How Yoga Can Improve Your Physical Health
If you are passionate about practicing yoga, then you most likely have noticed some benefits – perhaps you feel more at ease and relaxed, get fewer colds or sleep better. However, if you have tried to tell a beginner about all of the important benefits that yoga has to offer, you may find explanations such as “it increases energy along your spine” or “it increases prana flow” to fall on skeptical or deaf ears.
Research on Yoga’s Benefits
Western science has started to provide some strong evidence on how yoga keeps sickness under control, heals aches and pains, and improves health. After you have a good understanding of them, you will be even more motivated to roll out your mat, and most likely next time you won’t feel as tongue-tied when someone wants proof.
1. Improves Your Flexibility
One of the most obvious and first benefits that yoga provides is improved flexibility. During the first class that you take, you may not be able to touch your toes, much less be able to perform a deep backbend. However, if you don’t give up and continue to practice, you will notice yourself loosening up gradually and eventually those poses that seemed impossible will actually be possible to do.
You’ll probably also notice a decrease in pains and aches. That isn’t a coincidence. Poor posture caused by immobility of connective tissue and muscles like ligaments and fascia can cause discomfort up and down your body. When your hips are tight, your knees may feel strain due to your shin bones and thighs being improperly aligned. Tight hamstrings might lead to your lumbar spine being flattened which can result in back pain. The more you mobilize your muscles and other connective tissues, the better you’ll feel.
2. Builds Muscular Strength
Not only do strong muscles look good, but they also help to prevent elderly people from falling, and protect against conditions such as back pain and arthritis. By practicing yoga you increase your flexibility and build up your strength at the same time. If all you did was lift weights in the gym, you might build up strength but sacrifice your flexibility in the process.
3. Improves Posture
Your head is similar to a bowling ball – heavy, round and large. When it is balanced over your erect spine directly, it doesn’t take as much work from your back and neck muscles to support it. However, if you move your head several inches forward, those muscles start to become strained. If you hold up your forward-leaning head for 8-12 hours per day, of course, you are going to be tired and uncomfortable. This poor posture can also cause neck and back pain as well as headaches and other conditions. When you slump, it forces your body to compensate by flattening the regular inward curves in your lower back and neck. That can cause degenerative arthritis and pain in your spine.
4. Prevents Breakdown of Joints and Cartilage
When you perform yoga, your joints often get to move through their entire range of motion. That can help to mitigate or prevent degenerative arthritis through “soaking and squeezing” parts of the cartilage that aren’t used normally. Joint cartilage is similar to a sponge; it only receives fresh nutritions when the fluid gets squeezed out and when there is a new supply to soak up. If proper sustenance is not received, then then neglected cartilage area might wear out eventually, which exposes the worn-out bone-underneath.
5. Protects Your Spine
Spinal discs need movement. These “shock absorbers” in between your vertebrae can compress and herniate if not properly cared for. You can help your disks stay supple by practicing a well-balanced asana regimen that includes plenty of twists, forward bends, and backbends.
6. Improves Bone Health
It has been well-established that weight-bearing exercises help to strengthens bones and fight off osteoporosis. Many yoga postures require your own weight to be lifted. And some, such as the Upward- and Downward-Facing Dog, help to strengthen the bones in your arms, which are especially vulnerable to getting osteoporotic fractures. At UCLA, a study was conducted that showed that vertebrae bone density was increased by yoga practice. The ability of yoga to reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, might also help bones retain their calcium.
7. Increases Blood Flow
Yoga helps to get your blood flowing and deep breathing exercises can increase the amount of oxygen delivered to your cells, which causes them to function better. Twisting poses are believed to wring venous blood out from internal organs as well as allow for the flow of oxygenated blood after releasing the twist. Inverted poses, like shoulder stands, handstands, headstands, and legs up the wall promote the flow of venous blood from the pelvis and legs to the heart, which then can be pumped into the lungs and to be freshly oxygenated. If your legs have any swelling due to kidney or heart problems, this may be beneficial.
