How To Achieve A Healthier Happy New Year!

What can you do to ensure that 2018 will be a truly happy year?

If there is anything that everyone undoubtedly wants in their life, it is that often elusive feeling of happiness. Famously, a high-profile engineer called Mo Gawdat has even come up with a kind of algorithm for happiness in his book Solve for Happy.

“Happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the way you view the events in your life minus your expectations about how life should behave. Which means that if you perceive the events as equal to or greater than your expectations, you’re happy — or at least not unhappy,” writes Gawdat.

He spends more than 300 pages aiming to explain the basis for this algorithm and his philosophy of happiness. But there is, of course, no miracle recipe that all of us can follow to feel that glow of joy 24/7.

In this article, we do not tell you how to reach Nirvana. Instead, we look at the small things that most of us can reasonably achieve in the New Year so that we may improve our mental and physical well-being.

Here are some steps that you can take starting right now to boost your quality of life. The rest is up to you, so mind that you keep your New Year’s resolutions!

1. Be more active

This year, many studies have focused on the role of physical exercise not only in keeping us fit, but also in improving other aspects of our physical and mental health.

A study conducted earlier this year by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan, Canada, found that women’s perception of their own bodies improves after they exercise. The effect appears to be immediate and doesn’t depend on mood or actual state of fitness after exercising.

Furthermore, numerous recent studies have shown that exercise can counteract and prevent depression, which affects 40 million adults in the United States every year.

As little as 1 hour of exercise each week, regardless of intensity, can keep mood disorders at bay, found researchers from Australia’s Black Dog Institute.

And, if you’re struggling to keep up the motivation to go out for a jog or ride your bike, then there’s a simple fix: just focus on doing the kind of exercise that makes you happy.

“[A]ny movement is better than nothing,” explains Michelle Segar, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, so we should stop feeling guilty about not reaching a set target or not exercising at a certain intensity.

What’s really important is to find the fitness routine that suits us best so we can follow it more easily.

And, while we’re considering what new sports or activities we could take up in the New Year to boost our happiness levels, why not try something off the trodden path? Bouldering has been found to alleviate symptoms of depression, such as low moods, fatigue, and a lack of concentration.

Why not try yoga and meditation?

Speaking of mindfulness, practices such as yoga and meditation have been found to boost the quality of life and increase our sense of well-being.

 Why not give yoga a try in 2018? It’s been suggested to improve resilience and boost happiness.

Various recent studies have suggested that yoga is effective in tackling depression and that it helps to lower anxiety and stress levels. These effects, the researchers found, can last for up to 4 months after participation in a yoga program.

According to a study from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, both yoga and meditation can improve psychological and physiological resistance to stress factors.

This, the authors note, may mean not only that the mental health of people who practice yoga and meditation is not easily affected by negative events, but also that their immune system is better prepared to handle emergencies.

Another study reports that yoga and meditation may even play a role in how our brain contributes to the process of gene expression.

“These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed,” asserts lead researcher Ivana Buric.

2. Get enough sleep

Much research published in 2017 has focused on the prominent role played by a good night’s sleep in our mental and physical health. Sleep, we now know, is important in memory consolidation, fear learning, and keeping our brain well-rested so that we can react appropriately to events during the day.

Don’t underestimate the impact that sleep can have on your well-being.

 

Since people affected by insomnia are twice as likely as their peers to develop depression, it comes as no surprise that a good night’s sleep should be a priority in our search for happiness and wellness.

Ensuring that we are well rested can make our level of contentment peak, says a study that was conducted by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. The authors of the paper compare this happiness boost with winning the lottery.

They say, “[The benefits of a good night’s sleep] are […] comparable with the average improvement in well-being (1.4-point reduction) shown by [lottery winners in the U.K.] 2 years after a medium-sized (£1000–£120000 in 1998 money) lottery win.”

Aside from the practical things you can do to minimize the possibility of disrupted sleep — such as avoiding looking at a bright screen before bedtime — researchers report that mindset is important.

A study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL, suggests that people who have a clear life purpose do actually sleep better at night.

So, as you draft your New Year’s resolutions, why not take a step back and consider what your main goals in life are, and how you can achieve them?

3. Settle for a happy diet

This may come as no surprise, but what you eat does influence your mood. Research published in PLOS Online earlier this year argued that eating a fruit- and veggie-happy diet may improve mental health within 2 weeks.

The study authors found that adding more servings of fruits and vegetables to our usual intake could make us feel more motivated and boost our energy levels.

systematic review of multiple studies that investigated the link between diet and mental health concluded that a Mediterranean-style diet consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains could prevent depression.

However, a study published only this month argues that what we should eat to make us happy will largely depend on how old we are.

Thus, young adults (aged 18 to 29) will benefit from eating more white and red meat, while adults aged 30 and over should eat more fruit and veg if they’re looking for a mood boost.

Also, there’s no need to cut down on hot chocolate after the holiday season; researchers confirmed that cocoa can work miracles for your psychological well-being, mood, and potentially even cognitive abilities, too.

4. Make friends with the great outdoors

Research also suggests that, if we want to get that joie de vivre into our lives in 2018, then we had better spend more time outside. Going to the local shopping mall won’t cut it, however. In order to really feel happier, we should spend more time in nature.

One study shows that green spaces make us happy, and, conversely, when we don’t have access to nature, we tend to become depressed.

Higher levels of green space [in a neighborhood] were associated with lower symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress [in the members of the local community].”

Dr. Kristen Malecki, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Moreover, a recent experiment conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia showed that people who took a minute to observe small details in nature and register the emotional impact caused by these felt happier and more connected to their peers.

So, one easy step that you can take to improve your life in 2018 is simply a step outside — and then keep on walking. After all, a leisurely walk on its own has been found to have a positive effect on mood.

Get your creativity on!

Walking has also been shown to encourage creativity, and one study found that people who engage in creative pursuits every day have a greater sense of well-being.

Doing something creative every day can really make you happier, research shows.

 

Another way of boosting happiness in 2018, then, is to take a walk in your local park and plan a creative activity for that day.

This can be anything from cooking and baking, if you’re that way inclined, to painting, writing, or starting a DIY project. The choice is up to you!

If you’re stuck at home on your own, use that time to do something creative, too. A recent study has shown that sometimes we may need some “time out,” away from our peers, in order to really be able to tap into our creative resources.

You can also put on some happy music if you need that extra boost to your imagination. Researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have shown that alert instrumental pieces such as The Four Seasons concerto by Antonio Vivaldi work best for this purpose.

5. Be kind to others and to yourself

Finally, but very importantly, in order to achieve a stronger sense of fulfilment and well-being, you should learn to treat yourself with kindness — and then extend that generosity to others.

Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. found that, although self-acceptance is a habit that can lead to greater happiness, it is one that very few people have formed.

