Many people around the world are taking up a yoga practice to help them not only physically but also spiritually and emotionally. By yoga, we often think purely of the asanas (the positions we put our bodies into on the mat), but it is more than that, encompassing breath, but also mindset – how we approach life.
Yoga is centuries old, and scientists today are starting to research and document many of the health benefits that come with a regular practice. When you begin to connect with your body and mind you can start to notice the positive effects and changes happening in your overall health. Simple alterations in the body such as hiccups can even be halted by breathing techniques. Let´s look at twenty-two of the popular health benefits yoga can have.
Improves your Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is our body´s waste management system. Its function is to help rid our body of toxins and waste by moving lymph fluid throughout the body. Lymph fluid contains infection fighting white blood cells and is a crucial part of our bodies natural healing mechanism. When our bodies are infected or injured the lymph fluid can build up and cause blockages that prevent the fluid from flowing freely. The buildup of fluid can cause inflammation, aches and pain and eventually can lead to illness. Yoga keeps the fluid moving and circulating our muscles and bones and prevents any accumulation, bringing health to the body. Back bends like bridge, camel and wheel pose stimulate lymphatic regions in the pharynx (in the throat) where a large cluster of lymphatic cells are found. You may feel an extremely relaxed sensation after practicing these poses. Relaxation keeps the lymphatic system moving and flowing as it should. Gentle breathing and soft forward folds can also stimulate the lymph flow.
Boosts our immune system
In yoga, as we come in and out of yoga postures, the muscles contract and stretch in many different ways and the organs move around. The combination of squeeze and release in particular encourages the drainage of lymph from your body, which helps the lymphatic system fight infection and get rid of waste products and toxins. The less toxins and waste products there are, the better the immune system can function.
Reduces inflammation in the body
Inflammation in the body, particularly if it is long-standing, is often a sign that the body is unwell. Scientists can measure inflammation using biomarkers; some researchers have discovered that yoga can reduce inflammation. For example, in a study of heart failure patients, one group were enrolled in yoga classes and the other group followed standard medical care. The results showed that the patients taking yoga classes had better levels of inflammation biomarkers (lower levels), meaning that inflammation had decreased; a calming of the body.
Reduces stress and decrease cortisol
Research has shown that practicing yoga can help reduce stress levels. Cortisol is a hormone released by the body naturally and helps to regulate the immune system, blood pressure and blood sugar levels (amongst other things). When our body is under stress (or perceived stress) the body produces cortisol – to give the body a boost – but then it should return to normal levels. Unfortunately for many of us, we live lives full of stress, so our cortisol levels remain high and only infrequently get chance to return to normal. This can cause health problems like adrenal fatigue. Longer holds and slow yoga styles such as Yin yoga helps you to slow your breath and encourages you to relax. Quicker more powerful yoga increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs providing a relaxing response in post yoga. So, follow the science into your nearest yoga class and allow your cortisol levels to drop.
Improves our brain function
In yoga as well as in meditation, we learn to focus on the present moment. We often use our breath to keep our attention on the moment. Our breathing techniques bring more oxygen to the brain improving coordination, memory, balance and keeps our mind calm.
Activates your relaxation response
Switch on your parasympathetic nervous system using deep tummy breathing and allow your body to relax. The parasympathetic nervous system is the inner part of you responsible for relaxation. So next time you want to relax try some yoga asanas to help you – read our article here.
Improves happiness levels
Although yoga isn´t always a cure all for everything, it does have some significant effects on our mood. A consistent yoga practice can halt depression and anxiety by increasing serotonin levels and other natural feel good chemicals like dopamine. These chemicals produce feelings of relaxation and happiness.
Maybe when you first start yoga you can not reach your toes (seated or standing forward fold), but over time your body´s natural flexibility will increase and after a time, with regular practice, you might be able to touch your toes comfortably, as your muscles lengthen.
Reduces pain and aches
As mentioned above, yoga asanas help to lengthen muscles. This in turn can help to reduce or relieve aches and pains, particularly when combined with breath work. Fibromyalgia sufferers find that practicing yoga regularly can really help to allow their muscles to relax, and this relaxation enables to pain to reduce.
Regular movement of the body and muscles in yoga brings strength in your body. Muscles build strength through movement, but they also need the rest and recovery time after, so even more reason to enjoy your savasana! Yoga can also develop strength in the mind – holding a yin pose for four minutes certainly builds mental strength.
Brings balance to your body, and your life
In yoga we practice balance poses like tree (Vrksasana), eagle (Garudasana) or Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana III). This brings physical balance to the body – at the same time it brings strength, particularly to our hip and leg muscles. When the mind is racing, these balance asanas are more tricky to hold, when the mind is focused, balance asanas become more easy. We believe that as you practice on your mat, you can take the benefits off the mat, and into your everyday life.
