Health Benefits of Yoga: Fact and Fiction

By Jordan Stachel, MS, RDN

July 13, 2022

Benefits Of Yoga

Most people know a little about what yoga is and what it may entail as a practice. What you may not know about yoga is that the practice of yoga is ancient, rooted in Indian philosophy, and began as a spiritual, rather than physical, practice for many individuals. Over the years, yoga has gained traction and popularity as a type of movement, or exercise, that many people do consistently. Read on to learn more about yoga and the potential benefits it has for your health.

Understanding yoga

It is helpful to understand the practice of yoga and what it entails. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit roots “Yuj,” means to join, yoke, or to unite. The spiritual practice of yoga unites the body’s state of consciousness with universal consciousness. Ultimately, yoga promotes harmony between the mind and body.

The practice of yoga gets broken down into different types and parts. There is Hatha yoga (a sequence of physical poses), and there are Asanas (which are also physical postures completed during a yogic sequence). Hatha yoga helps prep the body to sustain a higher energy level, and then individuals progress to the Asana portion of yoga, giving themselves an energy boost through the Hatha component.

Flashing forward to today, the benefits of yoga can be reaped by anyone who chooses to engage in its practice. Yoga does not fall under any religion, belief system, or community of people, and it is advocated by all types of people to help promote inner peace.

Health benefits of yoga

Numerous studies have been completed that prove the benefits of yoga for the mind and body.

The first benefit of note is yoga’s role in stress management. Research shows that people who regularly complete yoga have lower levels of perceived stress and anxiety day-to-day. This makes sense, as the premise of yoga is to quiet the mind with slow, deliberate movements. Most yoga sessions conclude with a pose known as “savasana,” or corpse pose, in which individuals lay completely still, on their backs, with palms facing upwards. While this may appear as simply resting, it allows the mind and body to pause and calm down, promoting a calmer and quieter state of mind.

Along the same lines as promoting better stress management, another benefit of a regular yoga practice is improved sleep. While there are several different types of yoga as noted above, both Hatha yoga and Nidra yoga are shown to help prepare the body for sleep. This works by the deliberate focus on breathwork and certain, more advantageous poses. For example, poses like legs up the wall, lying butterfly pose, and corpse are all yoga poses that promote restfulness.

Getting better quality of sleep undoubtedly improves your health status, as long-term, inadequate sleep quality is known to have many undesirable health outcomes. People who sleep better are naturally more rested mentally and physically, allowing them to be healthier overall versions of themselves.

The third benefit of regular yoga practice is pain relief. While pain is incredibly individualistic, several studies show that yoga helps reduce pain for people with arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraines, and other chronic conditions. Studies have looked at the relationship between yoga practice and those with chronic low back pain and have found that weekly yoga practice increased these people’s mobility and, thus, relieved some of the pain that they experience day-to-day. Due to yoga’s focus on improving joint flexibility, reducing pain in these more inflammatory conditions is a reasonable side effect.

The fourth benefit of a regular yoga practice is improved heart health. The first layer of this is due to better stress management, which, as stated above, helps to improve health. Managing stress more effectively aids in improving heart health, as stress taxes the cardiovascular system.

In addition to aiding with stress, yoga helps to lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels, also putting less strain on the cardiovascular system. Research shows that individuals with metabolic syndrome who practiced yoga consistently had improvements in their blood markers and waist circumference, two known markers for heart disease.

Lastly, a benefit of yoga that is still up for debate, thus lying between “fact” and “fiction,” is yoga’s impact on smoking cessation. Some studies show that regular yoga practice may aid those hoping to quit smoking. This is due to yoga’s ability to help individuals reduce stress and improve their mood, as noted above.

These studies find that regular yoga practice shows promise for aiding those who are light smokers (meaning individuals who smoke less than ten cigarettes per day) to aid in smoking cessation. However, additional research is needed to determine more about quitting patterns and how to apply this potential correlation between yoga and smoking to larger masses of people.

How to begin implementing a yoga routine into your schedule

You may be wondering how to reap some of the benefits that yoga offers consistently. Just like beginning any new activity or routine, getting organized is the first step to help ensure success.

Start by determining which type of yoga you would like to complete, where you will complete it, and when. Experiment with penciling in your yoga time into your calendar, and once you have these details, adhere to it just as you would any other appointment throughout the day. Changing how you view the movement as an important “appointment” with yourself can help with compliance and adherence long-term.

Once you have gotten organized, determine the type of yoga that you think will work best for you. Choosing the type of yoga that best suits your needs is an important piece of the puzzle. If you are brand new to yoga, you can take a class from a knowledgeable teacher, whether it be in the comfort of your home or at a local studio. Researching the type of yoga that best fits your needs will aid in a better experience, as there is a big difference between a slow stretch class and a power yoga class.

Another element that helps individuals implement more yoga into their schedule is having a friend join you. If you know one of your friends who regularly completes yoga, maybe tag along so that you feel more comforted by their presence.

Alternatively, if you know a friend who is also interested in beginning a yoga journey, maybe experiment with joining a new class together. If you choose to attend yoga at a local studio, you will likely realize how communal yoga is. So, even if you go alone, meeting new friends at a yoga studio can be a great way to expand your circle.

Lastly, be realistic about the goal and commitment you make to yourself at the beginning. Research shows that setting SMART goals helps set individuals up for success long-term, and your new yoga practice is no exception. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Try using SMART goals to make plans around your yoga routine, for example:

  • Specific: The goal of starting a yoga practice will help you accomplish a better health status. You will take some of the actions noted above to set yourself up for success to begin this new practice
  • Measurable: You will measure the success of beginning yoga by committing to a certain number of days each week to attend yoga and following through with this.
  • Achievable: you will make this goal achievable by choosing a realistic number of days each week to complete yoga and by ensuring that you have the necessary resources to attend your yoga class.
  • Relevant: Starting yoga is relevant as it aligns with a broader goal of improving your overall health. Health improvement is important for optimizing well-being.
  • Time-bound: The timeframe of accomplishing this goal is becoming more skilled at yoga within the next six months, year, or whatever timeframe is realistic for you.

Overall, yoga is a therapeutic, effective, and important type of activity that has the potential to improve your health and well-being. Whether you are entirely new to yoga or have dabbled with it, yoga is accessible to people of any skill level, age, or ability. We would love to hear how yoga has impacted you. Report back in the comments below!

Jordan Stachel holds a Master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from The University of Southern California and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She has several years of experience helping clients reach their health goals through her clinical work within private practice. Jordan is most fulfilled when guiding others towards making stepwise, sustainable changes that add up to big results over time. Jordan works with a wide variety of individuals, ranging in age from children to the elderly, with an assortment of concerns and clinical conditions. She helps individuals optimize overall health and/or manage disease states using personalized medical nutrition therapy techniques.

References:

  1. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga-what-you-need-to-know
  2. https://mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?25096/Yoga+Its+Origin+History+and+Development
  3. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/yoga-for-sleep
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-integrative-health/yoga-for-pain-relief
  5. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-yoga-heart-connection
  6. https://academic.oup.com/ntr/article-abstract/21/11/1517/5122859?redirectedFrom=fulltext
  7. https://www.ucop.edu/local-human-resources/_files/performance-appraisal/How%20to%20write%20SMART%20Goals%20v2.pdf
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