6 proven health benefits of yoga

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

The booming popularity of yoga is certainly more than just a trend, or a form of exercise. Its evident health benefits are astonishing.


The origins of yoga trace back to ancient India, where it was seen as a spiritual and meditative practice. In the Western world nowadays, it is seen as a form of exercise.


Currently, there's almost a posh feeling attached to it. People spend hundreds of dollars a month to go to the yoga studio and all the yoga wear and yoga mats are thriving into a billion dollar industry.


However, the immense popularity of yoga practice also makes it highly accessible in other ways. In fact, you don't need to spend all that money just to join a yoga studio (unless you really don't mind).


There's a high chance that your local gym has yoga as a group training session, or if not, you can find all kinds of guided yoga practices on YouTube. All you need is a a yoga mat.


The greatest part of yoga on YouTube, besides being free of course, is that it doesn't even require you to leave the house and you can choose how long you'd like the session to be and what kind of yoga you feel like doing. There are so many to choose from!


I find yoga to be a great way to practice mindfulness. It also just happens to have amazing health benefits.


Below is a list of scientifically-proven benefits of yoga:


1. It increases gray matter in your brain


Our brain is made up of gray and white matter. The gray matter contains nerve cell bodies and the white matter has mainly other parts of nerve cells. Gray matter tends to decrease with age, however this can be reversed.


Several studies have found that yoga increases the gray matter in several regions of the brain, thereby improving a number of cognitive functions.


One such area is the prefrontal cortex. Larger volume of gray matter in this region means that your ability to focus your attention improves. You also become better at remembering things, as well as become better at performing every day tasks (1).


Another area of the brain, called cerebellum, also increases in gray matter with yoga practice (1). This makes us better at predicting the consequences of our planned actions.


Gray matter also increases in the limbic system, responsible for emotions and memory. In that way, you can become better at controlling and understanding your emotions as well at storing your memories more effectively (1).


2. It reduces stress


Our autonomic nervous system can be divided into two types: sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When we feel stress, our sympathetic nervous system becomes active and makes our body produce a hormone called adrenaline.


Adrenaline helps our bodies to prepare and flee from a dangerous situation or fight the enemy.


We feel our heart rate increase, our breathing becomes more frequent, our blood vessels constrict to deliver oxygen to our muscles and our pupils dilate. We may even start to sweat and feel discomfort in our stomach.


While it all was beneficial back when we lived as hunter-gatherers, nowadays we barely ever need these effects of stress.


Our "enemies" nowadays are often bosses who want work delivered and our "dangerous situations" are mainly us rushing to be in time for meetings, or presenting in front of large groups of people.


It would clearly be weird if we started to fight or flight from these situations. Yet our bodies still react to modern threats more or less as if we were still living in the stone age.


In the long term, too much stress can damage our body and cause many physiological and psychological problems. In high amounts, it's even linked to cancer, burn-out, depression and many other conditions.


With yoga practice, the physiological arousal we feel due to stress decreases. Yoga tends to slow down the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and calm our breathing.

Several studies have found that yogis are less likely to react to stress and, in that way, get its negative long-term effects (2). The hormone highly associated with stress, cortisol, has been shown to decrease in people who practice yoga (3).


As you practice yoga, you are also likely to become more compassionate towards yourself and develop generally more positive view towards life and yourself (3).


If you'd like to learn more about mindfulness and stress, be sure to check out my earlier blog post about stress and stress reduction techniques. Since yoga is a way to practice mindfulness, it acts in a very similar manner to reduce stress.


3. It makes you happier


Studies have recently been investigating yoga's effects on depression. Some depression can be caused by a certain type of substance that sends a signal from one nerve cell to the other, not being as active as it should be.


The substances are called GABA neurotransmitters. One way to increase them and therefore reduce or treat depression is by taking medicine that increases the number of GABA neurotransmitters.


However, a recent study also found that practicing yoga can have a similar effect as taking the antidepressant medicine. The study reported a 27% increase in GABA levels after just one session of yoga (4).

The development of an inexpensive, widely available intervention such as yoga that has no side effects but is effective in alleviating the symptoms of disorders associated with low GABA levels has clear public health advantage.

- Perry Renshaw, MD, PhD, director of the Brain Imaging Center at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital (4).


While this study shows great effects of yoga on reducing depression, it is always best to first speak with a professional regarding mental health concerns.


