Around 20 million people in the United States reported practicing yoga in 2012, and the number has only risen since. It is not too surprising as the practice, which originated in India, has increasingly been linked to various health benefits.
While the scientific evidence is not always strong enough, the consensus is that yoga can be safe and as effective as other forms of exercise like walking, tai chi, etc. As the world celebrates International Yoga Day on June 21, here are three benefits for the body and mind indicated by studies and reviews published in recent years.
Relieving back pain
A 2016 literature review found that yoga interventions could provide relief to those suffering from chronic low back pain or CLBP. Evidence indicated a reduction of “bothersomeness” when compared to usual care or no care. Poses like “downward dog” can stretch the back muscles as well as the legs.
“Yoga is great for working on flexibility and core stability, correcting posture, and breathing — all of which are necessary for a healthy back,” said Sasha Cyrelson, clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy in New Jersey.
She also warns people to never stretch into positions that cause pain as they may lead to injury. “Pain is how our bodies tell us something is wrong. If it actually hurts, ease up on the stretch.”
Boosting heart health
A systematic review from 2014 found that asana-based yoga could be as effective as brisk walking and other conventional exercises in lowering heart disease risk.
Experts note that some people may see the benefit of a calming effect as breathing exercises can help in regulating heart rate and lowering blood pressure.
When combined with a heart-healthy lifestyle, yoga may not only work as a preventive measure but can provide benefits even after a cardiac event, said Mala Cunningham, a counseling psychologist and yoga therapist. “It may not completely reverse it, but you will definitely see benefits.”
Reduction of anxiety
A 2018 study from Michigan Technological University (MTU) looked at how mindfulness meditation (often included as a part of yoga) impacted a small group of participants. Anxiety levels were reduced when measured after the session, and this effect persisted even one week later.
Anxiety levels were shown to be much lower than what they were before the session, and this persisted shortly after meditating, and even one week later. Practicing a 30-minute body scan was said to have a positive effect on stress levels.
“If you can focus on one single part of your body, just your big toe, it can make it much easier for you to deal with something stressful in your life,” explained MTU graduate Hannah Marti. “You can learn to focus on one part of it rather than stressing about everything else in your life.”