Improves mindfulness and awareness
Moving mindfully through your yoga practice helps to improve your awareness of your body. By this we mean that as you move through the asanas, you can choose to focus on the sensations in your body, or on your breath, to keep your awareness in the present moment, letting go of the mind chatter. The more you can practice this in your yoga class, the easier it becomes when you are going through your daily life, to keep your focus when things are going mad all around you!
Sometimes twisting, or asanas that work with our hips, can help to release emotions. Having a quiet practice and allowing emotions to arise means we can let them go. This practice of being aware of emotions, and then letting them go (rather than holding on to them), on our mat, can then be practiced off the mat, in our everyday life. Additionally, as discussed above, yoga also reduces cortisol levels, which helps to balance out our hormone levels – smoother hormones, means less fluctuating emotions.
Builds stronger bones and helps to prevent osteoporosis
Women in later years (especially after the menopause) can be prone to developing osteoporosis – this is where the bones become brittle and can break or fracture more easily. Scientific research shows that regular weight-bearing exercise can help to build bone strength, which helps to prevent fractures or breaks due to osteoporosis. In some yoga asanas we work to lift our own body weight – poses like downward dog, plank, crow or upward dog work with the arm bones in particular. As mentioned above, yoga can help to relieve stress, which lowers cortisol levels – lower levels of cortisol may help to retain calcium in the bones. Regularly practicing weight bearing poses (like downward dog, plank), together with other lifestyle and dietary modifications, can help to prevent osteoporosis.
Improves posture and we walk taller
Shortness in muscles and connective tissue can cause shoulders to round and backs to hunch, so by practicing yoga regularly, the muscles lengthen and the skeletal system is properly supported. This leads to improvements in your posture, so after time, you will feel like you have grown a centimetre or two!
Breaks bad habits, creates new habits
Typically it takes a few classes or more to realize small changes in your life and in your body. By attending a regular yoga class, you will start to develop new habits. Getting in contact with your body through yoga will also increase your awareness of what feels “good” to you (and conversely, what feels “bad”).
Prevents back ache
If you regularly suffer back ache, consider taking up yoga. The physical movement helps to develop stronger back muscles, which will support your spine. At the same time, yoga works to develop stronger core muscles (tummy and abdomen), which also support your back. Stronger muscles in your back and core mean less aches and pains. Additionally, regular movement of the back helps to release tension and keep that whole area of your body flexible. Practices with a combination of forward bends, back bends and twists will keep your back and spine strong and flexible.
Improves blood circulation
Yoga gets your blood flowing. During a yoga flow or vinyasa class, you move your body continually. Also, think about the twisting motion – in a seated twist we hold for a few breaths, when you release, the blood flows quickly, flushing through the body and organs. Inversions (like shoulder stand or handstand) are said to improve blood circulation, bringing the blood down to the heart, where it is oxygenated and recirculated through the body.
Reduces blood pressure
Yoga, as part of a healthy lifestyle and diet can help to reduce your blood pressure. Through relaxing the body, balancing the hormones and helping with blood circulation, this all contributes to reducing your blood pressure. To read our earlier article on how to reduce your blood pressure through diet and lifestyle click here.
Develops kindness and compassion for yourself and others
As you practice yoga, you learn to approach your body with kindness, knowing that some days you can move easily into some asanas, and other days, it is harder. Practicing yoga with the idea of self-examination, rather than “improvement” or comparison, means that you learn to accept and make peace with yourself. This brings kindness and compassion – for yourself, which can then extend into the rest of your life and you can share this kindness and compassion with others.
At the start of some classes, you might practice a mindful body scan – lying down in savasana, you take your awareness to each body part in turn (read our earlier article here). During this body scan, you might start to identify where you hold tension in your body; once you have awareness, you can start to let this tension go, by using the breath or the asanas. One area many people hold tension is in their shoulders. Practicing poses like Eagle (Garudasana) can help to release shoulder tension. Deep tummy breathing helps to relax the tummy muscles (as well as activating the relaxation response).
Maintains cartilage and joints
The cartilage in your joints acts like a sponge – it soaks up nutrients when it is moved. If you lead a sedentary lifestyle (lots of sitting down), the cartilage in your joints start to degenerate and wear out. As you practice yoga on your mat, you will take your joints through their whole range of motion, squeezing and encouraging the take-up of new nutrients.
These can be just some of the myriad of benefits of including regular yoga practice in your life, together with making positive and healthy lifestyle and diet choices. Going on a yoga retreat here with La Crisalida Retreats in Spain can help to kick-start this process, giving you daily or twice daily yoga classes. At La Crisalida we also offer regular meditation classes to support your yoga mat practice. Don´t just take our word for it, try it for yourself. If you are trying yoga at home, we suggest that you start classes with a trained yoga teacher and let her know if you have any health problems or injuries, so asanas can be adjusted to suit you.
Remember it can take time and practice to create a new habit, so if you are new to yoga, keep going!
About the author
- Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).