A study conducted earlier this year also confirmed that, if we embrace our negative emotions, we are less at risk of perpetuating them and more likely to achieve self-healing. One of our goals for the New Year should definitely be practicing more self-love and self-care.

At the same time, the care that we show to others, as well as our degree of gratefulness toward our peers, can influence our levels of happiness.

Profs. Phillipe Tobler and Ernst Fehr, from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, showed that generosity is strongly associated with happiness, and we feel more joy when we give.

This supports previous research that indicated that volunteer work brings psychological benefits.

Lastly, remember to just be thankful. Gratitude for what we have, and for the people in our lives, is another important factor when it comes to mental well-being, leading to more optimism and improved relationships.

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25 Minutes of Yoga, Meditation ‘Boosts Brain Function, Energy’

Practicing Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation for just 25 minutes can significantly improve brain function and energy levels, compared with spending 25 minutes quietly reading, according to new research from Canada.

Kimberley Luu and associate professor Peter Hall, of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, report their study in the journal Mindfulness.

Yoga and meditation, once regarded as predominantly Eastern customs, are becoming mainstream in the West.

In the United States, for example, there are 36.7 million people who practice yoga, “up from 20.4 million in 2012,” while some 18 million have used meditation.

The U.S. workforce is rapidly taking to yoga and meditation. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that yoga practice among workers in the U.S. more than doubled between 2002 and 2012, rising from 6 to 11 percent. Meditation practice also rose from 8 to 9.9 percent.

Hatha yoga and mindfulness

Of the many styles of yoga, the one most commonly practiced in the West is Hatha yoga, which combines breathing with meditation and movement and concludes with relaxation. Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga are examples of Hatha yoga.

Mindfulness meditation is an approach that emphasizes paying attention to what is going on in the mind without evaluating or judging it. While yoga often includes some aspects of mindfulness, it can also be practiced on its own.

Prof. Hall explains, “Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation both focus the brain’s conscious processing power on a limited number of targets like breathing and posing, and also reduce processing of nonessential information.”

He explains that he and Luu were interested in finding out whether the two practices might have a “positive carryover effect” that helps people to “focus more easily on what they choose to attend to in everyday life.”

Executive function

In a comprehensive review of the evidence, the two authors had already concluded that there was a need for “more good-quality studies” on the effects of Hatha yoga on executive function.

In that paper, they describe the executive function as “a set of high-order cognitive processes” that allows control of behavior, emotion, and thought independently of stimuli.

The executive function operates through the prefrontal cortex of the brain and other centers that are linked to it. It typically involves working memory, mental flexibility, and inhibitory control.

Many researchers also regard executive function as inclusive of other processes such as decision-making, problem-solving, and attention control because they are closely linked to it or highly dependent on it.

For their new study, the researchers invited 31 healthy, “moderately experienced” practitioners aged 28 years, on average, to complete three sessions of Hatha yoga (including an element of mindfulness meditation), mindfulness meditation (without yoga), and quiet reading (control task).

They used a “within-subjects experimental design,” which meant that the participants did not complete the tasks in the same order (each was assigned the order at random).

Hatha Yoga2Improved executive function, mood, energy

The researchers assessed executive function before each session and at 5 minutes and 10 minutes after each session using a standard test known as the “Stroop interference task.” This test also measures inhibitory control.

The team found that the participants significantly improved their executive function scores after the Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation sessions compared with the before and after scores of the reading session.

However, they note that the improvement only showed in the 10-minute post-session tests and not in the 5-minute post-session tests.

Using a self-reporting tool called Profile of Mood States, the researchers also found that both Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation resulted in significantly improved mood scores compared with reading.

This tool includes a “vigor-activity subscale” that measures energy levels. On this subscale, while both Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation compared favorably with reading, Hatha yoga showed “significantly greater benefits.”

Luu explains that there are “a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance. These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts. Though ultimately, it is still an open question.”

Because the participants were not representative of the general population, more studies are now needed, involving diverse groups of people, to find out whether Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation might benefit the wider public.

Although the meditative aspect might be even more important than the physical posing for improving executive functions, there are additional benefits to Hatha yoga including improvements in flexibility and strength. These benefits may make Hatha yoga superior to meditation alone, in terms of overall health benefits.”

How Yoga, Meditation Benefit the Mind and Body

Yoga and meditation have both become increasingly popular in the Western world, and practitioners praise their psychological and physical benefits. Current research also suggests that meditating and doing yoga can boost overall well-being and resilience to stress factors.

Increasingly, yoga practice and meditation have been the focus of research aiming to test their benefits. Recently, we have reported on a wealth of studies pointing to many different advantages of yoga and meditation, including countering cognitive decline, acting on genetic factors that predispose individuals to stress, improving lower back pain, and easing depression.

A new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience now shows that yoga and meditation appear to have a positive effect on the central nervous system as well as the immune system and that it may improve the individuals’ overall sense of well-being.

The study – led by Dr. B Rael Cahn, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles – was part of a larger body of research addressing different approaches to promoting resilience.

The participants were assessed both before and after participating in the yoga retreat. They had to undergo:

  1. psychometric tests that collected data about their psychological well-beingmindfulness, and psychological involvement
  2. measurements of the brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protein that promotes the survival and growth of various nerve cells and is involved in immune response, metabolic regulation, and resilience to stress
  3. assessment of the “cortisol awakening response” (CAR), which measured the secretion of cortisol, a hormone involved in the interaction between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland (also known as the “HPA axis”)
  4. measurements of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokine levels, which are involved in the functioning of the immune system

After analyzing the data, the team found that engagement in the yoga and meditation practices at the retreat was associated with decreased anxiety and depression levels – as reported by the participants – as well as with an increase in their level of mindfulness.

From a biological point of view, the scientists noted an increase in BDNF plasma levels, as well as a strengthened CAR, suggesting improved resilience to stress factors.

The data also showed an increase of an anti-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin-10) and a corresponding decrease in a pro-inflammatory cytokine (interleukin-12), which led to a reduction of inflammatory processes.

“It is likely that at least some of the significant improvements in both HPA axis functioning as exemplified by increases in BDNF levels and alterations in cytokines were due to the intensive meditation practice involved in this retreat,” suggests Dr. Cahn.

Potential benefits to the nervous system

The researchers believe that the various biological improvements gathered from the collected data indicate an enhanced overall sense of physical and psychological well-being.

They highlight that their results may point to an enhanced functioning of certain elements of the central nervous system, a healthier immune system, and a strengthened sense of focus and awareness.

The observed increased BDNF signaling [is] possibly related to enhanced neurogenesis and/or neuroplasticity, increased CAR likely related to enhanced alertness and readiness for mind-body engagement, and increased anti- and pro-inflammatory cytokines possibly indicating enhanced immunological readiness.”

