Feb. 6, 2024 — What if there was an easy way to enhance your brain function, reduce stress, boost your mood, and protect yourself against a host of health conditions — and that anyone can do it, even you?
Science says it’s not too good to be true: Recent research has linked yoga to all these benefits and more.
Evidence is piling up that yoga has therapeutic effects on a wide range of conditions and diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, Parkinson’s, irritable bowel syndrome, and menopause. Research shows it can improve heart health, flexibility, and strength. It’s also been shown to reduce anxiety and stress and help treat depression.
Granted, any exercise is good for your health, but yoga is uniquely accessible. While it can be intense, it can also be made safe for people with limited mobility or joint problems. In folks with osteoarthritis, yoga may improve knee function and pain, and in older adults with frailty markers, it may boost walking speed and lower-body strength.
Unlike traditional workouts that often focus on pushing the body, sometimes to its limits, yoga encourages gentler movements and mindful awareness,” said Donna Noble, a yoga instructor and author of Teaching Body Positive Yoga. “I like to describe yoga not as a workout, but a ‘work-in.'”
Why Does Yoga Have So Many Health Benefits?
Yoga combines movement with breathing and meditation – a unique fusion that may explain its wide-ranging benefits. Unlike, say, jogging a familiar route or performing a weightlifting routine, following a yoga flow and guided meditation tends to require more focus. That makes it a workout for both body and mind.
“Yoga activates many regions of the brain, and it’s attention training,” said Helen Lavretsky, MD, a psychiatry professor at UCLA who studies integrative mental health using mind-body interventions. “You pay attention to your breathing or practice visualization.” Just as curling a dumbbell flexes your biceps, yoga works your brain, increasing blood flow and encouraging new growth.
In a small study co-authored by Lavretsky last year, women with self-reported memory loss and risk factors for Alzheimer’s did a gentle form of yoga combining breathing techniques, chanting, and visualization every day for 3 months. By the end of the study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans revealed improved connectivity in subregions of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. The women also reported less stress and forgetting.
“Yoga serves as a sort of brain fertilizer,” said Sean Mullen, PhD, an associate professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Like other exercise, yoga “leads to the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical that supports brain growth and learning and memory.” This molecule — BDNF for short — promotes neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and respond to new information.
Yoga may also release vascular endothelial growth factor, or a “signal protein that promotes the growth of new blood vessels and likely enhances cerebral blood flow,” Mullen explained. These brain boosters may help explain yoga’s potential mitigating effects on Alzheimer’s risk and Parkinson’s symptoms, said Mullen.
How Yoga Boosts Your Mood
Engaging the brain also helps keep you in the moment — key for stress management and mental health. In a 2023 study led by Mullen, people who practiced “sun salutations,” sequences of yoga poses that represent the sun rising and setting, for 50 minutes three times a week reported less stress and anxiety.
“Sun salutations are like a dynamic, rhythmic, stress-relief dance,” Mullen said. Throw in some chanting and singing, and you may relax even more, since these activities stimulate the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes you, Lavretsky noted.
Some evidence suggests yoga can ease depression. In a study from October, adults with depression who did weekly Bikram yoga (practiced in a 105 F room) for 8 weeks experienced significantly greater symptom reductions than a waitlisted control group. Most of the people doing yoga saw a 50% or greater decrease in depression symptoms, and almost half achieved remission.
The reasons are likely multi-dimensional, Mullen said. People who regularly engage in “hot yoga” might adapt to endure greater physical strain and psychosocial stress. Whole-body immersion in heated environments releases inflammatory cytokines – markers of inflammation – and elevates core temperature for several hours before one returns to homeostasis. Regular heat exposure can cause a person to become “more acclimated to the same heat stress,” Mullen said. It’s kind of like how athletes who train at high altitudes acclimate to the conditions, maximizing their performance for competition.
