Yoga is a type of mind-body exercise that involves moving through different physical postures. Many styles of yoga exist, from gentle and slow-moving to intense and fast-paced.
Practicing yoga can offer the following physical and mental health benefits:
1. Yoga increases flexibility and balance
In yoga, moving your body into various poses helps improve both flexibility and balance. A small 2016 study found after 10 weeks of bi-weekly yoga sessions, male college athletes improved their flexibility and balance more than those who did not practice yoga.
For your body to move and function efficiently, flexibility is essential. Flexibility also “stops your muscles from pulling adversely against your joints,” says Jennifer Jens, yoga instructor, personal trainer, and owner of BeachLIFE Fitness in Pensacola, Florida.
Balance is also important to avoid falls and injury. Because many yoga positions involve balancing, such as one-legged postures, yoga can improve balance.
Yoga can restore the flexibility and balance people tend to lose with age. “It forces us to move our bodies in ways that we wouldn’t normally do on an everyday basis,” says Chrys Kub, a physical therapist, certified yoga therapist, and owner of Fit Yoga Therapy in Charlotte, North Carolina.
2. Yoga builds strength
Yoga builds muscle strength by using body weight as a form of resistance. Through holding poses or moving through them, you build muscle endurance, Jens says. Muscle endurance refers to how long a muscle can perform an exercise repeatedly.
In a small 2015 study, adults in China who practiced hatha yoga saw improvements in muscle strength and flexibility after 12 weeks.
Yoga works the whole body, but more strenuous versions of yoga, such as vinyasa, do more to strengthen muscles than gentler forms of yoga, such as yin.
3. Yoga improves heart health
Yoga isn’t generally considered a cardio workout, because it does not get your heart pumping as hard as running does, for example. However, it does still work your cardiovascular system and helps keep your heart healthy.
“If you’re moving quickly through movements, your heart rate increases, and over time, you build good cardiovascular endurance,” Jens says. Vinyasa and Ashtanga are faster-paced versions of yoga that could count towards cardio.
4. Yoga can ease back pain
A 2011 study found three months of yoga reduced pain in people with chronic or recurrent low back pain more than those who just received their usual care.
Back pain is sometimes tied to poor posture. For some people, improved posture is the main benefit gained from yoga, Jens says. Good posture keeps your joints aligned which can ease tensions, she says.
Yoga helps improve posture and relieve back pain because it improves your muscles’ flexibility and endurance, as well as your mobility. Many yoga poses engage your back muscles, as well as other muscles — like your core — that connect to your back muscles.
5. Yoga can improve arthritis symptoms
Arthritis, a condition that causes pain and stiffness, is due to inflammation of a joint. A 2020 review of studies on patients with rheumatoid arthritis found yoga improved their physical function. The studies’ participants were between the ages of 30 and 70, and 86% of them were women.
“As a physical therapist, I incorporate yoga into my work with clients who have musculoskeletal issues,” Kub says.
Some people with arthritis may need to avoid high-impact exercise because of the stress it causes on their joints. However, yoga may be a better workout because you use only your body weight, and you can go at your own pace, Jens says. Check with your doctor before beginning any exercise regimen.
6. Yoga can help you lose weight
Generally, yoga does not burn the same amount of calories that cardio does. For example, here are the number of calories burned in one hour of the following exercises:
- Power yoga: 284 calories
- Hatha yoga: 173 calories
- Running (at a 9 minute-per-mile pace): 976 calories
- Biking (at a 14-15.9 mph pace): 888 calories
However, those extra 200 calories can add up. A 2013 review found yoga programs often help people. The review found the effectiveness of yoga in helping people lose weight depended on how frequently one practiced, how long they practiced for, and if their yoga program incorporated a diet element amongst other metrics.
7. Yoga reduces stress and improves well-being
According to a 2011 review, yoga can improve quality of life in several ways, such as reducing:
- Improving sleep
Yoga reduces stress by incorporating various breathing techniques, akin to meditation. “Taking slower, longer breaths, in and out through your nose, affects your nervous system” and tells the body to calm down, Kub says. “The breath is a physical, concrete tool that you can use to actually change your emotional response.”
Some varieties of yoga incorporate. Yoga’s focus on the mind-body connection lets you “kind of compartmentalize some stressors, push them off to the side, and really let your mind ‘breathe’ for a moment,” Jens says. “[This] allows room for you to feel more positive about your day, more energetic, and more apt to want to go out and be productive.”