Moreover, the researchers suggest that there is a thrilling possibility that some of the effects observed in the aftermath of the retreat suggest that meditation and yoga could stimulate the hippocampus to function better.

“An intriguing possible link between the effects on BDNF and the CAR is hippocampal functional integrity, since increased BDNF levels due to physical exercise has previously been shown to relate with hippocampal neurogenesis and likely relate to its positive effects on well-being and depression,” says Dr. Cahn.

Nevertheless, the scientists caution that not all of these positive effects may be due to yoga and meditation. Some, they suggest, may be owed to the individuals’ dietary practices, social interaction, or the impact of the yoga and meditation teachers.

Still, Dr. Cahn and his team are excited by the results of their research and believe that they are grounds for further studies on the potential physical and psychological benefits of yoga and meditation.

“To our knowledge, our study is the first to examine a broad range of pro- and anti-inflammatory markers in a healthy population before and after a yoga-meditation intervention. Our findings justify further studies of yoga and meditation retreats assessing the replicability, specificity, and long-term implications of these findings,” Dr. Cahn concludes.

Yoga a Helpful Treatment for Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes significant musculoskeletal pain, along with changes in the ability to sleep, think, and remember.

The name for the disease comes from a combination of Latin and Greek terms, including fibro, or fibrous tissue, myo, meaning muscle, and algia, meaning pain.

Doctors often consider fibromyalgia to be an arthritis-related condition, but it is different from typical arthritic conditions in that, although it causes pain, it does not cause significant damage to muscles or joints.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three medications to treat fibromyalgia. However, these medications do not cure the condition, so doctors may recommend that people with fibromyalgia look to alternative therapies, such as yoga, to alleviate pain and muscle stiffness.

How might yoga help with fibromyalgia?

Yoga is a practice that incorporates self-care measures, such as relaxation, meditation, and deep breathing. It is a meditative movement practice that involves engaging in a series of coordinated movements while focusing on breathing, relaxation, meditation, or a combination. Similar practices include Tai chi and qi gong.

People doing yoga in the park
Yoga is an ancient Indian meditative movement practice that is used commonly today.

Many different types of yoga exist. Some focus on slow, controlled movements, while others can be as intensive as a hard run:

  • Hatha yoga is the most common type of yoga taught at most American yoga classes
  • Restorative yoga is a low-effort, but rejuvenating practice incorporating assistive devices, such as blankets, bolsters, and blocks
  • Ashtanga yoga is an intense and challenging style that involves practicing a specific series of poses in the same order
  • Bikram yoga involves progressing through 26 poses in a heated room
  • Vinyasa yoga is a continuous, flowing type of yoga that can be physically challenging

Doctors have not defined a specific type of yoga that is best for people with fibromyalgia. Anyone practicing yoga should take into account any personal physical limitations, especially if they plan to engage in intense exercise or want to exercise in hot temperatures.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), while research regarding the effectiveness of yoga in benefitting those with fibromyalgia is “promising,” there is not enough evidence to conclusively determine that yoga can help people who have the disorder.

Several research studies and analyses have been conducted regarding yoga and fibromyalgia:

  • A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, summarized the effects an 8-week course of yoga and meditation had on 11 people with fibromyalgia. Following the study, participants reported significant improvements in the number of days they “felt good” and did not miss work for reasons related to fibromyalgia. However, participants did not report decreased incidences of pain and fatigue.
  • A 2013 analysis of three research studies, published in the Journal of Pain Research, found that yoga helped to reduce sleep disturbances, fatigue, and depression while also improving the quality of life. However, the authors noted that there are not enough significant studies to confirm a link between yoga and reduced symptoms of fibromyalgia.
  • A 2010 research study published in the journal Pain studied 53 female fibromyalgia patients who participated in an 8-week Yoga of Awareness program. This program included meditation, breathing exercises, gentle poses, and yoga-based instructions for coping with symptoms. After finishing the program, the participants reported significant improvements in measures of pain, fatigue, and mood associated with fibromyalgia.

Three yoga poses for fibromyalgia

Many yoga poses could potentially benefit a person with fibromyalgia, but some specific poses are recommended in the book Yoga for Fibromyalgia by Shoosh Crotzer. However, before embarking on this type of exercise, it is best to talk to a doctor. All of these poses have variations that people can adopt according to their ability.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana, yoga pose
The Uttanasana pose may be recommended as beneficial to people with fibromyalgia.

Standing forward bend, or Uttanasana:

The standing forward bend pose involves standing with the feet hip-width apart and bending forward from the hip joints. If possible, people should place their fingertips or palms on the floor. If they cannot stretch this much, they should place their palms on the tops of the thighs or calves instead.

After staying in this position for 30-60 seconds, slowly roll the body up until standing up straight. Anyone with a bad back may prefer to keep their knees bent.

Bridge pose, or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana:

The person starts lying on the floor on their back. Bend the knees, putting both feet on the floor. They should straighten their arms and, if possible, clasp them together as they exhale and lift their tailbone off the floor, tightening the buttocks as they lift. Hold this pose anywhere from 30-60 seconds. They should then exhale as they slowly roll their lower back and spine toward the floor.

To protect the neck and reduce discomfort while lying face-up on the floor, a rolled-up blanket can be placed under the shoulders. Anyone with a history of neck injury should avoid this pose.

Cobra pose, or Bhujangasana:

The cobra pose can stretch tired legs and open up the chest muscles. To perform this pose, people should lie face-down on the floor and put their hands under their shoulders, palms on the floor. Put the elbows back toward the body. Inhale and push into the palms, straightening the arms until the upper body is lifted off the floor. However, people shouldn’t lift their feet or pelvic bone off the floor. Feel the stretch across the chest and in the lower back.

People should hold the position for 15-30 seconds, then release the pose and return to the starting position. Those who have a headache, carpal tunnel syndrome, a back injury, or are pregnant should be cautious with, or avoid this pose.

Practicing these poses daily may enhance a sense of well-being.

Additional health benefits of yoga

Many studies have looked at the overall benefits of yoga in reducing stress and boosting physical and mental health. According to an analysis in Health Psychology Review, participation in yoga appears to reduce the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress response in the body. Other psychological benefits can include a more positive affect and increased mindfulness.

What additional approaches may help those with fibromyalgia?

Woman has pain in her neck
A very high percentage of people with fibromyalgia are female.

Tai chi is another movement-related practice that may help to relieve fibromyalgia. Like yoga, Tai chi combines the practices of meditation, slow and controlled movements, and deep breathing.

According to the NCCIH, people with fibromyalgia who participated in hourly Tai chi sessions for 12 weeks found their sleep, mood, and overall quality of life improved.

