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Updated 29 June 2020

What yoga does to your body – according to science

We take a look at which of yoga’s benefits have been proven by science.

  • This traditional Indian discipline has been touted for its health and mental benefits for centuries
  • Science so far has found some links to its impact on the brain, how it reduces stress and retrains the way your muscles react to strain
  • However, studies still have a long way to go in terms of larger sample sizes that are more demographically diverse 


We all have that one friend that can’t stop talking about how great yoga is. You yourself might even be that friend.

Rooted in ancient India as a means of relaxation, focusing mind and body, it has become one of modern society’s most popular exercise disciplines – and for some more of a lifestyle.

But what does science say about the benefits of yoga? And what does it really do for your body?

Muscles

One of the biggest and most obvious benefits of yoga for the body is flexibility. It involves very coordinated stretching manoeuvres, which train your muscles to withstand more pressure during extension without firing off pain signals. 

With practice, you’re essentially retraining the nervous system to let your body move into more extreme positions, according to Live Science. 

In a look at yoga studies by Harvard Health Publishing, they highlight one study where a group of individuals not used to exercise started doing yoga twice a week for 180 minutes in total. They ended up being stronger, more flexible and having more sustained endurance. 

Heart

When it comes to the heart, science is also on yoga’s side. It’s shown to activate the body’s stress response, aka the parasympathetic part of the nervous system in charge of relaxation. 

It also lowers cholesterol and blood pressure more in yoga practitioners than those who don’t do yoga. 

According to Harvard Health, yoga may restore baroreceptor sensitivity which makes it easier for your body to regulate your heart rate. It also lowers your cortisol levels – a major driver of stress in the human body. 

Lungs

Yoga involves controlled breathing exercises, which help to manage your heartbeat, which in turn can improve lung functioning. 

Respiratory conditions can shrink the lung’s pathways that transport oxygen, and these breathing techniques can relax the muscles for better oxygen delivery. 

A study by the National Library of Medicine measured lung capacity in a group of university students before they started yoga and then again at the end of two 17-week semesters. The research found a significant increase in their lungs’ vital capacity, even in smokers and asthmatics. 

Brain

Yoga has always been hailed as great for your mental health, and it can also affect the size of certain regions in the brain. 

A brain scan study found that areas involved in thinking clearly, decision-making, memory and regulating emotions, like the hippocampus, saw an increase in size among people who started doing yoga.  

Yoga is also commonly prescribed as a supplement for reducing symptoms of depression, in conjunction with other treatments. 

Limitations

However, many experts have pointed out that more thorough research still needs to be done. Many studies use small sample sizes and demographically aren't as wide enough as they should be to account for other positive factors. 

The US National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health adds in their analysis of studies on yoga that most aren’t of high quality – but although many of yoga's purported benefits haven't yet been conclusively proven, it shows great promise for improving general health. 

Image credit: Pixabay

 
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