Yoga stems from ancient India. There are many different forms of yoga practiced today, and the popularity of yoga is increasing well outside India.
In today’s fast paced society, yoga can act as a calming way to focus on your breath through movement or to still the mind. Some types of yoga are more physically strenuous than others types.
For centuries, yoga has been associated with many mental and physical health benefits. However, current research has validated some of the proposed benefits of yoga.
Research studies have shown yoga may be helpful with lowering stress, chronic pain, improving posture, lowering blood pressure and may help improve quality of life with certain cancer treatments.
#1 – Lowering stress
The American Osteopathic Association (1) suggests yoga may offer both mental and physical health benefits. The mental health benefits of yoga could include lowering stress which is a common need for many in the fast paced lifestyle we live in.
Lowering stress and anxiety can also be beneficial for health because stress may contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
A 2012 review (2) on human studies associated with yoga and stress suggests some studies have shown lowered stress or anxiety in patients receiving yoga compared to those not receiving yoga as cancer treatments.
Other short term studies with yoga and stress levels have inconsistent results which could be from a result of study limitations. Despite some study limitations, the review authors suggest the effect yoga has on stress merits further discussion.
A 2006 study (3) with 131 participants concluded yoga was as effective as relaxation for lowering stress and anxiety following a 10 week intervention.
#2 – Increased muscle strength
Can yoga increase muscle strength like weight lifting?
The effect yoga has on muscle strength can vary depending on what kind of yoga you do and for how long.
In general, yoga isn’t considered a top exercise for building muscle strength. However, compared to being sedentary, adding in yoga can add muscle strength.
According to Harvard Health (4), a small study found when sedentary individuals started practicing yoga for 8 weeks for 180 minutes a week, muscle strength and endurance were greater after yoga.
However, as a 2014 article (5) from The New York Times suggests, the impact of yoga on muscle strength is not consistent in all research studies.
Compared to doing no activity, yoga may help build muscle strength. However, other exercises like weight lifting can boost muscle strength to a greater degree than yoga.
#3 – Improved posture
Many people sit and stare at a computer screen most of the day. This can lead to hunching of shoulders, protruding your head forward or causing other ways your back, neck or shoulders compensate.
To combat these tendencies for poor posture, doing some yoga poses can help. Many people who do yoga may tell you they have experienced improved posture from yoga because you are working on strengthening muscles to combat poor posture.
Make sure you are doing the poses correctly and not causing extra pain or stress on your body.
You can even do some simple yoga exercises at home or at your desk in the office. SHAPE (6) lists nine yoga poses you can do anywhere to help combat the “desk hunch back”.
#4- Help to lower blood pressure
According to the CDC, almost one in three American adults has high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Weight loss, lowering salt intake, increasing potassium, magnesium, calcium and increasing exercise are all ways to help lower blood pressure.
Some research suggests adding yoga in addition to these other changes in lifestyle may have an additional beneficial on lowering blood pressure.
A 2014 study put study volunteers into one of two groups for 12 weeks: lifestyle modification to lower blood pressure or lifestyle modification plus yoga to lower blood pressure.
There were no significant differences between groups at the beginning of the study.
After the 12 weeks, blood pressure was significantly lower in both groups. The yoga group showed a significant further reduction in systolic blood pressure compared to the lifestyle modification only group.
This study suggests adding yoga to other lifestyle modifications to lower blood pressure may be beneficial.
#5 – Quality of life in cancer treatment
Going through cancer and cancer treatment can cause stress and anxiety in addition to other physical side effects from treatment. People with cancer may use forms of complementary or alternative medicine to manage illness.
Some research has shown incorporating yoga may be helpful for managing fatigue, insomnia, mood disturbances, stress and improving quality of life.
However, most studies have been small, and higher quality randomly controlled studies are needed.
A 2010 study examined the effect yoga had on quality of life in women with breast cancer undergoing radiation treatment.
Women were randomly assigned to a yoga group or a wait list group for 6 weeks. Researchers concluded
the yoga group had clinically significant improvements in quality of life compared to the group not receiving yoga.
More research is needed with yoga and quality of life with cancer treatment. However, preliminary research suggests adding in yoga during cancer treatment may alleviate stress symptoms with cancer treatment.
If you have specific questions if yoga is right for you or a loved one during cancer treatment, consult your medical team before starting an exercise program.
#6 – Helping with pain management
Chronic pain can be from many causes. Incorporating gentle exercises that stretch and strengthen muscles, like through yoga, may be beneficial for pain management. However, exercise may be contraindicated for certain pain.
Some research suggests incorporating yoga may be helpful for pain management, but you should speak with your healthcare team before you start any exercise program to help with pain management.
A 2011 study (7) explored patients’ perceptions of pain while participating in weekly yoga for eight weeks.
Researchers found although the some of the sensory aspects of pain didn’t change (i.e. the pain didn’t just go away), but the yoga helped participants feel the pain as less bothersome.
Some subjects were better able to control the pain interfering with daily life or adjust themselves to alleviate painful situations.
Researchers suggest yoga may help change behaviors and thoughts towards pain.