From honing flexible muscles to building mental fortitude, the benefits of yoga encompass both mind and body. The best bit? You don't have to practice for hours on end to achieve them. In fact, the benefits of yoga are so potent, even a simple 15-minute daily routine is enough to totally transform your health.
Derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means 'to join', yoga is a combination of mental, physical and spiritual practices that, when woven together, deliver a potent dose of wellbeing. Not convinced yet? Here are 21 evidence-based benefits of yoga that'll make your time on the mat worthwhile:
- Improve flexibility and mobility
Improved flexibility is one of the most frequently-touted benefits of yoga, and for good reason. By spending just a few minutes each day in poses like Warrior and Downward Facing Dog, you can expect to see a difference in your mobility pretty soon, regardless of whether you're pretty bendy or stiff as a board.
You don't have to be super flexible to start your practice – the beauty of yoga is that it can be adjusted and progressed across all ability levels. When male college athletes took part in biweekly yoga sessions for 10 weeks, they experienced 'significant gains' in flexibility and balance compared to a control group who didn't practice at all, US researchers found.
- Build strength
Lifting heavy weights isn't the only way to build muscle – it's entirely possible to boost your strength with a daily yoga practice. In a study by The Chinese University of Hong Kong, men and women who participated in a 12-week Hatha yoga course demonstrated 'significant improvements' in muscular strength compared to the control group.
- Correct posture
Daily yoga helps improve your posture, making you walk taller and sit up straighter at your desk. In a study of 80 women published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, a programme of intense, short-term yoga posture sessions contributed more to improving spine mobility – especially bending – than any other conventional exercise programme.
- Support heart health
It's one of the lesser-known benefits of yoga, but yoga is heart-healthy. Studies show that making time for the mat can reduce your cholesterol levels and even slow the progression of heart disease when combined with dietary changes and stress management. It also improves your circulation – people over 40 years who'd practiced yoga for five years had lower blood pressure and pulse rate than those who didn't, one study found.
- Weight loss
If weight loss is your goal, you don't have to practice intense Hot Yoga every day to see results. After all, when it comes to shedding excess fat, exercise is just a small piece of the puzzle. In a study by the University of California, restorative yoga – practiced at a very slow pace with long holds and lots of deep breathing – helped overweight women lose belly fat.
A review published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine concluded that yoga can boost weight loss by several mechanisms, including burning calories, reducing stress levels, enhancing other forms of exercise, and helping you feel more connected to your body – which enhances awareness of satiety, preventing over-eating.
- Cultivate self-awareness
Since yoga strengthens your mind-body connection, it helps you manage unpleasant emotions rather than reaching for external distractions to suppress those feelings. In a small study of 20 people who had lost weight through yoga by the National Institutes of Health Clinical Centre in the US, 90 per cent reported an increase in mindful eating, positive changes in food choices, and decreased emotional eating.
- Increase your energy
From a spiritual perspective, a daily yoga practice is said to awaken the main energy centres (called chakras) in your body. Great poses for extra energy are those that extend the spine, such as the tree pose, allowing energy to circulate throughout the whole body, and poses that open the chest, like the cobra pose, encouraging the intake of more breath.
Scientific research suggests that yoga can, indeed, invigorate your mind. Practicing 25-minute sessions of Hatha yoga can improve your energy levels 'significantly', according to research by the University of Waterloo. This thought to be due to the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts.
- Reduce stress
Yoga is a bona-fide stress buster, so there's good reason to squeeze in a lunchtime session. Research has shown that people who practice yoga regularly have low levels of cortisol, one of the key stress hormones. Not only does yoga improve internal bodily markers of stress, but it also improves your subjective wellbeing, which means you actually feel better, too. This is according to research published in Frontiers, which assessed participants on a three-month yoga and meditation retreat.
- Sleep better
Another of the more everyday benefits of yoga involves a better night's kip. In a study by the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation, participants who practiced yoga fell asleep quicker, slept for longer and felt more well-rested compared to people who didn't. The next time you're struggling to drift off, try practicing relaxing postures such as forward fold (uttanasana), or lying on your back with your feet up the wall.
