Yoga has been a part of Indian culture for millenia and today, is a worldwide phenomenon, with modern science quantifying its benefits. The clinical study findings are, as expected, incredibly positive: they have shown that consistently practicing yoga can improve both our mental and physical health, with improved flexibility, reduced stress, and mental clarity being just some examples from an endless list of yoga’s health benefits.
Yoga's three key components, physical postures (asanas), regulated breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana), are each intuitively beneficial in their own way but their synergy in a yoga practice is believed to be exceptionally helpful.
This yoga day, let’s look at some of the benefits of yoga that are supported by science, along with a few poses (or asanas) that can help you get the most out of your practice.
1. Reduces stress
Yoga’s ability to ease stress and promote relaxation comes from its effect on cortisol, our primary stress hormone.
Cortisol plays an important role in the management of stress. However, constantly elevated levels of this hormone can lead to a multitude of stress-related health issues, including digestive problems [1, 2], low immunity , low energy levels , and erratic moods [5, 6]. Multiple studies have shown that practicing yoga decreases the secretion of cortisol, preventing these stress-related issues over time [7, 8, 9].
Shavasana, also known as Corpse Pose, is known to help lower stress by reducing muscle tension, improving blood circulation, and relieving fatigue to an extent .
2. Strengthens the immune system
Studies have shown that yoga may reduce the decline in immunity associated with psychological stress [11, 12, 13]. Our immune response is immensely affected by constant stress. These effects can range from suppressing our immune function to increasing the risk of upper respiratory tract infections and slowing down wound healing. Indulging in regular yoga, especially a combination of the poses, breathing and meditation can support our immune system [14, 15].
A great example of a pose that could help improve immune function is Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose) - it activates the thymus gland, an organ that facilitates the development of a type of white blood cells (called T-cells)  (you can learn about the role of T-cells in our immune system right here).
3. Improves heart health
The practice of yoga has shown to improve the sensitivity of some specific receptors that help our body maintain its blood pressure . It is said that yoga, especially when combined with a healthy lifestyle and diet, may help decrease risk factors for heart diseases like high blood pressure and cholesterol .
The heart-protective effects of yoga are also believed to stem from its long-term effects of lowering our stress levels. Very interesting emerging evidence suggests that a yoga routine that comprises all three aspects of poses, breathing and meditation may even reverse the early stage of atherosclerosis (the hardening and narrowing of our arteries) [19, 20, 21]. That’s basically making your heart younger!
Asanas like Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), which invert the body into a head-up or head-down tilt, were found to be particularly helpful in improving heart health .
4. Increases muscle strength and flexibility
Yoga incorporates several elements of exercise that help improve our balance, endurance, flexibility, posture, and strength .
Surya namaskar or Sun Salutation is especially effective when it comes to strengthening our muscles because performing this requires sustained contractions of many muscle groups. Our entire body experiences pressure and stretches alternately - all of which can be compared to resistance training .
Another amazing benefit of yoga is that it helps strengthen the muscles around our joints, which reduces the overall load on the joints. This is especially helpful for people with arthritis [25, 26, 27]. Following a regular, gentle yoga practice that includes breathing exercises, relaxing techniques, meditation and light postures (such as Paschimottasana or ‘Seated Forward Bend’ pose and Bhunamanasana or ‘Greeting the Earth’ pose) is known to help improve our mobility and arthritis-related pain .
5. Improves sleep quality
Inadequate sleep has become a growing cause of concern in the modern lifestyle. Studies have shown that incorporating yoga into our daily routine can improve our sleep quality - where we fall asleep faster, for a longer duration, and wake up feeling well-rested. A probable reason for this could be that our levels of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness) increase after a yoga session [29, 30, 31, 32].
Studies suggest that yoga poses like Supta Badha Konasana (Reclined Butterfly), Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall), Ushterasan (Camel Pose) and Shavasana (Corpse Pose) promote better sleep [30, 33, 34]. Doing these before bedtime would be an added plus, as it would encourage our body to relax and sleep.
6. Provides relief from migraine headaches
Migraine headaches can be extremely uncomfortable, especially because our nervous system is said to be intricately involved in their cause as well as the pain they cause . However, even though the condition has existed for a while, the exact cause of the headache is still unclear.
Several studies associate migraine headaches with a decline in the activity of the vagus nerve - a significant part of our nervous system that regulates our perception of pain and many other important functions [36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41]. It is also believed to modulate the pain centre in the brain. Practicing yoga is known to stimulate the vagus nerve, which may help reduce headaches caused by migraines [42, 43, 44, 45].
Other triggers of migraine include a stressed state of mind and stiff muscles. Practicing yoga helps our body suppress the stress response system and experience a state of calm . It also reduces tension around areas of pain by relaxing stiff muscles. Yoga, if done right, touches all the points that could possibly cause headaches.
Kriya-Jalaneti (nasal water cleansing) followed by Kapalbhati (forced exhalations) go a long way in stimulating and toning the vagus nerve .
7. Improves brain health
It is believed that the grey matter of our brain reduces with age. This grey matter is involved in our decision-making, memory, intelligence and ability to process information .
Yoga practice which includes a combination of breathing techniques, postures and meditation can have a positive effect on our overall brain health [51, 52, 53]. Meditation, on its own, is shown to be especially beneficial for our grey matter [54, 55, 56].
8. Improves breathing
The breathing exercises or pranayama have a plethora of benefits - including improving our breathing itself.
Understanding the phenomenon of breathing is very important. Although it is fundamentally automated, there are ways to do it right.
Our ‘vital capacity’ is the measure of the maximum amount of air that can be expelled from our lungs at a time - a parameter used to indicate lung health. Studies have shown that individuals who practiced pranayama regularly observed an increase in their vital capacity. Another interesting study found that practicing yogic breathing may help improve the symptoms and lung function of individuals with mild-to-moderate asthma [57, 58].
Some important breathing techniques that can be helpful in this case are Dirga Pranayama (three-part breath), Sama Vritti Pranayama (equal breath), and Sitali Pranayama (cooling breath).
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.
We hope this information helped you understand the importance and benefits of yoga. If you have any queries, please share them with us in the comments section below. We’d love to help you in any way we can!