends in the use of complementary health approaches among adults: United States, 2002–2012. National Health Statistics Reports; No 79. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human Service.
2. Jeter, P.E., et al. 2015. Yoga as a therapeutic intervention: A bibliometric analysis of published research studies from 1967 to 2013. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21 (10), 586–92.
3. Birdee, G.S., Ayala, S.G., & Wallston, K.A. 2017. Cross-sectional analysis of health-related quality of life and elements of yoga practice. BMD Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 17 (83).
4. Villemure, C., et al. 2015. Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice: age-, experience-, and frequency-dependent plasticity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 281.
5. Harvard Health Publications. 2009. Yoga for anxiety and depression. Harvard Mental Health Letter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
6. Cheung, C., Park, J., & Wyman, J.F. 2016. Effects of yoga on symptoms, physical function and psychosocial outcomes in adults with osteoarthritis: A focused review. American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, 95 (2), 139–51
7. Saper, R.B., et al. 2017. Yoga, physical therapy, or education for chronic low back pain. Annals of Internal Medicine, 167 (2), 85–94.
8. AHA (American Heart Association). 2013. Yoga and heart health. Accessed July 30 2017: www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/Yoga-and-Heart-Health_UCM_434966_Article.jsp#
9. Stephens, I. 2017. Medical yoga therapy. Children, 4 (12).
10. Ornish, D., et al. 2008. Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention. PNAS, 105 (24), 8369–74.