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.
Yoga can improve muscle tone and flexibility. Did you know it can also help manage chronic disease symptoms for people with asthma, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis? Getty Images
“On a physical level, yoga helps improve flexibility, strength, balance, and endurance,” saysLinda 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.
1. Yoga Boosts Emotional Health and Relieves Stress
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 journalPsychoneuroendocrinology. (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 withdepressionand schizophrenia, according to a review published in the journalFrontiers in Psychiatry. (3)
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 ofYoga Saltin Los Angeles. (4)“They’ll help calm your body and, most importantly, your mind.”
3. Yoga May Help Your Hangover
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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.
4. Yoga May Help With Chronic Back Pain
“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.
5. Yoga Helps Fight Against Heart Diseases
There’s a growing body of evidence thatyoga 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.
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.
“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.