Additional approaches may include:

  • Acupuncture, a Chinese technique that involves applying needles at various specific points on the body to encourage blood and energy flow through the body. However, there is a lack of conclusive evidence that acupuncture will always benefit people with fibromyalgia.
  • Massage therapy involves using the hands to manipulate muscles and soft tissues, and it can help to relieve stress and anxiety in people with fibromyalgia.
  • Sleep and resting well can benefit a person with fibromyalgia. This includes going to sleep at a regular time and avoiding excessive daytime napping that can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
  • Regular exercise can help to decrease pain symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. Moderate exercises, such as swimming, riding a bicycle, engaging in water aerobics, and walking are recommended. Overly strenuous exercise may worsen the pain.

As with most medical conditions, practicing healthy self-care measures, including eating nutritious foods, can help a person live better with fibromyalgia.

Causes, risk factors, and symptoms

The cause of fibromyalgia is not always clear, but it may appear after one of the following events:

  • A physically or emotionally stressful event, such as after an automobile accident or post-traumatic stress
  • An infection or another form of illness
  • A repetitive injury

Researchers believe the repeated nerve stimulation associated with fibromyalgia can affect a person’s brain receptors, causing them to be more sensitive to painful stimulation. Those with fibromyalgia may also have higher levels of neurotransmitters that signal pain.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 80-90 percent of people with fibromyalgia are women. Other factors that increase the risk of developing the disorder include a family history of fibromyalgia, or a history of a rheumatic condition, such as lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, osteoarthritis, or rheumatoid arthritis.

The main symptom of fibromyalgia is the pain, but people may also experience cramping in the lower abdomen, depression, fatigue, headaches, sleep problems, tingling in the arms and legs, and painful menstruation. Cognitive function may be affected.

Other pain-related conditions that may occur include endometriosis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

What is Yoga?

Yoga is a mind and body practice with historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy. Various styles of yoga combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation.

In 5,000 years of yoga history, the term “yoga” has gone through a renaissance in current culture, exchanging the loincloth for a leotard and leggings.

Yoga has become popular as a form of physical exercise based upon asanas (physical poses) to promote improved control of mind and body and to enhance well-being.

Fast facts on yoga

Here are some key points about yoga. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

  • The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root Yuj meaning “to yoke or join together.” Some people take this to mean a union of mind and body.
  • A 2008 market study in Yoga Journal reports that some 16 million people in the US practice yoga and spend $5.7 billion a year on equipment.
  • Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most frequently practiced in Western culture. Ha means “sun” and tha means “moon.”
  • There are many styles of yoga. A person’s fitness level and desired practice outcome determines the type of yoga class to which they are best suited.
  • According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were more than 7,369 yoga-related injuries treated in doctors’ offices, clinics, and emergency rooms in 2010.
  • Common yoga injuries include repetitive strain to and overstretching of the neck, shoulders, spine, legs, and knees.
  • The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) believes the rewards of basic yoga outweigh the potential physical risks.
  • Yoga is defined as having eight branches or limbs: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyhara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi.
  • Practicing yoga has many potential health benefits including relieving low back pain, assisting with stress management and increasing balance and flexibility.
  • There is some evidence to suggest that pregnant women taking yoga classes are less likely to experience problems in later pregnancy and labor.

What is yoga?

In this section, we will discuss the history of yoga, the philosophy behind it, the ‘eight limbs of yoga’ and the seven major chakras.

History of yoga

There is no written record of the inventor of yoga. Yogis (yoga practitioners) practiced yoga long before any written account of it came into existence. Yogis over the millennia passed down the discipline to their students, and many different schools of yoga developed as the practice widened in global reach and popularity.

woman balancing on her bottom
The postures that are now practiced in yoga classes were not originally a dominant component of yoga traditions in India. Fitness was not traditionally a chief aim of the practice.

Sanskrit, the Indo-European language of the Vedas, India’s ancient religious texts, gave birth to both the literature and the technique of yoga.

The “Yoga Sutra,” a 2,000-year-old treatise on yogic philosophy by the Indian sage Patanjali is a type of guidebook that gives guidance on how to gain mastery over the mind and emotions and advice on spiritual growth, providing the framework upon which all yoga practiced today is based. The Yoga Sutra is the earliest written record of yoga and one of the oldest texts in existence.

The Sanskrit word “yoga” has several translations and can be interpreted in many ways. Many translations point toward translations of “to yoke,” “join,” or “concentrate” – essentially a means to unite or a method of discipline. A male who practices this discipline is called a yogi or yogin and a female practitioner is called a yogini.

The postures that are now an integral part of health and fitness in many centers around the world were not originally a dominant component of yoga traditions in India. Fitness was not a chief aim of practice; focus was placed on other practices like pranayama (expansion of the vital energy by means of breath), Dharana (focus, or placement of the mental faculty), and nada (sound).

Yoga began to gain popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century, with an explosion of interest in postural yoga in the 1920s and 1930s, first in India and later in the West.

Philosophy of yoga

Yoga, in ancient times, was often referred to in terms of a tree with roots, trunk, branches, blossoms and fruits. Each branch of yoga has unique characteristics and represents a specific approach to life. The six branches are:

  1. Hatha yoga – physical and mental branch – involves asana and pranayama practice – preparing the body and mind
  2. Raja yoga – meditation and strict adherence to the “eight limbs of yoga”
  3. Karma yoga – path of service to consciously create a future free from negativity and selfishness caused by our actions
  4. Bhakti yoga – path of devotion – a positive way to channel emotions and cultivate acceptance and tolerance
  5. Jnana yoga – wisdom, the path of the scholar and intellect through study
  6. Tantra yoga – the pathway of ritual, ceremony or consummation of a relationship.

The ‘eight limbs of yoga’

Raja yoga is traditionally referred to as ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga because there are eight aspects to the path to which one must attend. The eight limbs of ashtanga yoga are:4

  1. Yama – ethical standards and sense of integrity. The five Yamas are: ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-covetousness)
  2. Niyama – self-discipline and spiritual observances, meditation practices, contemplative walks. The five niyamas are: saucha (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapas (heat, spiritual austerities), svadhyaya (study of sacred scriptures and of one’s self) and isvara pranidhana (surrender to God)
  3. Asana – integration of mind and body through physical activity
  4. Pranayama- regulation of breath leading to integration of mind and body
  5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses of perception, the external world, and outside stimuli
  6. Dharana – concentration, one-pointedness of mind
  7. Dhyana – meditation or contemplation – an uninterrupted flow of concentration
  8. Samadhi – the quiet state of blissful awareness.

Chakras

The word chakra means “spinning wheel.” According to the yogic view, chakras are a convergence of energy, thoughts, feelings, and the physical body. They determine how we experience reality from our emotional reactions, our desires or aversions, our level of confidence or fear, and even the manifestation of physical symptoms.

When energy becomes blocked in a chakra, it is said to trigger physical, mental, or emotional imbalances that manifest in symptoms such as anxiety, lethargy, or poor digestion. The theory is to use asanas to free energy and stimulate an imbalanced chakra.

