If you’re looking for the science-backed benefits of yoga, look no further. Practicing yoga regularly has been proven to offer a range of physical and mental health benefits, improving everything from flexibility to stress levels. The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) (opens in new tab) reported that around 94% of people who practice different types of yoga in the U.S. do so for wellness reasons, citing improved sleep, less stress, and healthier habits as benefits of yoga.
Whether you’re looking to buy one of the best yoga mats (opens in new tab) and try an online class or you’re thinking of venturing out to a studio class, we’ll be looking at eight benefits of yoga for the body and mind.
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What are the benefits of yoga?
Yoga offers physical and mental health benefits for all ages and abilities. Research has shown that yoga may:
• Improve flexibility
• Build strength and endurance
• Reduce stress
• Improve sleep
• Benefit heart health
• Encourage healthy eating habits
• Reduce inflammation
• Ease and prevent back pain
8 benefits of yoga: Improve flexibility
There is tangible evidence that shows yoga can improve performance using specific poses that show you how to improve your flexibility (opens in new tab).
A 2016 study, published in the International Journal of Yoga (opens in new tab) looked at the effect of 10 weeks of yoga on 26 male college athletes. It found that yoga significantly increased several measures of flexibility and balance, compared to the control group (who did not practice yoga).
However, yoga isn’t just beneficial to athletes. Helping to bust yoga myths (opens in new tab) where the practice is perceived to just be for the young, a study from the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab) compared the flexibility of elderly individuals who had practiced Hatha yoga for at least three times a week for a year with those who had practiced calisthenics. After a year, the total flexibility of the yoga group increased by nearly four times than that of the calisthenics group.
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8 benefits of yoga: Build strength and endurance
Yoga is also a great addition to your exercise regime if you are looking to boost strength and endurance.
In a study published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab), 79 adults performed 24 cycles of sun salutations six days a week for 24 weeks. The results showed a significant increase in upper body strength, endurance, and weight loss. A significant decrease in body fat percent was also observed in female participants.
Meanwhile, a 2015 study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (opens in new tab) of 173 participants had similar findings, showing that 12 weeks of Hatha yoga practice lead to improvements in endurance, strength, and flexibility.
8 benefits of yoga: Reduce stress
People often practice yoga because they’re seeking stress relief and relaxation. After all, mental health affects physical health (opens in new tab) and vice versa.
Scientists are now researching the reasons why yoga lowers stress. A study from the International Journal of Yoga (opens in new tab) shows that the practice of yoga produces a physiological state opposite to that of the flight-or-fight stress response. With that interruption in the stress response, a sense of balance and union between the mind and body can be achieved.
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Meanwhile, a separate study from the International Journal of Yoga (opens in new tab) has also found that practicing yoga for at least three months may lower stress levels.
8 benefits of yoga: Improve sleep
Studies show that incorporating yoga into your life can help promote better sleep. In one study in the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab), 69 elderly adults were assigned to either practice yoga, take Ayurveda (a herbal preparation), or be part of the control group. Research showed the yoga group fell asleep faster, slept longer, and felt more well-rested in the morning than the other groups.
Yoga has also been shown to have an effect on common contributors to sleep problems such as anxiety and depression. Pregnant women who practice yoga have been shown to have reduced sleep disturbances in addition to reduced prenatal anxiety and depression, according to research from the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab).
8 benefits of yoga: Benefit heart health
A large number of studies show that yoga benefits many aspects of heart health. Yoga is an effective practice for your heart because it increases circulation and blood flow. One study from the Diabetology and Metabolic Syndrome (opens in new tab) journal has shown that blood pressure and waist circumference (a marker for heart disease) improved in middle-aged adults with metabolic syndrome who practiced yoga for one year.
Heart failure patients typically have co–morbidities that prevent them from participating in traditional exercise programs and require an individualized exercise prescription. Yoga has been shown to improve exercise capacity, according to the International Journal of Yoga (opens in new tab), and quality of life in heart failure patients. They also had lower levels of markers for inflammation in their blood, which contributes to heart disease.
8 benefits of yoga: Encourage healthy eating habits
Yoga places an emphasis on mindfulness and encourages the participant to be present and aware of senses and feelings. Now, some studies show that yoga and mindfulness could be used to encourage healthy and mindful eating behaviors.
A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health (opens in new tab) assessed the effect of individualized yoga treatment on adolescents receiving outpatient care for diagnosed eating disorders. It found that yoga helped reduce both eating disorder symptoms and preoccupation with food.
Another study in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity (opens in new tab) found regular yoga practice amongst young adults was associated with eating more servings of fruit and vegetables, fewer servings of sugar-sweetened beverages and snack foods, less frequent fast food consumption, and more hours of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
8 benefits of yoga: Reduce inflammation
Chronic inflammation can contribute to the development of diabetes, cardiovascular and autoimmune disease, according to a study in the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab). Several recent studies suggest that yoga could slow the harmful physical effects of inflammation.
A 2015 study from the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research (opens in new tab) divided 218 participants aged 20 to 60 into two groups: those who practiced yoga regularly and those who didn’t. Both groups then performed moderate and strenuous exercises to induce stress. The research showed that the regular practice of yoga can lower levels of inflammatory markers, protecting the individual against inflammatory diseases.
A systemic review from the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab) of randomized controlled trials found that yoga may be useful as a complementary treatment for populations at risk or already suffering from diseases with an inflammatory component.
8 benefits of yoga: Ease and prevent back pain
The American Chiropractic Association (opens in new tab) has estimated that lower back pain affects around 80% of adults at some point in their lives. However, yoga for back pain (opens in new tab) may be a way to provide some relief.
A 2011 trial in the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab) researched the long-term effectiveness of a 12-week yoga program versus a back pain education booklet for low back pain patients. The yoga group had significantly better back function at the three, six, and 12 months follow-ups.
Chronic low back pain is the most frequent pain condition in veterans and can affect quality of life. Results of a clinical trial, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (opens in new tab), showed that a 12-week yoga program improved scores for disability and pain intensity. Meanwhile, the use of opioid medication also declined among all participants.
How much yoga should you do to see the benefits?
Anna Rose, a yoga instructor who has been teaching in California for 25 years, told Live Science that the amount you should practice depends on your overall goal. “If my clients were looking to improve their flexibility and balance I would recommend a short series of poses to be carried out every day. If strength is your goal, I would recommend three power yoga classes a week. You don’t have to spend hours a week on the mat but the key is consistent practice to see results.”
Research backs up the claim that yoga practice doesn’t have to be long to be beneficial. A study from Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation (opens in new tab) of 700 participants looking at the impact of yoga on bone strength found that just 12 minutes of yoga per day is enough to see improvements. If you are struggling to set aside time every day, another study from the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (opens in new tab) showed a significant increase in flexibility when practicing yoga once a week for six weeks.