Yoga also helps to boost red blood cell and hemoglobin levels, which carry oxygen into the tissues. This thins the blood by making the platelets less sticky and cuts the clot-promoting protein levels in the blood. These benefits may help reduce strokes and heart attacks since blood clots frequently cause them.
8. Boosts Immunity and Drains Your Lymph
Whenever you come in and out of your yoga postures, move organs around, and stretch and contract your muscles, you increase lymph drainage (which is a viscous fluid full of immune cells). This helps your lymphatic system dispose of toxic waste from cellular functioning, destroy cancerous cells, and fight infection.
9. Increases Your Heart Rate
Whenever your heart rate gets into aerobic state on a regular basis, it can help to relieve depression and reduce the risk of heart attacks. Although not every form of yoga is aerobic, when you do it vigorously or take Ashtanga or flow classes, it can get your heart rate boosted into an aerobic range. However, even doing yoga exercises where your heart rate isn’t increased very high may improve your cardiovascular conditioning. It has been found that practicing yoga improves your maximum oxygen uptake during exercise, increases endurance and reduces your resting heart rate – which all reflect improved aerobic conditioning. It was found by one study that subjects who only were taught pranayama (breathing exercises) were able to do more exercise while using less oxygen.
10. Reduces Your Blood Pressure
You may benefit from yoga if you have high blood pressure. Two studies that were conducted on individuals with hypertension and published by The Lancet, a British medical journal, compared effects of the Corpse Pose (Savasana) with just lying on the sofa. After three months it was shown that Savasana had a 26-point decrease in systolic blood pressure (upper number) associated with a 15-point decrease in diastolic blood pressure (lower number). The drop was bigger the greater the initial blood pressure was.
11. Regulates Your Adrenal Glands
Yoga reduces cortisol levels. This might not sound like a lot, however, consider the following. The adrenal glands normally secrete cortisol as a response to an acute crisis, and that boosts immune function temporarily. If, following the crisis, your cortisol levels continue to stay high, that can compromise your immune system. Temporary cortisol boosts can help with your long-term memory, however, having levels that are chronically high can undermine memory and might also cause permanent brain changes. Also, there have been links shown between excessive cortisol and insulin resistance, high blood pressure, osteoporosis (calcium, as well as other minerals, are extracted from the bones and it also interferes with new bone development), and major depression. High cortisol levels in rats lead to what is termed by researchers as “food-seeking behavior” (where you are driven to eat whenever you are stressed, angry, or upset). Those extra calories are taken by your body and distributed as fat in your abdomen, which contributes to weight gain as well as the risk of heart attack and diabetes.
12. Makes You Happier
Are you feeling sad? If so, sit in the Lotus position. Or even better, soar into the King Dancer Pose or rise into a backbend. Although it isn’t that easy, it was found in one study that practicing yoga on a consistent basis improved mental health traits, including depression, and also led to decreases in cortisol and monoamine oxidase (an enzyme that breaks neurotransmitters down) levels and a significant increase in levels of serotonin. Dr. Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin, found heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex’s mediators. This finding is correlated with better immune function and increased happiness levels. In long-term, dedicated yoga practitioners, a more left-side and dramatic activation was found.
13. Helps Establish a Healthy Lifestyle
The adage that many dieters use is to eat less and move more. Yoga can help with both of these things. Practicing yoga on a regular basis helps to burn calories and get you moving, and the emotional and spiritual aspects of practicing yoga can help to encourage addressing your weight and eating issues on a deeper level. Another thing that yoga might inspire is for you to become more conscious about what you eat.
14. Lowers Your Blood Sugar
It has been found that yoga reduces blood sugar in a couple of different ways in individuals who have diabetes: it improves sensitivity to insulin effects, encourages weight loss, and lowers adrenaline and cortisol levels. Reducing blood sugar levels can help to increase risks caused by diabetic complications like blindness, kidney failure, and heart attack.
