People who regularly practice yoga are well aware of its health benefits—better sleep, more energy, mental clarity, and a stronger immune system, just to name a few. But there are other tangible health benefits, now being backed up by Western science (as well as by the evidence of millions of people practicing yoga all over the world).
1. More flexibility
This is probably the most obvious benefit of yoga; after two classes you’ll notice more flexibility than before you started—perhaps your toes will be within reach by then. The more you practice yoga, the more you can bend at the hips and knees, and you’ll notice that aches and pains start to fade away. Yoga loosens up tight the hamstrings and hips that strain the lumbar spine and knee joints, respectively. A rigid spine causes back pain, up and down the back. Tightness in the muscles and connective tissues can lead to poor posture, and trouble sleeping.
2. Grows muscle strength
Besides looking good, strong muscles also save people from arthritis and back pain, and help elderly people avoid falls. And the strength gained from yoga is tempered with flexibility; weight training in a gym often sacrifices flexibility for brute strength. You can choose yoga sequences to focus on your arms, abdomen, or legs—but most asanas (postures) involve some combination of all major muscle groups.
3. Aids good posture
One of the effects of our modern civilization is bad posture—humans now spend more time sitting than in any other time in our history, and a lot the sitting is paired with hunching over. The head is round, large, and heavy; balanced right on an erect spine, the neck and back muscles don’t have to work so hard. When the head is hung forward, even a few inches, these muscles get strained. Now multiply that by an 8 or 10-hour work day—this creates fatigue in the back and neck. And, slumping over forces the body to compensate by flattening out the inward arc of the neck and low back—over time, this can cause pain and degenerative arthritis of the spine. Yoga is all about good posture—every pose is designed to right the head over the neck and spine.
4. Maintains cartilage and joint mass
As we age, the cartilage in our joints breaks down. Joint cartilage is like a sponge, and only gets new nutrients when the old fluid is squeezed out and a new supply is sucked in. Without the right nutrients (particularly calcium), and without the necessary “squeezing and soaking” action, cartilage wears out, leaving the bone underneath exposed, like a bald tire. Degenerative arthritis is another name for this painful condition. Yoga takes joints through the full range of motion, keeping them healthy.
5. Protects the spinal column
Besides correcting bad posture, yoga helps the spine in another way—it keeps the disks limber. Spinal disks are the shocks between vertebrae; if they herniate and compress nerves, you’ll know—it’s very painful, and slow to heal. The disks only get nutrients through movement, and yoga offers a lot of gentle spinal column stretches, turns, and twists. Just one sun salutation (a simple series of asanas) has two forward bends of the spine and several good back stretches.
6. Bolsters the immune system
Stretching and contracting muscles and moving organs aid the lymphatic system, by draining the lymph nodes. Lymph is a thick fluid full of white blood cells, the foot soldiers of the immune system. They fight off infection, kill cancerous cells, and remove the toxic waste cells produce. There are also asanas designed especially to compress organs, promoting blood circulation around and through them—good blood drainage increases blood circulation.
7. Increases the heart rate
The heart is muscle, and it needs exercise to stay healthy. Regularly getting the heart rate up into the aerobic range lowers the risk of heart attack, and may ease depression. Yoga styles come in different speeds, some are slow, some are fast—Ashtanga and Vinayasa are pretty high-paced. Research has shown that practicing yoga of any kind lowers the resting heart rate, improves the maximum oxygen intake during exercise (because yoga focuses on deep breathing), and increases endurance.
8. Improves mental clarity
The physical benefits of yoga are well established. Yet many don’t realise the mental benefits. Yoga clears the mind, helps you deal with stress and helps you relax.
9. Regulates the adrenal glands
The adrenal system is closely related to anxiety, and how the body responds to acute stress. In response to a crisis, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol, a compound that temporarily increases immune function. But if the cortisol levels stay high after the crisis, they compromise the immune system, and chronically high levels weaken memory and can damage the brain. Too much cortisol has been tied to osteoporosis and depression, along with insulin resistance and high blood pressure. Sound bad? The good news is that yoga lowers cortisol levels, regulating the glandular system.
10. Relaxes the nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system controls survival instincts—the fight-or-flight response—while the parasympathetic nervous system restores calm, by lowering breathing and heart rates and increasing the blood flowing to the reproductive organs and intestines. Yoga develops relaxation through slowed breath and focusing on the present moment. Certain advanced yogis have achieved control of their nervous systems, and bodies, in extraordinary ways; scientists have observed yogis who can generate specific brain-wave patterns, induce unusual heart rhythms, and change the temperature of their hands by 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
11. Improves the health of bones
A lot of yogic postures require lifting your own weight. Weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and keeps osteoporosis at bay. Arm bones are especially prone to osteoporotic fractures, and many asanas work the arm bones and muscles. A study at California State University, Los Angeles, found yoga practice increased bone density in the vertebrae.