And then there’s this: “Put simply, people enjoy things that are fun,” Mullen said. “Sometimes struggling with balance, or unlocking personal achievements, or being in a quiet room with a quirky yoga instructor inspires laughter and social connection.” That can make anyone feel good.
How Yoga Fights Disease
Yoga’s stress-relieving effects may explain the wide-ranging physical benefits too. “You frequently hear that all diseases are from stress, and that’s not too far from the truth,” said Lavretsky. Chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is “implicated in the majority of physical, neurological, and mental disorders of aging.”
Proper stress management can lower blood pressure and heart rate. Soothing breathing techniques may improve lung capacity and function. Gentle movements can enhance mobility and reduce pain.
“Stress exacerbates symptoms of things like irritable bowel syndrome and menopause, and yoga’s ability to alleviate stress can help with these conditions,” Mullen said.
Stress relief may be behind yoga’s blood sugar benefits. In a 2023 meta-analysis, people with type 2 diabetes on medication who began a mind-body practice saw greater reductions in blood sugar than those who received medication alone. Of all the mind-body practices, yoga provided the biggest benefit: a 1% reduction in hemoglobin A1c — that’s similar to the effect of metformin, the most commonly prescribed diabetes drug, the researchers said.
Physiologically, less stress means less of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood sugar, said lead study author Fatimata Sanogo, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
But also, that mood boost may increase treatment compliance, Sanogo noted, “and make it easier for someone to choose an apple over a doughnut.”
Such behavior modification may help with addiction treatment as well. In a randomized trial, people on an 8-week program to stop smoking who practiced yoga had better odds of quitting than those in the program who attended general wellness classes instead.
Maximize Yoga’s Benefits
All kinds of yoga have benefits, so your best bet is to choose the type that appeals to you. But there are a few simple tips that can help you get the most out of it.
Embrace the mind-body aspect.
Consider classes or programs that involve breathing cues, meditations, and visualizations. Some offer vagus nerve stimulation (which usually means chanting or saying “om”), and some use mind-body connection techniques — cues to bring awareness to different parts of your body.
Other tips: Look for beginner classes to help you learn the postures and advance at a comfortable pace, and check that studios offer props (straps, blocks, chairs, pillows) that help you modify moves to suit your body, Noble said.
Get started at home
If you’d rather not leave the house, that’s OK too. “There are a ton of free yoga resources online,” said Mullen, who uses Boho Beautiful Yoga on YouTube. A techier (and pricier) option is virtual reality. Meta Quest offers a VR Yoga app that works with its immersive headsets. Other popular online yoga teachers — like Yoga with Kassandra and SaraBethYoga, for example — also offer free online classes, many of which are beginner-friendly.
Noble suggests starting with one yoga session per week. Consistency is key, said Mullen. Returning to the mat regularly lets you build on what you’ve learned and improve.
Squeeze it in
No time for classes? Try short bouts of yoga throughout your day. In one small study, healthy people who broke up 7.5 hours of sitting with 3 minutes of yoga every 30 minutes lowered their blood sugar without compromising concentration or well-being.
Make sure you’re progressing
You want to challenge yourself, but that doesn’t always mean pushing your body harder. “You could progress by increasing the amount of time you practice, doing the flows faster, holding poses a little longer, changing up your routine, going in with a different purpose or intention, or trying a new instructor,” said Mullen. “Think about aiming for a 1-2% improvement each time.”
Be curious about yoga’s history and philosophy
Did you know yoga’s origins trace back thousands of years to India and Africa, where it began as a spiritual discipline? Its basic scripture is the Yoga Sutras, which outline the eight “limbs” of yoga — restraint, observance, posture, regulation of breathing, abstraction of the senses, concentration, meditation, and trance — a sequential path to enlightenment.
“By understanding the roots of yoga, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for its transformative power,” said Noble. “It’s about first connecting with ourselves and then the world around us, creating community. Yoga can also impact how we show up in the world.”