Fun Science · Need to Know Science

The Health Benefits of Yoga

It’s International Yoga Day today!

Your Facebook news feed may well be full of images of back bends and forward folds but the most you can do is roll your eyes.

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Before you write it off as hippy bull****,  I want you to take a look at some of the health benefits of yoga. I’ll try to give you a scientific overview of yoga and why it is so popular. I practice yoga myself but I shall try to be impartial (though trying and succeeding are very different things).

(Before we go any further, this is a little lengthy. To get the highlights, read the highlighted bits. See what I did there?)

  • Let’s start simple. Ross et al (2013) went directly to the source, and asked yogis what they thought of yoga. 1045 completed surveys were returned to the researchers, and they discovered some pretty positive stuff. Levels of obesity, smoking and fruit and veg consumption was much more favourable compared to the general population. Furthermore, despite a massive 60% of the sample reporting at least one chronic health condition, over 85% of the sample claimed to have very good or excellent health. In terms of mental health, 43.8% were said to be ‘flourishing’ and most participants agreed that yoga improved energy levels, happiness, social relationships, sleep and even body weight. Whether yoga is a cause or effect of positive mood and lifestyle choices cannot be confirmed with this study, but thankfully other researchers have conducted more comprehensive and scientifically sound research.
  • We’ll move on to the lazy online researcher’s favourite type of article; a literature review. Ross and Thomas (2010) reviewed a total of 81 studies which assessed the health benefits of yoga either as a stand alone intervention, a waiting-list control group (i.e. the other guys’ll get their chance at an asana later) or in comparison to exercise (a broad term, but generally referring to aerobic/cardiovascular exercise). They found that yoga interventions were equal to or superior to exercise in nearly every outcome measured, including balance, fatigue levels, flexibility, pain, strength and stress. They even found that yoga could reduce psychotic and menopausal symptoms. In fact, the only measure in which exercise had a more favourable outcome was physical fitness.frog-1109787_960_720
  • The mental health angle is an interesting one which many people don’t tend to consider when choosing exercise. Perhaps this randomised controlled trial (yay!) by Khalsa et al (2012) might encourage you to consider how yoga could help your psychological fitness. The researchers assessed the impact on teenagers of an 11 week programme of either yoga or regular physical education on a number of mental health measures. The results showed that measures of anger control and fatigue were significantly improved in the yoga group compared to the exercise group. Furthermore, whilst most outcome measures appeared to worsen for the control group, that decline was less severe or non-existent for the yoga group. In fact, some measures were even improved, though to a statistically insignificant level. These included anxiety, depression, attention and attitude towards school.
  • Continuing along the line of mental health (I am a psychologist after all), Lin et al (2011) conducted a meta-analysis (a more robust version of a literature review) and found that yoga could significantly improve anxiety, depression, stress and distress in cancer patients. Unfortunately the number and quality of studies weren’t what the researchers had hoped for, and so their findings need to be read with caution.
  • Although improving mental health is obviously a great benefit of any exercise, we’re here to discuss physical health. As such lets take a look at another study by Hagins, Moore and Rundle (2007) who assessed 3 outcomes: 1) whether yoga meets the recommendations for physical exercise, 2) the reliability of metabolic costs of yoga across session and 3) a direct metabolic comparison between yoga and treadmill walking. The results showed that yoga only represents a ‘low level of physical activity‘ and alone does not meet the requirements for maintaining physical and cardiovascular health. One’s metabolic rate following yoga compared to treadmill walking is pretty much the same. So on it’s own yoga won’t help you to run a marathon – if you combine it with other aerobic exercise, however, you may be onto a winner. Hagins et al also state that doing 10 minutes of a Sun Salutation flow is good enough to get the cardiovascular juices flowing in people who are relatively sedentary. If you’ve a desk-job, this may be one for you.
  • So we’ve established that yoga is not great for physical fitness, but by no means does that imply isn’t beneficial for cardiac health. Jayasinghe (2004) conducted a review and discovered that yoga is an effective tool for preventing and improving cardiovascular disease symptoms. Poses which place the head lower than the body raja_sarvangasanasuch as Sarvangasana (a shoulder stand) have been shown to both prevent and improve hypertension-associated left ventricular hypertrophy. This is where high blood pressure causes a thickening to the wall of the bottom left heart chamber, where blood is pumped to the rest of the body. Yoga can also reduce excessive glucose levels (hyperglycaemia) in people with Type 2 Diabetes, and can improve recovery following a heart attack.

This is a very brief overview of just a few research studies. If you want to learn more, all you need to do is head to google scholar and type in ‘health benefits of yoga’. I recommend you do, it’s pretty interesting reading!

If this isn’t enough to sway you to hop on the mat, I have just a couple more things to say. Firstly, many people are put off by yoga because they feel they aren’t flexible enough. Let me put an end to this ridiculousness right now. You must start viewing flexibility less as a necessity to begin yoga, and more like a reward card for long-term yogi membership

  • 6 months – you get to touch your toes in a forward fold every time!
  • Year 1 – heels always down in downward facing dog!
  • Year 2 – head on the ground in wide-legged forward fold!

On and on and on until you can tie yourself in knots 🙂

Secondly, you don’t need any specialist equipment. You don’t even need a local class to go to. Find some comfy clothes, get on YouTube and get stretching. I recommend Yoga With Adriene and Do You Yoga to start with. Props can be useful to encourage your body into positions it is, shall we say, reluctant to achieve, but pretty much all props can be replaced with a towel and a book.

Finally, it’s not all about meditation, humming and connecting with mother nature. I once had a teacher who told me the brain was a muscle that needed to be stretched, and that I should feel for the auras of my fellow classmates. Let’s just say I no longer go to that class.

It may take you a couple of attempts to find a style and a teacher who you click with, but once you do you’ll never look back.

Let me know what you think about trying yoga, and if you’ve already given it a go, what was your experience like? The more honest and open we can be about these things, the better for everyone so don’t hold back.

I hope you give it a go.

Namaste.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist)

 

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