Your mom’s doing it. Your neighbor is raving about finally nailing upward bow pose. Your kids are asking for yoga mats. Scan through Facebook profiles, dating apps—basically any sort of personal bio online—and you’ll quickly see that yoga is one of the most popular interests among both men and women. Twenty years ago, most had never even uttered the words “downward-facing dog” or “savasana”—let alone knew what it meant. But now, they’re a part of many people’s everyday vocab.
There are a lot of reasons Westerners have become culturally obsessed with this Eastern tradition. The benefits have been tried and tested, through tradition that dates back over 5,000 years as well as scientific research in more recent times.
History of yoga
Yoga is rooted in ancient Shamanism—artifacts from as far back as 3000 B.C. show images of yogic postures. Since then it was believed to have been passed on through generations of oral tradition. It was the Indian sage Patanjali who first documented all of the principles of yoga in the Yoga Sutra, a now 2,000-year-old philosophical book. In the early days, yoga was not centered around postures (also known as asanas) and fitness, but instead spirituality and other practices like pranayama (breath work) and nada (sound).
Yogis started to bring yoga to the U.S. from India in the late 19th century. But it started to transform decades later, in the 1920s, when asanas started becoming a more prominent aspect of the practice. Now, the yoga that most Americans know and love has to do mostly with posing, moving, twisting, and stretching, although pranayama and meditation both maintain a strong foothold in many modern yoga classes. All of these elements come together to provide so many mind-body benefits.
22 ways yoga benefits the body and mind
1. It can totally inspire you to live a healthy lifestyle
Perhaps yoga’s greatest benefit is that adopting it as a habit or hobby can influence your overall approach to health and wellness—in a good way. There’s no doubt that doing yoga regularly makes you feel good. It’s low-impact exercise that doesn’t focuses not just on the body, but also on mental sharpness and emotional health. Getting into it is an amazing way to practice self-care.
2. Flexibility and balance get a boost
Gaining flexibility and practicing balance is built into a lot of yoga poses—just try holding eagle pose or warrior III for at least a minute, and you’ll see how difficult it is. But beyond the physical, working on flexibility and balance can potentially influence the way you handle life on a personal level, too. When your body is able to handle challenges, it can open up your mind to do the same.
3. You gain muscle strength and tone
Yoga can be demanding enough to work many of your main muscles:
A regular practice may be all you need to get stronger arms, a tighter butt, a more muscular midsection, and more.
4. It can melt away tension
The techniques used to lengthen, stretch, and relax muscles while engaging the breath can help ease tension in the muscles. Yoga also has a tendency to dissolve stress by helping to regulate the breath and relax the body while supplying it with fresh blood and oxygen, which all facilitate the release.
5. It helps relieve different types of pain
Because it’s so relaxing, yoga has shown an ability to ease back pain and may even boost pain tolerance. Got a headache or migraine? According to yoga teacher Jennifer Partridge, yoga can fix that, too. Watch this video to learn eight asanas that can help:
6. Your spine will thank you
Thanks to staring at computers, cell phones, and a general bad habit of slouching, 80 percent of all people end up having spinal issues. One study of women over 50 showed that yoga could increase spinal flexibility. Backbends, forward bends, and twists can help strengthen the spine and lead to better posture as well. And according to Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, deep belly breathing can also improve posture.
7. It promotes healthy joints and bones
Weight-bearing exercise is the best for maintaining strong and healthy bones. Since many asanas like boat pose and downward-facing dog require you to lift your own weight, yoga has been touted as a possible therapy for osteoporosis. It also may improve joint health by engaging the body’s full range of motion. And since it’s low-impact, it’s easier on the joints and muscles than some other workouts like running and weight-lifting.
8. It improves circulation
Many asanas, including twists, can improve circulation, increase blood flow, and bring oxygen to the blood and cells. Inverted poses like the headstand can also boost circulation by bringing blood rushing to the heart (and just might bring on loving feelings, for yourself or a lucky S.O.)
“If you can remain in an inverted posture for just 3 to 5 minutes, the blood will not only drain quickly to the heart, but tissue fluids will flow more efficiently into the veins and lymph channels of the lower extremities and of the abdominal and pelvic organs, facilitating a healthier exchange of nutrients and wastes between cells and capillaries.” —David Coulter, Ph.D, anatomy professor, University of Minnesota
9. It’s another heart-healthy workout
While yoga isn’t exactly an aerobic exercise, as part of a regular workout regimen, yoga flow can effectively boost heart rate and potentially reduce the risk of heart attack. Yoga can also lower the resting heart rate and reduce oxygen consumption, which is great for improving endurance, and it’s even been shown to reduce blood pressure.
10. It can lower blood sugar levels
Yoga has shown an ability to lower blood glucose in patients with type 2 diabetes.
"A few asanas help balance the functioning of the endocrine system. [They] massage and tone the abdominal organs like [the] pancreas and liver, stimulate the nervous and circulatory system which in turn helps in controlling diabetes." —Sabir Shaikh, yoga practitioner
11. You can get an immunity boost
The act of contracting and stretching muscles and moving in and out of poses stimulates internal organs. That, along with relaxation that comes through breath work, can help to detox the lymphatic system and keep it strong for fighting infection.