There are seven major chakras, each with their own associations:

man sitting with chakras
Chakras are said to determine how we experience reality from our emotional reactions, our desires or aversions, our level of confidence or fear, and even the manifestation of physical symptoms.
  1. Sahasrara: the “thousand-petaled” or “crown chakra” represents the state of pure consciousness. This chakra is located at the crown of the head and signified by the color white or violet. Sahasrara involves matters of inner wisdom and death of the body.
  2. Ajna: the “command” or “third-eye chakra” represents a meeting point between two important energetic streams in the body. Ajna corresponds to the colors violet, indigo or deep blue, though it is traditionally described as white. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the pituitary gland, growth, and development.
  3. Vishuddha: the “especially pure” or “throat chakra” is symbolized by the color red or blue. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the home of speech and hearing, and the endocrine glands that control metabolism.
  4. Anahata: the “unstruck” or “heart chakra” is related to the colors green or pink. Key issues involving Anahata involve complex emotions, compassion, tenderness, unconditional love, equilibrium, rejection, and well-being.
  5. Manipura: the “jewel city” or “navel chakra” is symbolized by the color yellow. This chakra is associated by practitioners with the digestive system, along with personal power, fear, anxiety, opinion-formation, and introversion.
  6. Svadhishthana: “one’s own base” or “pelvic chakra” is said by practitioners to represent the home of the reproductive organs, the genitourinary system, and the adrenals.
  7. Muladhara: the “root support” or “root chakra” is located at the base of the spine in the coccygeal region. It is said to hold our instinctual urges around food, sleep, sex, and survival. It is also the realm of our avoidance and fears.

Types of yoga

Modern forms of yoga have evolved into exercise focusing on strength, flexibility, and breathing to boost physical and mental well-being. There are many styles of yoga, and no style is more authentic or superior to another; the key is to choose a class appropriate for your fitness level.

Types and styles of yoga may include:

man in an ashtanga yoga pose
Classes should be chosen depending on your fitness level and how much yoga experience you have.
  • Ashtanga yoga: based on ancient yoga teachings but popularized in the 1970s, each of the six established sequences of postures rapidly links every movement to breathe.
  • Bikram yoga: held in artificially heated rooms at temperatures of nearly 105 degrees and 40% humidity, Bikram is a series of 26 poses and sequence of two breathing exercises.
  • Hatha yoga: a generic term for any type of yoga that teaches physical postures. When a class is labeled as “hatha,” it is usually a gentle introduction to the basic yoga postures.
  • Iyengar yoga: focused on finding the proper alignment in each pose and using props such as blocks, blankets, straps, chairs and bolsters to do so.
  • Jivamukti yoga: meaning, “liberation while living,” Jivamukti yoga emerged in 1984, incorporating spiritual teachings and vinyasa style practice. Each class has a theme, which is explored through yoga scripture, chanting, meditation, asana, pranayama, and music, and can be physically intense.
  • Kripalu yoga: teaches practitioners to get to know, accept and learn from the body. In a Kripalu class, each student learns to find their own level of practice on a given day by looking inward. The classes usually begin with breathing exercises and gentle stretches, followed by a series of individual poses and final relaxation.
  • Kundalini yoga: the Sanskrit word kundalini means coiled, like a snake. Kundalini yoga is a system of meditation directed toward the release of kundalini energy. A class typically begins with chanting and ends with singing, and in between features asana, pranayama, and meditation designed to create a specific outcome.
  • Power yoga: an active and athletic style of yoga adapted from the traditional ashtanga system in the late 1980s.
  • Sivananda: a system based on a five-point philosophy that holds that proper breathing, relaxation, diet, exercise, and positive thinking work together to form a healthy yogic lifestyle. Typically uses the same 12 basic asanas, bookended by sun salutations and savasana poses.
  • Viniyoga: intended to be adaptable to any person, regardless of physical ability, Vini yoga teachers are required to be highly trained and tend to be experts on anatomy and yoga therapy.
  • Yin: a quiet, meditative yoga practice, also called Taoist yoga. Yin yoga enables the release of tension in key joints: ankles, knees, hips, the whole back, neck, and shoulders. Yin poses are passive, meaning the muscles should be relaxed while gravity does the work.
  • Prenatal yoga: yoga postures carefully adapted for people who are pregnant. Prenatal yoga is tailored to help people in all stages of pregnancy and can support people in getting back into shape after pregnancy.
  • Restorative yoga: a relaxing method of yoga, spending a class in four or five simple poses using props like blankets and bolsters to sink into deep relaxation without exerting any effort in holding the pose.

Health benefits of yoga

Scientific trials of varying quality have been published on the health benefits and medical uses of yoga. Studies suggest that yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity and enhance strength, flexibility, and balance. Yoga practice has also shown benefit in specific medical conditions, and we will look at this evidence and current scientific research below.

Scientists and medical doctors pursuing yoga-related research focus on its potential benefits as a technique for relieving stress and coping with chronic conditions or disabilities, as well as investigating its potential to help prevent, heal, or alleviate specific conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, diabetes, and symptoms of menopause.

1) Anxiety and depression

Mind-body medical interventions are commonly used to cope with depression, and yoga is one of the most commonly used mind-body interventions. Systematic studies and meta-analyses have been carried out in order to assess the effectiveness of yoga for depression.

man and woman in a yoga pose
Yoga may be a promising way to reduce music performance anxiety and perhaps even prevent it in the future.

In one 9-week course of yoga, veterans were seen to experience significant reductions in anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Mental health functioning scores were also improved, but pain intensity and physical health functionality did not show improvements.

Elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are commonly seen in depression, and yoga has demonstrated an ability to relieve hypercortisolemia and reduce other parameters of stress. A study into the effects of yoga on cortisol and depression found that yoga might act at the level of the hypothalamus to create an ‘anti-stress’ effect by reducing cortisol levels, thereby helping to bring about relief in depression.

A systematic review and meta-analysis investigating yoga for depression examined 12 randomized controlled trials, including 619 participants. The researchers concluded that despite the methodological drawbacks of the included studies, yoga could be considered an ancillary treatment option for patients with depressive disorders and individuals with elevated levels of depression.

Professional musicians often experience high levels of stress, music performance anxiety (MPA), and performance-related musculoskeletal disorders (PRMDs). Given the fact that most professional musicians begin their musical training before the age of 12, it is important to identify interventions that will address these issues from an early age.

Results from a study suggest that yoga may be a promising way for adolescents to reduce MPA and perhaps even prevent it in the future. These findings also suggest a novel treatment modality that potentially might alleviate MPA and prevent the early disruption and termination of musical careers.

2) Arthritis

A systematic review of 9 studies regarding yoga as a complementary approach for osteoarthritis found positive changes in psychological or physiological outcomes related to arthritis.

