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“Healthy plants and trees yield abundant flowers and fruits. Similarly, from a healthy person, smiles and happiness shine forth like the rays of the sun.”
~Founder of Iyengar Yoga, Mr. B. K. S. Iyengar

This is the sixth in our exercise series. Today we will explore the body and mind benefits of practicing yoga.

While exercise fads come and go at a dizzying speed, yoga remains eternal—an ancient tradition that has been around more than 5,000 years.

Rooted in ancient Indian philosophy, yoga is a total mind and body workout, which blends strengthening and stretching with deep breathing and meditation.

Gentle but powerful, practitioners have long sung yoga’s praises, arguing that nothing contributes more to your emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

Given its soothing, relaxing nature, little wonder that yoga has captured the imagination of a high-stress, high-tech world.

Let’s explore yoga’s great benefits together…

Why Yoga Is Unique

Yoga ranks the 6th most popular physical activity in the US and is practiced by millions of loyal adherents around the globe.

There are over 100 different forms of yoga. Some are fast-paced and intense while others are gentle and relaxing. Hatha yoga (a more physical type of yoga) is the yoga most commonly practiced in the US and Europe.

So what’s the attraction?

Yoga is an excellent low-impact way to get fit and flexible:

  1. Fitness. Using the weight of your own body, yoga builds strength in your legs, arms, glutes, back and abdominal muscles. And since yoga is low-impact, you can get an excellent full-body workout without placing stress on your joints. This makes yoga the exercise of choice for a wide variety of people—no matter what their physical limitations or age. (People who suffer from some ailments should be careful with (or avoid) some yoga poses. Equally, you should check with your health practitioner before starting any exercise, including yoga.)
  2. Flexibility. Yoga has the added advantage of stretching your muscles and increasing your range of motion. This means that over time, yoga will not only improve your fitness but your flexibility—an excellent benefit unavailable with most other exercise choices.

Yoga’s Benefits—an Overview

Yoga’s health and relaxation benefits are the stuff of legend.

While it is not a classic aerobic exercise, it reaps many of the similar advantages most often associated with aerobic effort. From weight loss to lowered blood pressure, yoga’s ability to improve health is on par with conventional exercise options such as cycling or brisk walking.

In fact, scientific research shows that yoga can achieve the following:

  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Reduce chronic low-back pain
  • Control stress, anxiety and/or depression
  • Encourage better eating habits and weight control
  • Reduce insomnia

Yoga—the Cardiovascular Benefits

Several clinical studies indicate that yoga can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and resting heart rates as well as
slow the progression of atherosclerosis—all cardiovascular disease risk factors.

For example, in a small study conducted on sedentary individuals who had not practiced yoga before, participants showed greater muscle strength, endurance, flexibility and cardio-respiratory fitness after practicing yoga for only 8 weeks, twice a week for a total of 180 minutes.

While almost any exercise is good for your heart, yoga’s deep breathing, meditative component may help preserve the endothelium (the lining of the blood vessels) which when damaged can contribute to cardiovascular disease. That is because relaxation in yoga may lead to relaxation of blood vessels, reduction of blood pressure and increase of blood flow to the heart.

Because of all of these benefits, yoga is now being included in many cardiac rehabilitation programs.

Yoga—the Reduction of Chronic Lower Back Pain

Yoga is well known as a valuable tool in treating chronic lower back pain.

In an Indian study, 80 patients with chronic lower back pain were assigned to one of 2 groups—yoga therapy or physical therapy. The results showed that practicing yoga was more effective than physical therapy in reducing pain and improving spinal mobility.

One possible explanation why yoga seems to be so effective for treating back pain is that “Herniated discs and spinal stenosis don’t cause pain. They cause an irritation of a nerve which causes a contraction of the muscle. The muscle tightness or spasm then causes the pain.” Yoga—with its various postures and deep breathing—is designed to relax those very muscles, which are the real culprits behind back pain.

Yoga—Lowering Stress and Anxiety

Yoga is also an excellent support against stress, anxiety and depression.

As Garret Sarley, president and CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Massachusetts explains, “Stress sends the entire physical system into overdrive. The muscles tense, the heart beats faster, breathing patterns change, and if the cause of stress is not discontinued, the body secretes more hormones that increase blood sugar levels and raise blood pressure. Yoga is one of the few stress-relief tools that has a positive effect on all the body systems involved.

Studies around the world back up Sarley’s assertions.

For instance, a study examining the effect of yoga on anxiety revealed that women who participated in a 2-month yoga class reported a significant reduction in perceived levels of anxiety.

Another study in California tested the effect of yoga on pregnant women and showed that practicing yoga while pregnant can reduce stress, improve mood and even reduce postpartum depression symptoms.

Yoga—Helping Cancer Patients Sleep and Feel Better

Yoga’s gentle exercises have been proven to be effective in helping individuals deal with chronic illness like cancer. Classic cancer patient complaints (fatigue, muscle soreness, shortness of breath) can be relieved through yoga, which reenergizes in a low-impact, low-stress way.

For example, one study revealed that lymphoma patients who participated in only seven weekly sessions of yoga fell asleep more easily and longer, without the need for sleep-abetting drugs.

Apart from relieving cancer-related physical complaints, other research suggests that yoga improves mood, stress levels and overall quality of life in cancer patients.

A pilot study tracked breast cancer sufferers who had attended 8 weekly yoga sessions and found that the women were not only more energetic and relaxed but also felt less pain.

Yoga—Mindfulness and Weight Control

One reason yoga reduces stress is because it improves mindfulness.

Being mindful means being focused on the present—what you experience right here, right now.

Mindfulness not only fosters deep internal awareness but it also helps restore balance of both body and mind. Not surprisingly therefore, people who practice yoga are more aware of and satisfied with their bodies.

Even more interesting, it appears that practicing yoga increases mindfulness in all areas of people’s lives—including eating.

This can be explained very simply. Yoga may make you be more aware of how your body feels. This heightened awareness carries over to mealtime so you become more conscious about what you eat and more sensitive to hunger cues as well as feelings of fullness. In that sense, yoga can contribute positively to weight control.

One study described the effects of yoga on cortisol reactivity to stress and ‘emotional’ eating in women at risk for obesity-related illnesses. In the study, women with elevated cortisol reactivity that performed Bikram (a heated form of Hatha yoga) twice a week reported greater decreases in binge eating frequency and eating to cope behavior compared to the control group.

In sum, a regular practice of yoga can help you with all of the following:

  • Overall Fitness. Practicing yoga a couple times a week increases muscle strength and flexibility, boosts endurance and tunes up your heart, lungs and blood vessels.
  • Heart Benefits. Yoga can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
  • Better Body Image. Focusing inward during yoga helps you be more accepting and less critical of your body.
  • Mindful Eating and Weight Control. Being more aware of your body can carry over to mealtimes where you start to notice how food smells and tastes and become more sensitive to hunger and fullness cues.

As you can see, there are a myriad of reasons why you should consider integrating yoga into your life.

Maybe today is the day to bring out the yoga mat and get acquainted (or re-acquainted!) with this gentle powerhouse of exercise.


Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.