What I would like to also highlight is that yoga can increase the overall happiness even if you aren't depressed. I certainly feel much calmer and happier after a yoga session, and I really encourage you to try this as well. It's a great feeling, that reminds me of the runner's high.


4. It makes you successful in your professional and personal life


Most of us have heard about intelligence quotient (IQ) and the effect of having a high IQ, making us successful in our careers and life in general. What the research has been finding recently is that there's another measurement that may be better at determining your success.


That measurement is called emotional intelligence quotient (EQ).

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to monitor your own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate between them, and to use this information to guide your thinking and action.

- Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (5).


EQ is also made up of five components (6):

  1. Self-awareness - being able to understand our own emotions, moods and drives and understand their possible effects on others.

  2. Self-regulation - Being able to think before acting, and to control impulses.

  3. Motivation - Being persistent in reaching our goals and having passion for what we do that goes beyond money and social status.

  4. Empathy - Being able to understand other people's emotions and feelings of another person.

  5. Social skill - Being good at managing relationships and building networks.

A recent study looked into managers of successful companies and found that their performance was better when they had higher EQ. Higher EQ was also highly connected with yoga practice (7).


The study found true benefits of yoga in making the EQ higher, which can have great effects on your success in professional life.


Higher EQ means overall better relationships with all people in your surroundings.


It means that your self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills become higher with yoga practice.


Therefore, yoga can truly improve your friendships, romantic relationships and professional relationships.


6. It extends your youth


Our DNA is packed into structures called chromosomes. They are found inside every cell in our body. When the cells divide, the chromosomes are also duplicated. At the end of each chromosome there are structures that protect our DNA when the cell divides, called telomeres.


Our cells divide all the time and each division results in shorter telomeres. As they become too short, our cells can no longer divide and they die. This is the natural process of ageing.


A recent study investigated the substances found in our body that are known to contribute to ageing - biomarkers of ageing - and the effects of yoga on those biomarkers.


It showed that yoga could slightly increase the length of telomeres, as well as slow down the process of telomeres becoming shorter. This all contributes to being able to stay young longer than we otherwise would (8).


Yoga also showed effects on a number of other biomarkers associated with ageing. The researchers concluded that yoga practice has the potential to delay ageing (8).


Interestingly, the study showed that yoga also has the potential to decrease the risk of getting diseases that are cause by lifestyle and related to ageing (8). They are diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, some forms of cancer, and others.


In that way, your youth, and possibly life, does not only become longer, but you also gain more quality to it by having lower risk of getting age- and lifestyle-related diseases.

Aside from also having numerous physiological benefits, yoga is a great way to improve your overall mental and physical wellbeing. It is proven that yoga can both extend our lives as well as the quality of our lives.


Who wouldn't want to have a sharp brain, be better at managing stress, be happy and successful in professional and personal life as well as extend our youth?


Yoga can help you to achieve all that!


I'm interested to know, whether you do yoga and how do you feel that it benefits you. Please leave a comment and tell me all about it :)

Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog.


I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog. Therefore you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on info@thegreatermindfulness.com


Cheers!


Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness

Sources

1. Froeliger, B., Garland, E. L., & McClernon, F. J. (2012). Yoga meditation practitioners exhibit greater gray matter volume and fewer reported cognitive failures: results of a preliminary voxel-based morphometric analysis. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2012, 821307. doi:10.1155/2012/821307

2. Harvard Mental Health Letter. (2009). Yoga for anxiety and depression. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression

3. Kristen E. Riley & Crystal L. Park (2015) How does yoga reduce stress? A systematic review of mechanisms of change and guide to future inquiry, Health Psychology Review, 9:3, 379-396, DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2014.981778

4.Boston University. (2007, May 22). Yoga May Elevate Brain GABA Levels, Suggesting Possible Treatment For Depression. ScienceDaily.

5. Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence: Imagination, cognition and personality. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 1989-90.

6. Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard business review, 78(2), 4-17.

7. Adhia, H., Nagendra, H. ., & Mahadevan, B. (2010). Impact of Adoption of Yoga Way of Life on the Emotional Intelligence of Managers. IIMB Management Review, 22(1-2), 3–3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iimb.2010.03.003

8. Tolahunase, M., Sagar, R., & Dada, R. (2017). Impact of Yoga and Meditation on Cellular Aging in Apparently Healthy Individuals: A Prospective, Open-Label Single-Arm Exploratory Study. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017, 7928981. doi:10.1155/2017/7928981

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