- Breathe better
Yogic breathing techniques (called pranayama) focus on slowing down the breath and breathing from the pit of your stomach to the top of your lungs. As well as sending a message to your brain that soothes your sympathetic nervous system – responsible for the 'fight or flight' response we feel when stressed – these exercises have been shown to increase vital capacity, which refers to the total amount of air your lungs can exhale.
- Reduces inflammation
While inflammation is a normal – and necessary – immune system response, the chronic kind is associated with serious health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. A regular practice improves chronic inflammation in the body by lowering the levels of pro-inflammatory markers like cytokines, a systematic review published in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine found. It also appears to enhance immunity, the researchers wrote.
- Be happier
One of the most mind-blowing benefits of yoga? It can change your brain chemistry in under an hour. Just one session of yoga is enough to increase the amount of mood-boosting gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) – a calming neurotransmitter that decreases activity in your nervous system – by 27 per cent, researchers from Boston University found.
- Be more mindful
The benefits of yoga and mindfulness are intertwined. Practicing yoga directs your attention to any sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany a given pose. That awareness will bring the mind back to the present moment, which is the main aim of mindfulness. People who perceive themselves as being mindful have greater emotional stability and described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day, research from the University of Utah found – resulting in improved wellbeing.
- Improve concentration
Yoga poses require you to concentrate on your breathing. The process of observing your breath calms your mind and makes you more mentally relaxed. As a result of this mental stability, you'll able to recollect and retain more information. In a study by the University of Illinois, just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga significantly improved participants' ability to maintain focus and retain new information.
- Think clearer
Yoga enhances many of the same brain structures that benefit from aerobic exercise, a review published in the journal Brain Plasticity found. By boosting your brain's amygdala, which contributes to emotional regulation; the prefrontal cortex, which governs planning and decision-making; and the default mode network, a set of brain regions associated with your sense of 'self', the practice works miracles on your cognitive functioning.
- Improve life quality
Practicing yoga can seriously improve your quality of life, according to a six-month study by Oregon Health and Science University. Participants aged between 65 and 85 years old were asked to complete were assigned to Hatha yoga, walking or nothing (the control). Not only did the yogis experience physical health-related improvements to their quality of life, but their general sense of well-being and vitality also rose.
- Live longer
The various benefits of yoga don't just have a profound effect on your quality of life – they can even add valuable years to it. Intensive practice counteracts the cellular effects of ageing, according to research from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. After 12 weeks, participants had less oxidative stress, less DNA damage, more BDNF (a hormone that instructs brain cells to make new connections), more sirtuins (a group of enzymes that boost cellular health), and more telomerase (which lengthens DNA telomeres).
- Reverse chronic pain
Chronic pain is associated with a reduction in grey matter in the brain, but yoga can help to prevent – and even reverse – these effects, according to the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health. This is because yogis have been observed to have more grey matter in the brain regions involved in pain modulation. 'Mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain grey matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain,' said scientific director Catherine Bushnell, PhD.
- Reduce anxiety
If you suffer from anxiety, a session on the mat can help to calm your mind. Practicing yoga helps to alleviate the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder – characterized by long-term, persistent and excessive anxious about everyday life events – according to a study by Georgia State University, and it's particularly effective for quelling feelings of worry, the researchers found.
- Manage depression
While medication and psychological therapies are the formal choices for treating depression, multiple studies show that yoga can be an immensely useful complementary tool. How so? It's all down to the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels decrease your body's ability to make serotonin, the happy hormone (plus other neurotransmitters like dopamine – the reward and motivation hormone). Yoga helps to dampen cortisol levels.
- Treat lower back pain
Approximately one in six Brits suffer from chronic back pain. A regular yoga practice offers a wallet-friendly, convenient way to get some relief – in fact, one study found it to be as effective as traditional physical therapy. And research by the University of California revealed that participants with chronic low back pain experienced significant decreases in pain intensity after completing a 12-week yoga program.