The studies varied in length and not all of the studies used randomized controlled design; many had small sample sizes, different outcomes, and used non-standardized yoga interventions. Despite these limitations, the reviewers concluded that yoga appears to be a promising modality for arthritis.

3) Asthma

In a study comparing people with asthma When comparing asthmatics in a yoga group and in a non-yoga control group with those in a control group, those in the yoga group had a significant improvement in a number of parameters suggesting improvements in symptoms of asthmas.

These parameters included an improvement in levels of the proportion of hemoglobin and the antioxidant superoxide, and a significant decrease was found in total leukocyte count (TLC) and differential leukocytes count in comparison to control group.

The yoga group had more significant improvements in biochemical variables than the control group. Results show that yoga can be practiced as adjuvant therapy with standard inhalation therapy for a better outcome of asthma.

However, a systematic review assessing the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment for asthma concluded that there is insufficient quality evidence to support the belief that yoga alleviates asthma and that further, more rigorous trials are warranted.

4) Balance and falls

Falls amongst older people are a global health concern. Whilst falling is not a typical feature of aging, older people are more likely to fall and falls are a leading cause of death and disability.

older people practicing yoga
Yoga has been shown to help improve balance and prevent falls in older adults.

Yoga and tai chi have shown potential to improve balance and prevent falls in older adults. They also have the potential to improve pain and quality of life.

In a 14-week program comparing yoga and tai-chi to usual care, yoga was associated with a slight decrease in the incidence of falls and a reduction in average pain scores in older adults. Although these changes were not statistically significant, the results showed positive changes to balance, pain, and quality of life and a high level of interest through attendance amongst older participants.

The results support offering tai chi and yoga to older people who are frail and dependent with physical and cognitive limitations.

Another study observing body balance and postural control in young adults determined that a 5-month hatha yoga training program could improve postural control significantly in healthy adults.

5) Bipolar disorder

In a study of the benefits and risk of yoga in individuals with bipolar disorder, the participants reported positive emotional effects, particularly reduced anxiety, positive cognitive effects (e.g., acceptance, focus, or “a break from my thoughts”), or positive physical effects (e.g., weight loss, increased energy). Some respondents considered yoga to be significantly life changing. The most common negative effect of yoga was physical injury or pain.

Five respondents gave examples of specific instances where yoga practice increased their agitation or manic symptoms, while another five respondents gave examples of times that yoga increased depression or lethargy.

6) Breast cancer cognitive problems

Survivors of cancer often report cognitive problems, and people undergoing cancer treatment often experience decreases in physical activity. Although physical activity benefits cognitive function in non-cancer populations, evidence linking physical activity to cognitive function in survivors of cancer is limited.

A study comparing a group with and without yoga intervention found that those who practiced yoga more frequently reported significantly fewer cognitive problems at a 3-month follow-up compared to those who practiced less frequently.

These findings suggest that yoga can effectively reduce cognitive problems in survivors of breast cancer and prompt further research on mind-body and physical activity interventions for improving cancer-related cognitive problems.

7) Breast cancer disability

Secondary arm lymphedema continues to affect at least 20% of women after treatment for breast cancer, along with pain and restricted range of motion requiring lifelong professional treatment and self-management.

A pilot trial was designed to investigate the effect of yoga on women with stage one breast cancer-related lymphedema. The 8-week yoga intervention reduced tissue induration of the affected upper arm and improved quality of life scores. Arm volume of lymphedema and extra-cellular fluid did not increase during the yoga intervention, but these benefits dissipated after the women stopped doing yoga, at which point arm volume of lymphedema increased.

Additional research of a longer duration and with higher levels of lymphedema and larger numbers is warranted before definitive conclusions can be made.

8) Cancer-related fatigue

Fatigue is one of the most frequently reported, distressing side effects reported by survivors of cancer and often has significant long-term consequences. Research indicates that yoga can produce invigorating effects on physical and mental energy, and thereby may improve levels of fatigue.

woman bending forward into yoga floor pose
Studies have suggested that yoga interventions may be beneficial for reducing cancer-related fatigue in women with breast cancer.

An 8-week yoga exercise program assessed whether yoga can decrease anxiety, depression, and fatigue in patients with breast cancer. Fatigue was effectively reduced in the study but the intervention was not associated with a reduction in depression or anxiety.

The authors of the study conclude that oncology nurses should strengthen their clinical health education and apply yoga to reduce the fatigue experienced by patients with breast cancer who undergo adjuvant chemotherapy.

Another 12-week study found that restorative iyengar yoga was associated with reduced inflammation-related gene expression in breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue. These findings suggest that a targeted yoga program may have beneficial effects on inflammatory activity in this patient population, with potential relevance for behavioral and physical health.

A systematic review of yoga interventions on fatigue in patients with cancer and survivors of cancer suggests that yoga interventions may be beneficial for reducing cancer-related fatigue in women with breast cancer; however, conclusions should be interpreted with caution as studies demonstrated varying levels of bias and inconsistent methodology.

9) Cardiovascular disease

A sedentary lifestyle and stress are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Since yoga involves exercise and is thought to help in stress reduction, it may be an effective strategy for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Across 11 identified trials with 800 participants, researchers found that the limited evidence in this field comes from small, short-term, low-quality studies. There is some evidence that yoga has favorable effects on diastolic blood pressure, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides, while the effects on low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol were uncertain. These results should be considered as exploratory and interpreted with caution.

A further meta-analysis revealed evidence for clinically important effects of yoga on most biological cardiovascular disease risk factors. Despite methodological drawbacks of the included studies, yoga can be considered as an ancillary intervention for the general population and patients with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

10) Chronic neck pain

Assessment of the effects of a 9-week yoga intervention on chronic nonspecific neck pain found that neck-related disabilities were improved for at least 12 months after intervention completion. Sustained yoga practice was deemed the most important predictor of long-term effectiveness.

11) Chronic heart failure

A meta-analysis of the effects of yoga in patients with chronic heart failure suggested that yoga compared with control had a positive impact on peak Vo2 (oxygen uptake, an indicator of exercise capacity) and health-related quality of life.

Yoga could be considered for inclusion in cardiac rehabilitation programs. Larger randomized controlled trials are required to further investigate the effects of yoga in patients with chronic heart failure.

A randomized controlled trial indicated that the addition of yoga therapy to standard medical therapy for heart failure patients has a markedly better effect on cardiac function and reduced myocardial stress measured using N-terminal pro-B-type natriuretic peptide in patients with stable heart failure.

12) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

Currently, several studies have assessed the effect of yoga training on the management of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Five randomized controlled trials involving 233 patients suggested yoga training has a positive effect on improving lung function and exercise capacity and could be used as an adjunct pulmonary rehabilitation program in COPD patients.

However, further studies are needed to substantiate these preliminary findings and to investigate the long-term effects of yoga training.

