Yoga has always been touted as good for the mind and body. But beyond improving your flexibility, learning yogi breathing techniques and strengthening muscles, are there other health benefits of yoga? (Spoiler: there are—and some are pretty surprising!) And perhaps best of all is that you don’t have to practice yoga for years to reap the benefits—sometimes all you need is a few weeks. Here’s what to know about practicing yoga for your health.
6 Health Benefits of Yoga
It lowers chronic inflammation.
Quick refresher: acute inflammation (e.g., the redness around a cut) is A-OK. Ongoing or chronic inflammation, however, can be dangerous and is at the root of many chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer and more. Multiple studies have shown that practicing yoga lowers key inflammatory markers (think: C-reactive proteins and cytokines) and also boosts compounds that help alleviate inflammation.
Also impressive is that a short, dedicated stint with yoga can make a considerable difference. One study enrolled part of a group of adults in a 10-day yoga intervention that included stress management classes. After 10 days, those in the yoga/stress management group had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and multiple other inflammation-spurring compounds.
It lessens stress.
Not only does stress impact our mental health (more on that below), but chronic stress can also suppress the immune system and slow your body’s response to an illness-causing invader. Doing yoga, and in particular the breathing techniques taught during yoga, can help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The slow and rhythmic breathing that’s taught and encouraged in yoga also promotes the release of certain hormones that induce calmness. (They also foster feelings of friendship and bonding, and friends are good for stress relief!) And over time, for regular yoga practitioners, there’s less firing in the part of the brain that makes norepinephrine in response to stress and panic.
Even just a few weeks of practicing is helpful: In a 2018 study, employees participated in one of two groups: one group had a 16-week yoga intervention while the other had 8 so-called “normal” workweeks and then started an 8-week yoga intervention. At the end of the study both groups had less stress and anxiety and an overall boost in their well-being.
It improves mental wellness.
Whether you have a diagnosable mental health condition or not, yoga is good for your mood and outlook. Research suggests that practicing yoga encourages the production of GABA, serotonin and dopamine—all of which are neurotransmitters and hormones that have natural antidepressant properties. Put another way, lower levels of GABA have been associated with mental health conditions like schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Additionally, a regular yoga practice has helped clinically depressed patients. In one study, patients either received medication or practiced yoga or employed a combination of both. Both of the groups that practiced yoga saw an improvement in their cortisol levels and, interestingly, the yoga-only group lowered their depression survey scores.
It boosts heart health.
Keeping chronic inflammation in check (which yoga can help with) is valuable for heart health. But yoga also offers some other heart-protective perks. In a study of patients with heart failure, those who followed a yoga program (versus standard medical therapy alone) for about 3 months lowered their heart rate, blood pressure and improved other important markers. Another study showed that folks with high blood pressure were able to improve their pressure with yoga (together with blood pressure medication)—although, interestingly, those who were considered “pre-hypertensive” didn’t lower their blood pressure with yoga.
It encourages better sleep.
Practicing yoga has been shown to boost melatonin, which helps us fall—and stay—asleep, according to a review study published in 2017 in the journal Children. In addition to sleep quantity, yoga has been said to improve sleep quality. GABA (the neurotransmitter that’s important for mental health) also plays a role in sleep regulation, so yoga-promoting GABA production is also good for your overnight slumber.
It’s just as good as “traditional” exercise.
Elements of yoga like the various physical postures (called asanas) resemble physical fitness exercise. But other elements, such as regulated yogic breathing and meditation (both of which contribute to the above health perks), are less “exercise-like.” Yet when researchers conducted a review of the research on yoga versus exercise, they concluded that yoga is equally as beneficial for mental and physical health as fitness exercise.
Sometimes yoga is superior to conventional fitness exercise. Here’s an example: in two different studies (one in middle-aged and elderly adults and the other in teenagers), practicing yoga for 8 weeks improved mood, decreased anxiety and lessened verbal aggressiveness.
The Bottom Line
From improving heart health to promoting better sleep quality, there are many health benefits of practicing yoga. So get out there and take a class, or download an app for an at-home practice.
One last thing: yoga isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a substitute for medications or medical care if you have a condition that warrants them. Yoga, however, does have the potential to be a preventive tool, or one that’s used as an adjunct to medications and prescribed medical care.