Whether you’re a fitness buff or live with limited mobility, yoga is an accessible, gentle form of physical activity that can increase your flexibility and muscle tone, as well as put you in touch with your breathing. You may know it’s “good for you,” but there’s a mountain of scientific study on just how beneficial it can be—and the positives are many.
Yoga combines specific postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana) to integrate the mind and body. It’s an ancient Indian practice that’s made its way—in various forms and methods—into modern mainstream studios, videos, and homes around the world.
“What most people in America think about or know about yoga is only one dimension of its original form,” says Josie Conte, D.O., member of the American Osteopathic Association and faculty and clinician at Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency.
“The word yoga is derived from the word ‘yuk’ Sanskrit, which means ‘to unite’ in reference to the self and higher self,” she says. “There are eight limbs of yoga that include not only the postures of yoga but also ways to behave, using breath for change in the mind and body, meditation, withdrawing the senses and a meditative consciousness.”
The yoga you’re likely to see most at your neighborhood studio is a form called Hatha yoga, which focuses mainly on movement, with some additional breath and meditation focus.
Neha Gothe, associate professor of kinesiology and community health at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who researches the effects of yoga on brain and cognitive health, says Hatha yoga is often the school she focuses on in her studies.
“It’s a good starting point for somebody who is a novice who has never practiced yoga before,” she says. “The movement could be something that you’re doing standing, something that you’re doing seated, or some exercises in yoga are supine, where you’re lying down on your yoga mat as you’re moving your body. Hatha is a combination of those different activities.”
Here’s what Gothe—and others—have discovered yoga can do for your body and brain.
Sharpens thinking skills
The perks a regular yoga practice has on your posture, balance, and flexibility may be the first changes you notice, but your brain is also getting a boost when you’re on the mat. In one study, Gothe and colleagues put participants through a 3- to 6-month yoga practice protocol for one hour a day, three days a week. Each subject completed a brain scan before and after the time period.
“This is so we can literally, physically, and biologically look at how the brain is changing or how the connections and networks in the brain are changing as a function of yoga practice,” says Gothe.
What they found: Positive effects on executive functioning, the set of skills you need to set goals, follow multi-step directions, and stay focused. What’s more, in a systematic review of many studies, Gothe and colleagues found even more of the same results.
“The review was across different populations—college students, working adults, older adults—and across the board, all showed a positive improvement [in cognition].”
Lessens stress and inflammation
If you break down the word “disease,” you’re defining stress: dis-ease. This stress may be from the hustle and bustle of life, or it could be a result of other conditions you’re dealing with. Either way, it has a negative physical effect.
Not only does stress feel bad mentally, it wreaks havoc on your innards. When you feel stress, whether you’re being chased by a tiger or sitting at a desk trying to meet a deadline, your muscles tense, your breath gets shallow and short, your heart pounds harder (raising blood pressure), and your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone that increases inflammation in your tissues and organs.
A regular yoga practice puts your body at intentional ease, giving it a chance to rest from the effects stress has on your systems.
“The effort of moving the body and relaxing the body through asana [yoga poses] relaxes the mind, and all those vagal and sympathetic forces—cytokines and blood pressure and heart rate—learn to relax,” says Barbara Moss, DO, MPH, a family medicine specialist in Augusta, Maine.
Reduces chronic pain
In studies on people with chronic pain conditions, researchers found that yoga can have a positive impact on low back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and neck pain. The results for back pain are especially striking, says Conte.
“A study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed how 313 people with chronic low back pain increased mobility by participating in a yoga class once a week—and this was found more effective than the standard of care,” says Conte.
In fact, the American College of Physicians recommends yoga as the go-to treatment for chronic low back pain, before medication.
Fosters more mindful eating
For many people, the number one question is “But can yoga help me lose weight?” It can, but maybe not in the way you think.
In fast-paced American society, it’s common to want to distill a practice like yoga down to a quick-fix fitness program, but Moss says this integrative “ancient system of living” was designed for much more than that.
“Yoga isn’t for flat abs and standing on your head, it’s about learning about one’s own experience and taking the steps towards the next level of healing.”
Research shows that people who practice yoga for at least half an hour once a week for at least four years gain less weight in midlife than people who don’t. People who are overweight typically lose weight under the same conditions.
When you devote time to yoga, you’re more in tune with your body, and that can make you a more intentional eater. You become better at listening to your body’s hunger cues and—more importantly—the signs you’re full and should stop eating.
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