11 Benefits of Yoga

Woman doing yoga on a grassy bluff
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You've probably heard by now that yoga is good for your health. Maybe you've even tried it for yourself and discovered that it makes you feel better. A consistent practice offers a plethora of mental and physical health benefits. Some, like improved flexibility, are clearly evident.

Others, including mental clarity and stress reduction, can be more subtle but are just as powerful. When put together, these benefits of yoga contribute to increased feelings of well-being, which helps explain why so many people find yoga so addictive. Here are the top benefits of yoga and some poses to try to help you get the most out of your practice.

Improves Flexibility 

Moving your body and stretching in new ways will help you become more flexible, bringing a greater range of motion to tight areas. Over time, you can expect to gain flexibility in your hamstrings, back, shoulders, and hips.

A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga evaluated the effects of a yoga practice on male college athletes. Over the course of the 10-week study, researchers observed significant gains in flexibility and balance in the group that practiced yoga compared to the group that did not. The study authors concluded that a yoga practice can potentially enhance athletic performance and increase flexibility in athletes.

As you get older, your flexibility usually decreases, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting, which leads to pain and immobility. Yoga can help reverse this process. A study conducted in China in 2015 found that 12 weeks of Hatha yoga improved flexibility in adults with a median age of 50. The practice also increased cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance as well as physical strength.

Poses to Try:

  • Reclined Big Toe Pose (Supta Pandangusthasana) provides a stretch for the hamstrings and calves and can be modified by using a yoga strap to gradually increase flexibility.
  • Eye of the Needle Pose (also called Reclined Pigeon Pose) increases flexibility and range of motion in the hips and provides a gentle stretch for the iliotibial (IT) band and piriformis.
  • Eagle Pose (Garudasana) is a balancing posture that increases flexibility in the shoulders while also working the legs, glutes, and adductors.

Builds Strength

Many yoga poses require you to bear your body weight in new and often challenging ways, including balancing on one leg or supporting yourself with your arms. Holding these poses over the course of several breaths helps build muscular strength and endurance.

As a byproduct of getting stronger, you can expect to see increased muscle tone. Yoga helps shape long, lean muscles in your legs, arms, back, and abdomen.

Poses to Try:

  • Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) strengthens and stretches the hamstrings, calves, and ankles while building upper body strength in the shoulders, hands, and wrists.
  • Tree Pose (Vrksasana) strengthens and stretches the legs and core while testing your balance. The muscles and ligaments in the standing foot are strengthened as well.
  • Chair Pose (Utkatasana) strengthens the lower body and abdominal muscles while providing a stretch for the upper back.
  • Plank Pose is a common exercise used in various styles of fitness that targets the upper body and core while strengthening the hands and wrists and the muscles in the back body (posterior chain).

Improves Balance

Balance training is important at any age. Athletes find it can make them more powerful and those who are active find that it can boost their workouts and level of fitness. Balance training improves posture and functionality to help you move more efficiently through everyday life.

Exercises that strengthen and stabilize the core can promote agility and prevent accidents from stumbling or falling. Improved balance is one of the most important benefits of yoga, especially as you get older. Poses that require you to stand on one leg, and, for more advanced practitioners, turn you upsidedown in an inversion, can be a great way to build the core strength to hold you upright.

Poses to Try

  • Chair Pose (Utkatasana): As you simultaneously reach your seat back and arms forward overhead, core engagement is crucial for stability in this pose.
  • Half-Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana) tests your balance while strengthening your core. This move also strengthens the ankles and thighs and stretches the hamstrings.
  • Warrior Poses (Virabhadrasana I, II, and III; Humble Warrior and Devotional Warrior) test your balance as you step forward and back from one pose to another. Try these moves as part of a Warrior series for a full sequence of yoga postures.

Supports Joint Health

The movements necessary for yoga are low-impact, allowing you to use your joints without injuring them. Yoga also helps strengthen the muscles around the joints, lessening their load. People with arthritis often see a marked improvement in their pain and mobility with regular gentle yoga practice.

Poses to Try:

  • Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) mobilizes the spinal column and promotes hip stability.
  • Mountain Pose (Tadasana) supports the ankles and knees while improving posture.
  • Child's Pose (Balasana) mobilizes the spine and increases the range of motion in the knee and ankle joints
  • Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana) mobilizes the spine and hips and stabilizes the knee joints.

Eases and Prevents Back Pain

Increased flexibility and strength can help prevent the causes of some types of back pain. Many people who have back pain spend a lot of time sitting at a computer or driving a car, which causes tightness throughout the body and spinal compression. Yoga counteracts these conditions, as studies show that the practice can help to ease common symptoms of back pain.

Poses to Try

  • Cat-Cow Poses (Chakravakasana): Both Cat and Cow poses stretch and strengthen the spinal column as it moves through flexion and extension, which can help reduce compression in the lower back region.
  • Seated Spinal Twist (also called Half Lord of the Fishes Pose or Ardha Matsyendrasana) involves spinal rotation to support mobility in the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical spine).
  • Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) increases the mobility of the spine by moving it through spinal extension.

Teaches Better Breathing

Most of us take shallow breaths and don't give much thought to how we breathe. Yoga breathing exercises, called pranayama, focus our attention on breathing and teach us how to take deeper breaths, which benefits the entire body.

Breathwork in yoga can have physical and mental benefits both on and off the mat. Certain types of pranayama such as Skull Shining Breath (Kapalabhati Pranayama) can also help clear the nasal passages (helpful for people with allergies), and Ujjayi Breath can help calm the nervous system.

