The Real Benefits of Yoga
By Delsie McCoy, MS
What is it about yoga that makes it so awesome? Is it the gravity defying poses? Or is it the way you contort your body like a pretzel that makes your health and happiness improve? While it may seem mellow compared to many training programs, yoga still has many health benefits like lowering your risk for heart disease and hypertension to name a few. And research has proven that it can reduce your stress, improve your mood and help you sleep better. But how can a little bending and stretching do all that, you ask?
Yoga, a form of mind-body exercise originating from India, has been widely adopted by the Western world. Most yoga classes include poses, called asanas, as well as breathing exercises that coordinate with the postures. The poses include standing, sitting, and reclining postures linked together in a flowing pattern.
Several types and intensities of yoga exist, from mild stretching and breathing to, literally, standing on your head. Hatha yoga, very general term for yoga that includes physical movement, tends to be a good choice for beginners as it is slower and gentler than some types. Other common styles are Ashtanga (think Power Yoga, lots of strength movements), Iyengar (slow, focuses on alignment), Vinyasa (vigorous, flowing), and Kundalini (focuses on breath more than postures.)
The benefits of yoga include improved strength, flexibility, and balance, as well as reduced stress, improved mood, less pain, and lower blood pressure. According to research from the American Council on Exercise, an 8-week session of 3 yoga classes per week, boosted flexibility by up to 35%, greatly improved the ability to balance on one leg, and significantly improved chest and abdominal strength.1 In addition, just one 90-minute session of yoga significantly reduced stress levels among middle-aged women, per a study published in the Journal of Nursing Research.2
Certain types of pain are alleviated through yoga. West Virginia University researchers compared standard medical care for back pain to yoga interventions and found that yoga participants reported reduced pain, less usage of pain medication, and less depression.3 Furthermore, knee pain significantly decreased for women who participated in hour-long yoga classes three times per week for eight weeks.4
For all its benefits, there are a few things that yoga won’t do, such as stimulate weight loss or boost aerobic fitness-- the intensity tends to be too light to trigger these effects. 1 One study compared walking to yoga to determine which best facilitated fitness and weight loss. Participants of the study used 53% less oxygen to complete the yoga class as compared to walking.5 (Researchers measure the amount of oxygen consumed during exercise to assess its effectiveness at improving aerobic fitness.) Moreover, when researchers analyzed the calories burned in a typical yoga class, the calories burned were just over 2 calories per minute-- less than half of the calories burned by walking 3.5 miles per hour.5
While yoga may not cause weight loss, the guiding principles of yoga, such as self-acceptance, mindfulness, and self-awareness, may help yoga practitioners maintain a healthy body weight. A 2011 study noticed that women practicing yoga regularly over several years had a greater tendency to maintain a healthy BMI than the average woman. 6
In short, yoga is a great addition to a well-rounded exercise program. Experiment with different types of yoga and different instructors until you find the right fit for you. You’ll reap the benefits of less stress and anxiety as well as more strength, balance, and flexibility.
2- Huang FJ, Chien DK, Chung UL. Effects of Hatha yoga on stress in middle-aged women. Journal of Nursing Resources. 2013, March 21(1): 59-66.
3- Williams K, Abildso C, Steinberg L, et al. Evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of Iyengar yoga therapy on chronic low back pain. Spine. 2009;34(19):2066–2076.
4-Ghasemi GA, Golkar A, Marandi SM. Effects of hatha yoga on knee osteoarthritis. International Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2013. Apr 4(Suppl 1):S133-8.
5- Clay CC, Lloyd LK, Walker JL, Sharp KR, Pankey RB. The Metabolic Cost of Hatha Yoga. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2005 Aug 19(3): 604-10.
6- Moliver, N, Mika EM, Chartrand MS, Burrus SWM, Haussmann, RE, Khalsa SBS. Increased Hatha yoga experience predicts lower body mass index and reduced medication use in women over 45 years. International Journal of Yoga. 2011 Jul-Dec; 4(2): 77–86.