15. Improves Your Focus
Another important aspect of yoga is it helps you focus on the present. It has been found in studies that practicing yoga on a regular basis helps to improve IQ scores, memory, reaction time, and coordination. Individuals practicing Transcendental Meditation show improvement in their ability to recall and acquire information as well as solve problems – most likely because they are not as distracted by their thoughts, that can tend to play over and over again in their heads.
16. Relaxes Your System
Yoga helps to encourage you to focus on the present, slow your breath, and relax. You can even shift your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) from your sympathetic nervous system (which is your flight-or-flight response). Your parasympathetic nervous system is restorative and calming; it reduces your heart and breathing rates, increases blood flow into your reproductive organs and intestines and decreases your blood pressure. This is referred to as the relaxation response.
17. Improves Your Balance
Practicing yoga on a regular basis improves your balance and increases your proprioception (this refers to your ability to be able to feel where your body is space and what it is doing). Usually, individuals with dysfunctional movement patterns or poor posture have bad proprioception, and this is linked to back pain and knee problems. Improved balance might result in fewer falls. For elderly individuals, that translates into having more independence and either the delay or avoidance of being admitted into a nursing home. For everyone else, the Tree Pose and similar postures can help you feel more stable on your feet.
18. Maintains Your Nervous System
There are some advanced yogis that have the ability to control their bodies in amazing ways. Some have been monitored by scientists while increasing their hand temperature by 15 degrees, generating certain brain-wave patterns, and inducing unusual heart rhythms. If they can do that through the use of yoga, you might be able to learn how the blood flows into your pelvis can be improved if you are attempting to get pregnant or learn how relaxation can be induced when you are having problems sleeping.
19. Increases Limb Tension
Have you ever found yourself using a death grip to hold the steering wheel or phone or scrunching up your face while looking at your computer screen? Those types of unconscious habits may lead to chronic soreness, muscle fatigue, and tension in your face, neck, shoulders, arms, and wrists, which can worsen your mood and increase your stress. As you are practicing yoga, you will start noticing where you tend to hold tension: It may be in the muscles of your neck and face, your eyes, or your tongue. If you start tuning in, you might be able to release some of that tension.
20. Improves Deep Sleeping
Stimulation is great, however, your nervous system can be taxed when you get too much. Yoga can provide you with relief from modern life’s hustle and bustle. Meditation, pranayama, Yoga Nidra (a kind of guided relaxation) and restorative asana, help to encourage pratyahara, which is a turning inward of your senses. This provides your nervous system with downtime. Studies also suggest that practicing yoga on a regular basis can result in better sleep, so you will be less stressed and more energized which will lead to having fewer accidents and mixups in your life.
21. Improves Lung Function
Yogis have a tendency to take fewer and greater volume breaths which is more efficient and calming. A study published in 1998 in The Lancet showed findings where individuals with lung conditions from congestive heart failure implemented the yogic technique called “complete breathing.” Within one month, they noticed an average decrease in respiratory rate from more than 13 breaths per minute down to less than 8. In the meantime, there was a significant increase in exercise capacity, along with their blood’s oxygen saturation. It has also been shown that yoga improves a number of lung function measures, including efficiency of exhalation and maximum breath volume.
Nose breathing is also promoted in yoga. This helps filter the air to minimize things settling into your lungs such as dirt and pollen and also humidifies and warms it (it is more likely that dry, cold air will trigger asthma attacks in sensitive individuals).
22. Improves Digestive Function
Constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers – stress can exacerbate all of these. So you will suffer less if you can manage stress better. Like any other type of physical exercise, yoga can ease constipation – as well as theoretically reduce the risk of colon cancer – due to the fact that more rapid transportation of waste and food through the bowels is facilitated by moving your body. Also, although it hasn’t been scientifically studied yet, it is suspected by yogis that twisting poses might help to move waste through the system.
As you can see, there are many positive physical benefits that come from practicing yoga. Try it yourself and see what your favorite part of the experience is.