"On a physical level, yoga helps improve flexibility, strength, balance, and endurance," says Linda Schlamadinger McGrath, founder of YogaSource Los Gatos in California. "On an energetic level, yoga teaches you how to cope better with stress by cultivating a sense of ease in both active or passive poses. On a psychological level, yoga helps to cultivate mindfulness by shifting your awareness to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany a given pose or exercise."
Research continues to unearth even more health-boosting benefits of various types of yoga — and here are 11 of them.
Emotional Health Boost
All exercise has been shown to help people with depression feel better, and yoga is no exception. In fact, a study from Duke University Medical Center suggested that yoga could benefit those living with depression, schizophrenia, other psychiatric conditions, and sleep problems.
"Practicing in a group setting, such as a yoga class, stimulates the production of oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone," McGrath says. "Practicing mindfulness through yoga and meditation also results in higher serotonin levels (the happiness hormone), and long-term practitioners have shown more mass in the areas of the brain associated with contentment."
Back Pain Treatment
Multiple studies have found yoga to be a more effective treatment for chronic back pain than usual care. In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, people living with chronic lower back pain reported better back function, though similar levels of pain, after a few months of practicing yoga.
In another study of 80 individuals with chronic lower back pain, the group that participated in just one week of yoga showed less disability and greater flexibility than patients who completed other physical exercises. Even if you don't have chronic pain, yoga's stretching exercises can improve your spinal flexibility.
In recent years, couples have increasingly turned to yoga as a means of decreasing stress and increasing their chances of conceiving a child. And though there are few studies that indicate that yoga benefits include enhancing fertility, it has been shown to reduce stress and could indeed play a role.
"Yoga can help with infertility in a variety of ways," says Bethany Grace Shaw, founder and president of YogaFit, Inc. "Yoga allows the mother-to-be to relax, de-stress, and open up energetic channels, thereby improving chances of conception." Yoga may also allow for better blood flow to reproductive organs, improving organ function and improving hormone function. "Finally, by reducing stress, conception becomes easier," Shaw adds.
After a night of drinking, yoga may be the last thing on your mind, but Shaw says it's exactly what you should do.
"Yoga is a great way to detox your entire system," she says. "Yoga also helps with metabolism. The poses 'shoulder stand,' 'plow,' and 'fish' work on the thyroid gland and improve metabolism, thus getting rid of a hangover faster. Reversing blood flow and bringing more blood to the brain creates balance in the body." Another benefit of a higher metabolism? It helps you burn fat, and the increased blood flow from yoga might even help blast cellulite away.
Heart Disease Helper
In a study of 19 patients with heart failure, adding eight weeks of yoga to the treatment of nine of the patients increased their capacity for exercise, improved their heart health, and enhanced their overall quality of life. "Yoga plays a huge role in reducing your risk of heart disease," Shaw says. "The cardiovascular benefits of yoga also help reduce arterial plaque."
In a study of 57 adults with mild to moderate asthma, adding an eight-week yoga session to their conventional care dramatically improved asthma symptoms. "Breathing practice, known as pranayama, is an essential part of yoga, and such exercises have been shown to help ease the symptoms of asthma," McGrath says.
When it comes to the benefits of different types of yoga, a study indicated that iyengar yoga, known for its use of props like belts, blocks, and other positioning aids, might help people with rheumatoid arthritis. This pilot study of eight people with rheumatoid arthritis showed that a six-week yoga program improved pain, pain disability, mental health, depression, vitality, and self-efficacy. Other types of yoga might help arthritis symptoms, too. "Arthritis loves gentle movement and heat, so styles like bikram or gentle yoga can be very beneficial for arthritis," McGrath says.
According to a review article that looked at several complementary and alternative medicine strategies for treating insomnia, yoga was one of the most effective approaches for getting a good night's sleep.
"When experiencing insomnia, practice relaxing asanas or postures, such as forward fold (uttanasana) or lying on your back with your feet up the wall," says Tamal Dodge, director of the Tamal Yoga School. "This will help with circulation as well as calming your body and, most importantly, your mind."
Multiple Sclerosis Help
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. A study of people with multiple sclerosis found that six months of weekly yoga classes improved fatigue to the same degree as six months of weekly traditional exercise classes.
The benefits of yoga may even extend to your brain. "I like to refer to yoga as 'taking out the trash' physically and mentally," Shaw says. "By reducing mental stress and physical tension, we are able to recall easier and have more organized thoughts. Improved cognitive function happens when we are able to clear our minds and refresh. From a place of peace and calm, we are able to use our mental facilities more efficiently."
A study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found yoga could be a beneficial adjunctive treatment for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). This pilot study evaluated the effects of 12-session Kripalu-based yoga versus no yoga intervention in 38 women with symptoms of PTSD. The women randomized to the yoga group experienced greater reduction in PTSD symptoms than women in the control group. The results of this study hold promise for people with PTSD who have found little success with traditional psychotherapy.
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