Is Yoga Really Good for Your Health?

What research reveals about this ancient practice

Posted Feb 06, 2015

Every Tuesday I’d meet my friend Michelle at the gym, unroll my rose-colored yoga mat, and spend the next hour stretching in a range of poses in Lirio’s gentle yoga class. After feeling waves of relaxation flow through my body while lying on my back in the final shavasana, I’d roll up my mat, renewed and invigorated—the day’s stress washed away by this gentle practice.  

Today yoga has become wildly popular. Classes are springing up all over and over fourteen million American adults have had yoga recommended to them by their doctors or therapists (Cramer et al., 2013). Of the many traditional kinds of yoga, Hatha yoga, which combines postures (asanas), breathing (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana), is the most popular in America.

Developed as a spiritual discipline in India over 5000 years ago, yoga comes from the Sanskrit word, “yug,” which means to join body, mind, and spirit. Research has suggested that yoga does indeed reconnect us to our minds and bodies, making us more mindful—an antidote to today’s frantic, multitasking world, punctuated by constant rushing and continual interruptions.

Yoga is an integral part of MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 2013) and has many therapeutic effects. Studies have shown that yoga can relieve chronic stress by down regulating the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathetic nervous system arousal (Cramer et al., 2013; Ross & Thomas, 2010) while reducing cortisol levels (Thirthalli et al., 2013). It has been found to relieve stress (Chong et al., 2011) and anxiety (Li & Goldsmith, 2012); depression (Cramer et al., 2013); cardiovascular disease (Cramer et al., 2014); diabetes (Ross & Thomas, 2010);  migraines (Naji-Esfahani et al., 2014); and PTSD (Staples et al., 2013).

If you’d like to begin your own yoga practice, you may want to first consult with your doctor, especially if you have any current health challenges.  Then find a yoga teacher you can trust and remember to be mindful in your practice. Slow down, listen to your body and respect what it tells you. Don’t push beyond your limits. Then after an hour of mindful yoga, you, too will rise from this ancient practice with a new sense of integration, relaxation, and renewal.

References

Chong, C. S. M., Tsunaka, M., Tsang, H. W. H., Chan, E. P., Cheung, W. M. (2011). Effects of yoga on stress management in healthy adults: A systematic review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 17, 32-38.

Cramer, H., Lauche, R., Haller, H., Steckhan, N., Michalsen, A., & Dobos, G. (2014). Effects of yoga on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Cardiology, 173, 170-183.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Li, A.W., Goldsmith, C. W. (2012). The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress. Alternative Medicine Review, 17, 21-35.

Naji-Esfahani, H., Zamani, M., Marandi, S. M., Shaygannejad, V., & Javanmard, S. H. (2014). Preventive effects of a three-month yoga intervention on endothelial function in patients with migraine. International Journal of Preventive Medicine, 5, 424-429.

Ross, A., & Thomas, S. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: A review of comparison studies. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16, 3-12.

Staples, J. K., Hamilton, M. F., & Uddo, M. (2013). A yoga program for the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. Military Medicine, 178, 854-860.

Thirthalli, J., Naveen, G.H., Rao, M. G., Varambally, S., Christopher, R., & Gangadbar, B. N. (2013). Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55, 405-408.