15 health benefits of yoga
Yoga is known as a physical, mental and spiritual practice that looks to transform the mind as well as the body. The origins of yoga are up for debate with some historians claiming it was founded by the Indus Valley Civilisation more than 4,000 years ago. However, text relating to the practice is only really found from around 2,500 years ago and while it has been used by various civilisations, it has only gained mainstream appeal in the modern era.
There is a growing body of evidence which suggests yoga carries an enormous number of health benefits not previously attributed to this form of exercise. In this article, we will examine all of these purported health benefits to provide you with an overview of what yoga could possibly do for you.
1 – Better Flexibility
This is one of the most obvious yoga benefits and it something you will notice after a few classes. Most people who try yoga for the first time are unable to touch their toes. Within a few months you will notice your body starts to ‘loosen’ and suddenly, you will be able to perform stretches that were once physically impossible for you.
It is also a fact that any nagging aches and pains you feel in muscles and joints also dissipate or even disappear. Inflexible people tend to have issues such as strained knee joints and back pain. These problems are generally caused by tightness in the body in areas such as the hips and hamstrings. Inflexibility in the connective tissue and muscles can also lead to strains and poor posture. Yoga ‘frees’ up your body so these problems become a thing of the past.
2 – Physical Strength
Strong muscles are not just for aesthetic purposes; they help protect us from medical conditions such as back pain and arthritis as well as reducing the number of falls suffered as you get older. More muscle mass also ensures an increased metabolic rate which means you burn more fat at rest.
One of the great things about yoga is that it balances strength with flexibility. Holding the stretches and performing the various movements are excellent methods of increasing your overall strength. Yoga is arguably superior to weightlifting for building muscle because the gym work may give you strength but will do little for your flexibility.
3 – Blood Benefits
Yoga is known for its various relaxation exercises which work to improve your blood circulation. You also end up with more oxygen in your blood cells which enjoy improved function as a result. Studies even suggest that Yoga is responsible for boosting haemoglobin and red blood cell levels which carry oxygen to the tissues. The overall result is a reduction in strokes and heart attacks since yoga also helps reduce the level of clot-promoting proteins in your blood; these clots can cause the aforementioned problems.
There is also a range of yoga poses specifically designed to help reduce blood pressure. Savasana is known as the ‘Corpse Pose’ and a medical study showed test subjects who performed the Savasana pose enjoyed major decreases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels when compared to people who simply lay on a couch.
4 – Improves Your Mood
It has been discovered that people with depression often have a low brain level of GABA, a neurotransmitter. Research conducted by the Harvard McLean Hospital and Boston University School of Medicine showed that healthy patients who practiced yoga for just 60 minutes had almost 30% more GABA compared to a control group who sat and read for the same period of time. This is just part of an increasing body of research which suggests yoga not only elevates mood, it also helps reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Studies have also found that constant yoga practice leads to a major increase in serotonin levels and a reduction in monoamine oxidase. It has also been found that yoga leads to an increased level of activity in the prefrontal cortex; this is associated with greater levels of happiness.
5 – Helps You Sleep Better
While stimulation can be a good thing, too much of it is bad for the nervous system and modern living involves a substantial amount of stimulation on a daily basis. Harvard researchers found that practicing yoga for 8 weeks greatly improved the sleep quality of individuals who would be described as insomniacs.
Yoga is excellent for helping people with stress and the practice of breathing and performing mental exercises helps your mind to slow down and relax. Relaxation is the key to improving sleep quality so it is no surprise to learn that yoga comes up trumps in this department.
6 – Boosts Your Immune System
According to a Norwegian study, yoga leads to changes that result in improved immune system function. The changes occur extremely quickly; indeed, researchers believe you receive immune system benefits while still exercising on the yoga mat! The study also showed that yoga was better for the immune system than going on a nature hike while listening to soothing music. When you breathe, move and circulate better, the result is improved organ function.
7 – Improved Lung Capacity
This certainly isn’t a surprise as yoga involves lots of breathing exercises. However, the extent to which yoga improves your breathing may surprise you. A study published way back in 1998 showed that people with lung problems who practiced ‘complete breathing’ exercises saw marked improvements in their respiratory function. Before yoga, these individuals averaged over 13 breaths a minute but this fell to just over 7 after 4 weeks of yoga. Their exercise capacity also increased dramatically.
Yoga has been shown to improve different measures of lung function including maximum breath volume and the efficiency of the exhalation. As yoga involves breathing through the nose most of the time, the air becomes filtered, gets warmer and is humidified. This process reduces the level of pollen, dirt and other nasty particles that enter your lungs.
8 – Reduces Migraine Headaches
According to this study, three months of yoga practice is enough to reduce instances of migraine. Experts cannot agree on the exact cause of migraines but hunching over a computer all day with poor posture can cause a physical misalignment that leads to headaches. There are specific yoga exercises that can help correct muscle imbalances and over the course of time, this will improve the alignment of the body and reduce instances of migraines.
9 – Keeps Your Spine In Check
Your spinal disks need movement as this is the only way these shock absorbers between the vertebrae get their nutrients. Yoga helps to keep these disks supple thanks to the backwards and forwards bends and twists.
10 – Stronger Bones
There are thousands of studies which show the power of weight-bearing exercises when it comes to making bones stronger and keeping osteoporosis at bay. There are numerous yoga postures that require you to bear your own weight and this helps increase bone density in the vertebrae. Yoga also helps lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body which keeps calcium in the bones.
11 – Adrenal Gland Regulation
As we just mentioned, yoga helps lower your cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’ and is secreted by the adrenal glands in response to a ‘crisis’. If your level of cortisol stays high afterwards, this can hurt the immune system. While high levels of cortisol helps memory in the short-term, continued high levels actually damage your memory. Excessive cortisol has been linked with conditions such as osteoporosis and depression. Additionally, this can also lead to ‘food cravings’ which cause you to eat junk food and gain weight. Regular yoga can prevent all of the above as it helps to regulate your adrenal glands.
12 – Weight Loss & Better Diet
Typically, a healthier diet leads to weight loss and yoga helps you with both. Regular exercise boosts your metabolism, gets you moving and helps you burn calories. The spiritual and emotional aspects of yoga are known to help people improve their diet. It is a fact that yoga practitioners are more careful with their diet than other people and the importance of clean eating is emphasised in yoga classes.
13 – Helps You Focus
Yoga involves focusing on the present and studies show that people who regularly practice yoga enjoy improved coordination, memory, reaction time and IQ scores. If you practice Transcendental Meditation, you are more likely to demonstrate an ability to recall information and solve problems than the average person. One of the reasons for this is because you are less distracted by your thoughts and can concentrate on what is really important.
14 – Better Balance
Yoga increases proprioception which basically means your ability to feel what your body is doing. This helps improve your balance which reduces the likelihood of falls. Individuals with poor posture and dysfunctional movement have very little ability to feel what their body is doing. Therefore, yoga practice is especially useful for the elderly and can reduce the chances of suffering a serious injury in a fall.
15 – Releases Tension
If you pay attention the next time you hold a steering wheel or a telephone, you may notice that you grab the object tightly. Few people are aware of these habits but they can lead to chronic tension along with soreness in the neck, shoulders, face and wrists. Those who practice yoga begin to discover where they hold tension. By learning to release tension, you will reduce your stress level and the pains and aches you feel will slowly disappear.
If the prospect of improving your life appeals to you, give yoga a try! Many of the above benefits are scientifically proven and millions of people around the world who practice yoga swear by its effectiveness. It doesn’t take long to get hooked though it may take a lifetime to master!