Evidence-based benefits of Yoga
- June 21, 2017
While asanas (physical postures), pranayama (regulated breathing) and meditation are each intuitively beneficial in their own way, their synergy in a yoga practice is believed to be exceptionally helpful when it comes to several aspects of our health.1
As yoga continues to gain popularity across the world, modern science has begun to quantify its benefits. The findings are, as expected, incredibly positive.
Yoga – Systemic Benefits
Yoga has been shown to reduce oxidative stress, which is the primary cause of cellular damage and ageing, and improve our antioxidant defenses by increasing the activity of our body’s antioxidants. In doing so, yoga also decreases inflammation, which is an underlying cause of various lifestyle diseases and is closely connected to free radical damage. A very interesting study even found that yoga experts, when compared to novices, had healthier measures of inflammation. 2, 3
Meditation in general and yoga, in particular, are known to reduce stress. Yoga does so by decreasing the activation of the HPA axis – our body’s communication system between the brain and the adrenal gland. Constant activation of the adrenal gland, caused by repeated stress, leads to a buildup of the hormone cortisol in our bodies. While cortisol plays an important role in the management of stress, constantly elevated levels of this hormone can lead to a multitude of stress-related health issues, including digestive problems, low immunity, low energy levels and erratic moods. By managing cortisol levels, yoga also prevents these issues over time.4
Yoga and Heart Health
Yoga has been found to improve blood flow (and thereby help manage blood pressure), and help manage cholesterol. By improving our body’s antioxidant systems, yoga also maintains healthy blood circulation.
Improved blood flow: Baroreceptors are sensors located in the blood vessels that sense our blood pressure, and send signals to the brain to either increase or decrease it. Yogic practices have been shown to improve the sensitivity of baroreceptors, helping our body maintain its blood pressure more effectively.4
Asanas like sarvangasana (shoulderstand) that invert the body into a head-up or head-down tilt were found to be particularly helpful in this regard.4
Reversal of blockages and regulation of triglycerides and cholesterol: Blockages in the heart, elevated cholesterol and high triglycerides are normally diagnosed well into adulthood. However, these problems tend to take root as early as during childhood and adolescence.5, 6
Studies have shown that yoga can potentially reverse blockages and help regulate cholesterol and triglyceride levels, through a mode of action similar to the popular statin class of medicines.4
Improved circulation: In addition to being the main cause of ageing and skin damage, oxidative stress also causes damage to blood vessels, by deactivating nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator – it helps expand blood vessels. In its absence, blood vessels remain narrow, which leads to increased blood pressure. Yoga has been shown to improve our body’s ability to manage oxidative stress, thereby preventing issues with nitric oxide levels, and maintaining healthy circulation.2
Yoga and the Brain
Our brain consumes a disproportionate amount of energy – as high as 20% of the body’s total – and depends on a continuous supply of oxygen and nutrients through our blood to stay healthy. Yoga’s improved circulation effect, mentioned above, provides a direct benefit to the health of the brain.
Practising yoga also provides other cognitive benefits.
Improved brain wave activity: Studies have shown that yoga increases the activity of alpha waves, the type of brain wave associated with calmness.7
Several studies have also shown that yoga and pranayama breathing stimulate beta wave activity. Along with increased cognition, beta waves have also been shown to decrease emotional exhaustion and anxiety.7
Increased grey matter: The brain’s quantity of grey matter is believed to reduce with age – something that’s been linked to a number of neurological disorders. Studies have also shown that the long-term practice of yoga can increase grey matter, and may be an effective way to manage these diseases as well as avoid an age-related decline in cognitive abilities.8, 9
Yoga and Muscles
Yoga incorporates several elements of exercise which improve balance, endurance, flexibility, posture, and muscle strength.
After attending to posture, deep breathing, and chanting, yoga segues into a slow movement sequence to increase blood flow and warm the muscles. This is followed by poses that focus on movements to engage the entire skeletal muscular system.
The continuous tension applied on muscles during poses helps build muscle strength, while joint movements that go through their full range of motion increase joint flexibility. Standing poses promote balance, by strengthening the muscles that stabilise the body and improve propioception (the ability to gauge our body’s position and strength required for movements). Evidence even suggests that yoga equals, if not surpasses, the measurable results seen through moderate exercises (like aerobic and bodyweight exercises), when it comes to our mood, quality of life, and stress management.1, 10
Yoga makes for a great form of exercise, but its evidence-based benefits clearly extend to all aspects of our physical and mental wellbeing.
As its appeal continues to stretch across borders and age groups, this ancient practice is more than likely to maintain its secure position in the path to a healthy lifestyle.