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Yoga is meditative, “mind-body” movement practice that first made its way to Europe and the United States from Asia (mostly India) around the mid-1800s. It didn’t really start gaining much popularity until about the 1960s and 70s here, though. Because it involves both movement and controlled breathing and focus, many of the benefits of yoga are similar to those of tai chi or martial arts.
Yoga has evolved to become one of the most commonly used complementary and alternative health practices in the world. Today, it’s even more popular than chiropractic adjustments and osteopathic manipulation, meditation, herbal treatments and massage therapy. The NHIS reports that the most common reasons both adults and children turn to yoga include easing chronic low-back pain, improving overall functioning, reducing stress and improving overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility. Yoga is also a wonderful way to counteract the effects to too much sitting.
One of the many beautiful things about yoga is there are so many different types of yoga, there’s sure to be one that fits your personality and inspires you.
Regular yoga practice — especially when combined with other stress relievers like walking outside or mindfulness meditation — can help combat many physical effects of stress and anxiety. That’s due to the benefits of yoga that impact the central nervous system (CNS) and immune system.
Research conducted by the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University found that yoga minimizes inflammatory responses to stressful encounters. That, in turn, reduced the health burden that stress places on an individual. After comparing 25 yoga novices to 25 yoga experts, researchers found that regular yoga sessions:
• boosted participants’ control over inflammatory or endocrine responses
• lowered serum interleukin (IL)-6 levels
• reduced C-reactive protein (CRP) levels
• decreased stimulation of lipopolysaccharides in response to stressful events.
Yoga brings attention to the various ways we hold stress in our bodies: grinding our teeth, clenching the jaw (which can lead to TMJ symptoms), shrugging our shoulders, tensing our necks and stiffening our bellies and lower backs, for example. Research suggests yoga benefits also include reducing symptoms of anxiety. This means yoga can actually help ease anxiety side effects like a racing heart, high blood pressure and sleeping problems.
Turns out yoga is one of the natural sleep aids you can trust. Studies show that 4 to 8 weeks of yoga results in a positive effect on sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency and wake time after sleep onset in patients with sleep disturbances including insomnia.
For many adults, poor sleep is a result of either high stress levels, hormone imbalances or pain. Regularly taking time to tune into the ways that stress lives in your body can teach you to recognize its early warning signs. and then take action to stop the “fight or flight” stress response from getting worse, which has positive effects on sleep quality. Because yoga helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and decrease activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) it can lower sleep disturbances and help treat symptoms of insomnia.
A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga showed that regular yoga practice can increase flexibility, balance and even various measures of performance in athletes. After 10 weeks of yoga practice, measurements of flexibility and balance improved in the following tests: Sit-reach, shoulder flexibility, stork stand and joint angles. Yoga postures known to benefit flexibility include: downward-facing dog, forward folds, twists, lunges and postures that bring the knees toward the chest. Yoga is also one of the go-to practices to improve functioning of the psoas muscle, a deep abdominal core muscle known as the body’s “soul muscle.” A healthy psoas muscle is linked to not only improved movement but also better emotional health, too.
Fatigue in response to poor sleep, along with experiencing brain fog during the afternoon, are actually normal signs that your “internal clock” (circadian rhythm) is running smoothly. While it’s completely natural to feel a dip in energy following a long night, or for some people late in the afternoon, unexplained fatigue and lack of concentration at other times can cause problems at work and elsewhere.
Yoga is often considered an effective way to boost clarity, focus and energy. These are three very important qualities for physical and mental performance. Stretching, even for short periods of just 1 to 2 minutes, can provide huge effects on energy levels, especially for people who spend many hours a day sitting at desks or staring into a computer screen.
Yoga exercises to help you feel more awake and alert include: bending and touching your toes (forward fold), alternating squatting and then standing with your hands above your head, any form of back-bending or even taking a short 10 minute break to practice a breathing or meditation exercise.
Studies show that certain yoga poses can help decrease lower back pain, neck pain and migraine headaches. Aside from this, the benefits of yoga also include improving the ability to walk and move, managing arthritis symptoms and easing digestive discomfort. One National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health-funded study investigating treatments for chronic low-back pain found that yoga participants enjoyed significantly less disability, pain and depression after 6 months of regular Iyengar practice.
Not only does improved flexibility and blood flow help to control pain, but the mental components of yoga also improve pain tolerance. That’s right. We now actually know how yoga changes your brain. People who practice yoga regularly have healthier levels of gray matter in their brains, particularly in areas involved with pain modulation. This makes yoga one of the most ideal natural painkillers out there.
You may sometimes wonder: Does yoga count as exercise? The quick answer is no. That’s when you’re considering the 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended each day. But as you can see by the research I’m sharing, there are a ton of other reasons to tap into the benefits of yoga. And those include building muscle and losing weight, things we often associate with exercise.
Certain styles of yoga can help promote weight loss (or maintenance of a healthy weight) by reducing inflammation, balancing hormones, controlling your appetite, increasing muscle mass and benefitting your metabolism. Although certain yoga classes can certainly make you sweat, burn lots of calories and tone up all over, the real benefits of yoga when it comes to weight loss might be due to its effects on stress.
Because trust in your own body, believing you have the ability to heal or change, and giving up resistance to aging are emphasized in yoga, many studies have found that yoga can help with overcoming various body insecurities. These include managing symptoms of body image or eating disorders, digestive disorders that affect appetite or food choices, and even serious diseases tied to obesity like heart disease for example.