5 Surprising Benefits of Yoga
The ancient discipline can relieve chronic pain, insomnia and anxiety and even help prevent bone loss, researchers say
If you enjoy yoga, you probably already know it helps with flexibility and strength. But according to recent research, yoga may improve your health (and wallet) in ways you may never have expected.
From helping treat insomnia, chronic stress, anxiety disorders and PTSD to preventing osteoporosis and relieving chronic pain, yoga has a wealth of medical benefits, according to Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, a leading authority on yoga and mind-body medicine. Khalsa is an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate neuroscientist in the sleep disorders program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Yoga practitioners reap medical benefits from "the entire constellation of what constitutes yoga: meditation, exercise and breathing techniques,” Khalsa says. “Yoga practice has them all.”
Here's more on the newer uses of yoga that Khalsa and other experts are hopeful about.
Benefit 1: Better sleep
Yoga, among other mind-body treatments, is effective for people who have trouble sleeping, according to a review of 12 studies in the Brazilian Review of Psychiatry. Another small study also found yoga improves sleep in people plagued by insomnia.
Veronica Zador, a yoga therapist who directs the Detroit-area Beaumont hospital system school of yoga therapy, says that the reason many people can’t sleep is that they can’t put their stress to bed.
“When you learn how to manage stress, you often find you can manage your sleep a little better,” says Zador, one of the few yoga therapists in the country who is part of a medical school. “I teach medically-referred patients how to manage how you breath, which can help you learn how to notice stressful thoughts but perhaps react a little differently.” Slow, deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which calms the body down, she explains. (The vagus nerve helps controls the heart beat, muscle movement and breathing, among other things.)
Benefit 2: Lower healthcare costs
Consider the study of 4,452 patients whose doctors recommended they try a mindfulness based program that included yoga and meditation for their stress-related illnesses. Study director James E. Stahl, MD, director of the Institute of Technology Assessment at Massachusetts General Hospital, compared those patients with some 13,000 patients who did not use a relaxation program. The results? Healthcare use in the yoga/mindfulness group dropped 43 percent in the year following the program, according to research published in 2015 in PLOS One.
Experts say this is partly because yoga triggers the body’s relaxation response, which lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (Early studies indicate it may even change how our genes react to stress.) “What is important is that we helped people elicit the relaxation response, which you can think of as opposite the ‘fight or flight’ response,” notes Stahl. This means they used yoga and other mindfulness training to develop resilience to stress in their daily lives, he explained.
“It’s pretty clear that consistently eliciting this relaxation response helps your body heal and feel better,” Stahl says. “And when you are feeling and healing better, you are less likely to use health care resources.”
Related: 9 Safety Tips for Hot Yoga Newbies
Benefit 3: Osteoporosis prevention
It’s well known that women who do weight-bearing exercises can slow the natural bone loss that comes with aging, since those exercises encourage bones to grow denser and stronger. But until recently, whether yoga could have a similar impact was unknown.
Loren Fishman, MD, medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the author of "Yoga for Osteoporosis," used his own money to fund an intriguing study in 800 people. It found that 12 yoga poses performed in 12 minutes of daily yoga not only slowed bone loss, but in some cases helped build bone.
“Three quarters of women with osteoporosis don't take the medication that is prescribed for bone loss,” notes Fishman. “That’s a disaster waiting to happen.” In the study, he found that patients who stuck with a dozen specific yoga poses over a 10-year period also improved bone density in the spine and femur.
Benefit 4: Easing the trauma of cancer treatment
This use of yoga has exploded over the last 10 years, according to Khalsa. “You can’t find a major cancer center that doesn’t have a yoga class,” he says. “It isn’t that yoga cures cancer; it is that modern medicine doesn’t have anything as good for the stress and trauma of a cancer diagnosis and the side effects of treatment: fatigue, ‘chemobrain’ and insomnia.”
A study published in a 2012 issue of BMC Cancer, for example, found that cancer patients or survivors practicing yoga had “large reductions” in distress, anxiety and depression and a moderate boost in their overall quality of life and emotional and social health, along with a moderate decrease in fatigue.
Benefit 5: Relieving chronic pain
A 2013 study suggests that mind-body treatments like yoga may have a protective effect on the nerves involved in pain processing. And research published in Cerebral Cortex in 2014 suggests that that yoga practice improves pain regulation, according to Khosla.
This may result partly by changing our response to pain, according to Zador. She explains that resistance to pain, “which is natural,” often causes a chain reaction that results in more pain. “When we allow certain techniques to reduce our stress and response to pain, we increase functionality,” she says. “This is where yoga can play such a big role with both physical pain and emotional pain.”