12. You get the benefits of lower cortisol levels
Chronically high cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” is linked to depression—and it’s also known to contribute to belly fat. Reducing cortisol, which yoga can do, can promote emotional well-being as well as healthy body mass.
13. It keeps checks and balances on your nervous system
Here’s a crash course on how the nervous system works: In a “crisis,” the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) initiates a stress response, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) promotes recovery following that stress. Restorative yoga practices such as a slow flow, pranayama, and meditation can activate the PNS and promote deep relaxation, lowering heart rate, regulating blood flow, and keeping the nervous system balanced.
14. It’s good for the lungs
In one 2015 study, a yoga practice consisting of asana, pranayama, and dietary improvements helped lung function in coronary artery disease (CAD) patients. (CAD is known to impair lung function.)
15. Digestion gets a boost
Deep breathing, stretches, and twists that activate abdominal organs can aid digestion. Many people who’ve done cat-cow know that it can sometimes bring on the urge to go.
16. You learn how to get razor-sharp focus
One of the tenets of yoga is focusing on the present moment. So it’s no surprise that in a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a 20-minute yoga practice improved subjects’ speed and accuracy on memory tests. According to the study lead, Neha Gothe:
"It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold, and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout."
17. It helps you sleep like a baby
Restorative yoga can inspire more restful sleep by decreasing stress and muscle tension and promoting deep relaxation. Some forms of yoga, such as nidra, are particularly focused on deep sleep. Seriously, try it—you just might emerge feeling like you took a good, long nap.
20. You build inner strength, too
Yoga can build strength from the inside out. We’re talking about discipline, willpower, emotional intelligence, and more. Try a sun salutation, and you’ll feel the energy and vitality. Tradition holds that the heat, or tapas, that gets generated during yoga can affect other aspects of your life, helping you to overcome stagnation. You might be inspired to make positive changes like eating healthier or exercising more.
21. Awareness becomes second nature
Another byproduct of yoga is a heightened sense of awareness. This has a huge influence on how you handle strong emotions like anger. Instead of freaking out every time you get upset, you’re able to take a step back from the drama and stay calmer during times of stress. Thoughtfulness guides more of your feelings and actions, which can feel really empowering.
22. You’re overcome with happiness
With awareness comes greater compassion, which leads to healthier relationships, peace of mind, and higher self-esteem—and all these things can contribute to feeling jump-for-joy, ridiculously happy. But you won’t really know until you try it!
Types of yoga
So, aside from the benefits, here are a few more reasons yoga is so easy to get into:
- It’s good for beginners. However, we recommend starting with an experienced instructor so you learn proper form and avoid injury.
- It can cost very little, and, once you’ve got the basics down, you can even practice for free at home with online videos.
- There is no equipment required (although it is good to invest in a yoga mat for comfort).
- You can do it anywhere—deep in the woods, at the beach, in a hotel room, or in the comfort of your own home.
- You can do it with friends, or alone.
- Whether you’re a kid, a senior, pregnant, or anyone in between, you can find a yoga practice that works for you.
Here are some of the basic types of yoga.
This is one of the most general, referring to any yoga practice that involves poses, or asanas. Usually it’s gentle and slower-paced, combining stretching with basic pranayama, and sometimes a closing meditation. It’s really great for relaxation. Iyengar yoga, a practice named after the revered yoga teacher who founded it, is a form of hatha that emphasizes achieving perfect physical alignment of the body during poses, through disciplined practice.
Vinyasa, also known as vinyasa flow, involves coordinating movement with the breath to flow between poses. This can be more physically demanding, such as ashtanga (a type of vinyasa), which is meant to produce heat in the body in order to promote detoxification. Ashtanga and “power” yoga—an ultra-modern, fitness-based practice that some purists won’t acknowledge is real yoga, but is usually considered a type of vinyasa—are ideal for strengthening the core and building muscle strength.
Bikram yoga is not for the faint of heart. Founded and branded by teacher, Bikram Choudhury, it involves 26 postures done in a heated room at least 105°F that the founder calls “torture chambers.” Eek! Proponents believe the challenge is worth it, though. The heat purportedly makes joints and muscles more supple and able to go deep into the poses, which are meant to engage every part of the body, ensuring optimal functioning of internal organs, veins, ligaments, and muscles. And for some people, getting hot and sweaty equates to a killer workout.
This is a beautiful practice that blends spirituality and physical exercise. With movement, asanas, meditation, and pranayama combined with chanting of mantras, kundalini is meant to build strength and energy while increasing consciousness. Some of the more challenging postures are even great for toning muscles.
There’s more—explore other types of yoga here.
Now how do you start a yoga routine? Luckily, it’s so popular these days that you’re likely to find studios or gyms offering classes just about everywhere around the country—start searching here. You can find videos online, too. Seems like the best time ever to jump on the yoga bandwagon and take advantage of all the amazing benefits.