Poses to Try

  • Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama) is a calming and grounding practice that uses the breath to focus your attention on the present moment and tune into the sensations of your body.
  • Equal Breath (Sama Vritti Pranayama) promotes calm and focus by counting 4–6 breaths in for each inhale followed by 4–6 breaths out for each exhale to hold your attention.
  • Cooling Breath (Sitali Pranayama) uses long, slow, deep breathing to calm and cool the body by sipping in air through a rolled tongue or pursed lips.

Fosters Mental Calmness

Yoga asana practice is intensely physical. Concentrating on what your body is doing has the effect of bringing calmness to your mind. Yoga also introduces you to meditation techniques, such as how to focus on your breath and disengage from your thoughts.

The mental benefits of yoga are well-supported by scientific research. For instance, research published in 2018 in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine found that 12 weeks of Hatha yoga significantly reduced stress, anxiety, and depression in the 52 women who participated in the study.

In addition, a growing body of evidence shows the benefits of a yoga practice for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A 2014 study determined that yoga can help traumatized individuals tolerate any physical and sensory experiences that were associated with fear and helplessness. The researchers determined that yoga helped increase emotional awareness, which was associated with their ability to manage their symptoms.

Poses to Try

  • Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana) stretches the hamstrings, groins, and hips while strengthening the legs. The opening of the chest and shoulders can invite a sense of calm as you test your balance and stability and maintain your focus.
  • Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) provides a deep opener for the hips while the nervous system is soothed as you fold forward.
  • Corpse Pose (Savasana) is known as the "final resting pose" that culminates a yoga practice. It is deeply relaxing and requires no physical effort. It is a pose for absorbing the physical practice while allowing the mind to relax and engage in meditation.

These skills can prove to be very valuable in intense situations off the mat, like childbirth, a bout of insomnia, or when having an anxiety attack.

Reduces Stress

Physical activity is good for relieving stress, and this is particularly true of yoga. Because of the concentration required, your daily troubles, both large and small, can seem to melt away during the time you are on the mat. This provides a much-needed break from your stressors, as well as helping to put your problems into perspective.

The emphasis yoga places on being in the present moment can also help as you learn not to dwell on past events or anticipate the future. You will leave a yoga class feeling less stressed than when you started since yoga reduces cortisol levels.

Poses to Try

  • Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) places the head below the heart to soothe the nervous system. You'll also feel an intense stretch in your hamstrings and calves. It's a good idea to bend your knees to avoid rounding your spine so you can get the most out of the forward fold.
  • Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana) is a relaxing meditation pose that can be practiced with a blanket under the knees and shins for additional support. You can also sit on a yoga block placed between your ankles to avoid straining your knees.
  • Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) is a calming restorative pose that can be supported with additional props such as a folded yoga blanket placed under your back. You can stay in a shape like this for a longer duration compared to other yoga poses to reap the stress-busting benefits.

Increases Self-Confidence

Doing yoga improves your mind-body connection, giving you a better awareness of your own body. During yoga, you learn to make small, subtle movements to improve your alignment, putting you in better touch with your physical body. You also learn to accept your body as it is without judgment. Over time, this leads to feeling more comfortable in your own body, boosting your self-confidence.

Poses to Try

  • Downward Dog Split (Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana) strengthens the arms and core and increases focus.
  • Side Plank (Vasisthasana) strengthens the arms, back, and core muscles. There are several different variations to try as you build strength and confidence to hold yourself in this powerful pose.
  • Lizard Pose (Utthan Pristhasana) stretches the hips, groins, and hamstrings while improving mental focus.
  • Crow Pose (Bakasana) is an arm balance that targets the abdominals and back muscles and strengthens the arms and wrists. Strength and focus are required to confidently perform the pose without falling.

Boosts Heart Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and research shows that yoga can potentially help to prevent it.

Yoga is good for your heart because it increases circulation and blood flow. For instance, a 2015 study found that a year of yoga improved cardiovascular risk factors like obesity and high blood pressure among older adults with metabolic syndrome. The study authors concluded that yoga can be a complementary treatment to managing this condition.

Poses to Try

  • Cobbler’s Pose (Baddha Konasana) provides a gentle stretch for the hips and groin muscles and encourages deep breathing.
  • Garland Pose (also known as a Squat or Malasana) opens the hips to promote circulation and stretches the quadriceps while also strengthening the feet and ankles.
  • Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvokanasana) is a chest-opening pose that targets the legs, hips, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana) is a playful hip-opening posture that stretches the hips, inner thighs, and groins, and encourages deep breathing and relaxation to promote blood flow.

Improves Sleep

Many people who practice yoga report that it helps them to sleep better and a large body of scientific evidence supports this claim. In fact, a review of 49 studies involving more than 4,500 participants determined that mind-body practices like meditation or yoga can be beneficial to those with insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Additionally, a 2020 review of 19 studies involving more than 1,800 women determined that those who practiced yoga had fewer sleep disturbances than those who did not. The researchers noted that the more yoga the subjects practiced, the more benefits they experienced.

Poses to Try

  • Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana) can promote relaxation, soothe the nervous system, and quiet the mind.
  • Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) is a great pose to do just before bed for several minutes of deep belly breathing.
  • Reclined Goddess Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana) is a hip-opener that promotes deep relaxation by supporting yourself with additional props such as a bolster for additional comfort.
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