13) Flexibility

Research looking at the effects of selected asanas in iyengar yoga over 6 weeks showed a significant increase in flexibility. Specifically, the results of this research indicate that 6 weeks of single session yoga training may be effective in increasing flexibility in the hamstring and erector spinae (the muscles extending the vertebral column).

14) Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

A case report assessed the effects of yoga on gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The researchers indicate the regular and proper use of yoga along with over-the-counter or prescribed proton pump inhibitors (PPI) can control the severe symptoms of GERD and can avoid or delay the need for invasive procedures.

The case report showed that with the regular practice of kapalbhati and agnisar kriya along with PPI, patients with a hiatal hernia had improvement in severe symptoms of GERD which were initially refractory (unresponsive) to PPI alone.

15) Hypertension

Effective stress management is a key part of managing blood pressure, and a number of systematic reviews have assessed the available evidence for yoga as a therapeutic tool for managing prehypertension and hypertension (elevated blood pressure). Researchers have found that yoga may be an effective adjunct treatment for hypertension, although further evidence is needed.

These reviews found that although yoga is associated with decreases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, its effects are minimal compared with exercise. The studies reviewed varied greatly in duration, methodology, and in the type of yoga practiced, and the researchers called for future research that focuses on high-quality clinical trials along with studies on the mechanisms of action of different yoga practices.

The antihypertensive effects of yoga appear to be greater in people with cardiovascular disease, although people with normal blood pressure may also benefit.

16) Low back pain

Several studies suggest yoga may be effective for chronic low back pain and have shown that yoga intervention in populations with chronic low back pain may be more effective than usual care for reducing both pain and medication use.

young woman in yoga pose
Studies have indicated that 6 weeks of uninterrupted medical yoga therapy is a cost-effective early intervention for non-specific low back pain.

A randomized controlled study investigating medical yoga, exercise therapy, and self-care advice concluded that 6 weeks of uninterrupted medical yoga therapy is a cost-effective early intervention for non-specific low back pain when patients adhere to treatment recommendations.

In another study, researchers investigated the effects of yoga on pain, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and serotonin in premenopausal women with chronic low back pain. BDNF and serotonin are considered mediators of nociceptive pain (i.e. pain felt due to tissue irritation or injury).

Participants practiced yoga three times a week for 12 weeks and at the end of the study had a decrease in pain as measured on a Visual Analog Scale (VAS). The VAS score increased in the control group who did not practice yoga. Back flexibility also improved in the yoga group, while serum BDNF increased and serum serotonin and depression scores remained the same in the yoga group.

The control group had a decrease in BDNF and serotonin levels as well as an increase in depression scores. The researchers propose that brain-derived neurotrophic factor may be one of the key factors mediating beneficial effects of yoga on chronic low back pain.

A similar trial monitored changes in pain intensity and health-related quality of life in nonspecific low back pain in those participating in iyengar yoga or general exercise. The results suggest iyengar yoga provides a better improvement in pain reduction and quality of life compared to general exercise.

Virtual reality-based yoga programs such as Wii Fit Yoga have been shown to have positive effects on physical improvements in middle-aged female patients with low back pain. This program can be employed as a therapeutic medium for prevention and cure of low back pain.

A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials regarding the use of yoga for chronic low back pain offers further confirmation that yoga may be an efficacious adjunctive treatment for chronic low back pain. However, the researchers were careful to note that a number of methodological concerns need to be addressed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding yoga’s specific treatment effects or advantages over traditional exercise programs.

More Health Benefits

17) Menopause

In a community-based interventional study, the quality of life in menopausal women was greatly improved after an 18-week course of yoga practice. The researchers concluded that yoga is an effective complementary health approach for those suffering menopausal symptoms.

18) Mental health

Physical activity has a positive effect on mental health and well-being. The aim of one study was to compare the effects of hatha yoga and resistance exercises on mental health and well-being in sedentary adults.

Hatha yoga improved fatigue, self-esteem, and quality of life, whilst resistance exercise training improved body image. Hatha yoga and resistance exercise decreased depression symptoms at a similar level.

Hatha yoga and resistance exercise may affect different aspects of mental health and well-being.

19) Metabolic syndrome

An explorative study investigated metabolic responses to mental stress and yoga practices in yoga practitioners, non-yoga practitioners, and individuals with metabolic syndrome (a cluster of factors that increase a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke).

The results of the study support the findings of previous randomized trials that suggest regular yoga practice may mitigate against the effects of metabolic syndrome.

In a more recent study, 44% of the 84 patients with metabolic syndrome (MetS) who undertook a year-long yoga practice no longer met the diagnostic threshold for MetS. In the group practicing hatha yoga three times a week, 67% had a decreased number of MetS components after the year of yoga. However, some 15% of the patients had an increased number of MetS components.

The only factor that reached statistical significance was a decrease in the prevalence of central obesity; at the start of the study, 90.5% of those in the yoga group had central obesity, dropping to just 64.3% at the end of the intervention. The yoga group also demonstrated a trend towards a decrease in systolic blood pressure and a decrease in resting heart rate.

20) Migraine

A comprehensive study examining the effect of yoga on migraine showed significant clinical improvement in frequency and intensity of migraines in those taking part in yoga therapy. The researchers concluded that yoga therapy could be effectively incorporated as an adjuvant therapy in migraine patients.

Another study investigated the preventive effects of a three-month yoga intervention on endothelial function in patients with a migraine. The study found that yoga exercises, as a complementary treatment beside pharmacological treatments, could be an effective way to improve vascular functions in migraineurs.

21) Mother and baby

Mother and baby yoga is becoming more and more popular as postpartum mothers discover the benefits of being able to “work out,” bond with their baby and relax, all in one session.

mother and baby yoga
Postnatal yoga or mother and baby yoga can help rebuild the weakened pelvic floor, strengthen the abdominal muscles and even alleviate back and neck pain while bonding with baby.

According to The Practicing Midwife, postnatal yoga can enhance feelings of calmness and a sense of well-being, helping mothers to improve and stabilize their emotional health and to bond with their baby. Additionally, yoga may help to strengthen the weakened pelvic floor and abdominal muscles and may even alleviate back and neck pain. For babies, yoga can aid digestion and alleviate colic, help to strengthen growing limbs, improve sleep patterns, and enhance their ability to interact with their mother and other people.

22) Oxidative stress

Hypertension, especially in the elderly, is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular mortality and morbidity. Oxidative stress has been implicated as one of the underlying causes of hypertension.

A study found yoga to be an effective means to reduce oxidative stress and to improve the antioxidant defense in elderly hypertensive individuals.

In another, small study, researchers found that regular yoga practice could decrease oxidative stress and improve antioxidant levels, in addition to significantly increasing certain aspects of immune function and stress.

Young, healthy university students volunteered for the study and were assigned either to a control group (13) who did no yoga, or a yoga group (12) who practiced yoga with an instructor for 90 minutes once a week for 12 weeks, with daily home-based practice for the duration.

At the end of the 12-week study, the yoga group had significant decreases in markers for oxidative stress such as blood levels of nitric oxide, F2-isoprostane, and lipid peroxide. Antioxidant levels and activity, including total glutathione (GSH), activities of GSH-peroxidase, and GSH-s-transferase were remarkably increased after yoga practice compared with the control group.

The researchers also noted that the yoga group had a significant increase in immune-related cytokines, such as interleukin-12 and interferon-gamma, suggesting immune benefits of yoga. The students practicing yoga also had significant reductions in levels of adrenalin and increased levels of serotonin compared with the control group, suggesting enhanced stress management.

23) Posttraumatic stress

More than a third of the approximately 10 million women with histories of interpersonal violence in the US develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A study exploring the efficacy of yoga to increase affect tolerance and to decrease PTSD symptomatology found yoga significantly reduced symptoms of PTSD and improved the functioning of traumatized individuals.

In a small pilot study, researchers assessed the potential benefits of a yoga program as an adjunctive therapy for improving PTSD symptoms in veterans with military-related PTSD. Twelve veterans took part in a 6-week yoga intervention held twice a week, and the researchers observed a significant improvement in PTSD hyperarousal symptoms and overall sleep quality as well as daytime dysfunction related to sleep.

The intervention was not associated with significant improvements in total PTSD, anger, or quality of life, but the researcher concluded that yoga may be an effective adjunctive therapy for some symptoms of PTSD in veterans.

24) Pregnancy

Yoga is used for a variety of immunological, neuromuscular, psychological, and pain conditions. Recent studies indicate that it may be effective in improving pregnancy, labor, and birth outcomes.

The breathing and meditation techniques can help enhance health and relaxation for those who are pregnant and support mental focus to aid childbirth. Some postures are chosen specifically to help encourage an optimal fetal position.

In a survey ascertaining the opinions, practices, and knowledge about exercise, including yoga, during pregnancy:

woman taking part in pregnancy yoga
Yoga may help improve stress levels, quality of life, and labor parameters such as comfort, pain, and duration in pregnant women.
  • 86% of women responded that exercise during pregnancy is beneficial
  • 83% felt it was beneficial to start prior to pregnancy
  • 62% considered walking to be the most beneficial form of exercise
  • 64% of respondents were currently exercising during pregnancy
  • 51% exercised 2-3 times a week
  • 65% considered yoga to be beneficial
  • 40% had attempted yoga before pregnancy.

Another study tested the efficacy of yoga as an intervention for reducing maternal anxiety during pregnancy.

A single session of yoga reduced both subjective and physiological measures of state anxiety and the reduction in anxiety persisted at the final session of the intervention. Antenatal yoga seems to be useful for reducing women’s anxieties toward childbirth and preventing increases in depressive symptomatology.

Yoga group participants show fewer postpartum but not antepartum depressive symptoms than control group participants. Findings indicate that prenatal hatha yoga may improve current mood and may be effective in reducing postpartum depressive symptoms.

A systematic review of yoga in pregnancy showed that studies indicate that yoga may produce improvements in stress levels, quality of life, aspects of interpersonal relations, autonomic nervous system functioning, and labor parameters such as comfort, pain, and duration. However, they conclude that more randomized controlled trials are needed to provide more information regarding the utility of yoga interventions for pregnancy.

25) Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome is a common disorder that can cause serious sleep disturbance and have a significant adverse effect on quality of life.

In one study, women aged 32-66 years with restless legs syndrome completed 16 yoga classes over an 8-week period. At the end of the study, participants demonstrated striking reductions in symptoms of restless legs syndrome and decreased symptom severity. Symptoms were reduced to minimal/mild in all but one woman and no participant reported severe symptoms by week 8. Participants also showed significant improvements in sleep, perceived stress, and mood.

26) Sleep

The aging process is associated with physiological changes that affect sleep. In older adults, undiagnosed and untreated insomnia may cause impaired daily function and reduced quality of life. Insomnia is also a risk factor for accidents and falls that are the main cause of accidental deaths in older adults.

Compared with controls, the yoga group reported significant subjective improvements in a range of measures, including:

  • Overall sleep quality
  • Sleep efficiency
  • Sleep latency and duration
  • Self-assessed sleep quality
  • Fatigue
  • General well-being
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Tension
  • Anger
  • Vitality
  • Function in physical, emotional, and social roles.

Another study found that an 8-week yoga intervention in 20 people with chronic insomnia led to statistically significant improvements in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep onset latency (how long it takes to fall asleep), and wake time after sleep onset.

27) Stress management

Several studies have looked at yoga as a model for stress management. In a study observing the effects of 10 weeks of classroom-based yoga on cortisol and behavior in second and third-grade students, cortisol decreased significantly and students’ behavior improved. The results suggest that school-based yoga may be advantageous for stress management and behavior.

children practicing yoga
Studies suggest that school-based yoga may assist with stress management and the behavior of children.

One study found that yoga may help children and young people cope with stress and, as a result, could contribute positively to balance in life, well-being, and mental health.

Another study evaluated the influence of hatha yoga practice on levels of distress in women about to begin a course of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Of the 143 female participants, 45 attended hatha yoga and 75 did not. Data suggest that psychological support and practice of hatha yoga before IVF is associated with distress reduction.

28) Urinary incontinence

Yoga has been shown to reduce inflammation and may help improve symptoms of urge urinary incontinence. More research is necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of yoga to reduce urge urinary incontinence symptom burden and improve the quality of life.

29) Weight management

A comparative controlled trial compared the effects of yoga and walking for weight management in overweight and obese adults.

Both groups showed a significant decrease in body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, hip circumference, lean mass, body water and total cholesterol. The yoga group increased serum leptin and decreased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. The walking group decreased serum adiponectin and triglycerides.

Both yoga and walking improved anthropometric variables and serum lipid profile in overweight and obese persons.

The prevalence of yoga research in western health care is increasing. The marked increase in volume indicates the need for more systematic analysis of the literature in terms of quality and results.

Risks and side effects of yoga

Yoga is low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor.

Injury due to yoga is an infrequent barrier to continued practice, and severe injury due to yoga is rare.

Anyone who is pregnant or who has an ongoing medical condition, such as high blood pressure, glaucoma or sciatica, should talk to their healthcare practitioner prior to practicing yoga as they may need to modify or avoid some yoga poses.

Beginners should avoid extreme practices such as headstand, lotus position and forceful breathing.

Individuals with medical preconditions should work with their physician and yoga teacher to appropriately adapt postures; patients with glaucoma or a history or high risk of retinal detachment should avoid inversions, and patients with compromised bone should avoid forceful yoga practices.

Do not use yoga to replace conventional medical care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about pain or any other medical condition. If you have a medical condition, talk to your health care provider before starting yoga.