The Proven Health Benefits of Yoga and Meditation
Discover how a mindfulness practice can improve a person's quality of life.
According to the National Institute of Health, 9.5% of Americans practice yoga. As yoga continues to grow, more studies are showing the mental and physical benefits. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning a “union of the body and mind.” Yoga combines the physical postures or asanas with the mental conscious breathing and the spiritual connection with universal consciousness.
Yoga has many physical benefits, including encouraging relaxation, increasing flexibility and strength, lowering blood pressure, and toning muscles. This practice has also been shown to alleviate arthritis and back pain and boost heart and mental health.
There are data that prove yoga's benefits. According to a randomized controlled trial at Johns Hopkins,1 2 groups of participants were assigned to a wait list or to twice-a-week yoga and an at-home yoga practice. After 8 weeks, the yoga group showed a significant reduction in pain as well as better moods, improved physical functions, and increased energy levels.
Research also shows that yoga affects cardiovascular health, lowering blood pressure and the heart rate. It may also improve quality of life in those with atrial fibrillation, a common heart rhythm disorder.2 Yoga and meditation help mitigate stress by decreasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the "fight or flight" response, which is typically responsible for constricting blood vessels and raising blood pressure and the heart rate.
Meditation practices can also improve one's mood and increase gray matter in the brain, aiding decision-making, reasoning, and self-control. Meditation also changes the neurology of the brain, helping transition beta waves (excitatory) to theta waves (relaxation), leading to a deeper awareness. A simple meditation to use to begin the transition from beta to the theta state is to focus on the breath. The breath and mind work in tandem, so as the breath begins to lengthen, brain waves begin to slow down.
In terms of mental health, research shows that practicing yoga increases the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter, in the brain. Low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety and depression. Numerous studies have shown improvements in mood in people with these conditions.3
There are various types of yoga, including restorative or gentle yoga, Bikram, vinyasa, or the more advanced forms, such as kundalini. Typically, health clubs, senior centers, and yoga studios offer classes a few times a week. Those who are new to yoga should try gentle or restorative yoga to ensure that they are doing the poses safely. Those with injuries or soreness should let their instructors know at the beginning of class so that poses can be modified. And people should always speak to a doctor or qualified health care professional before starting any new exercise regimen.
Being consistent with these practices is key. Try meditating in the morning or evening even if for 5 to 10 minutes. Incorporate a yoga class a regular exercise regimen. Try one or both of these, and reap the health benefits.
1. Moonaz SH, Bingham CO 3rd, Wissow L, Bartlett SJ. Yoga in sedentary adults with arthritis: effects of a randomized controlled pragmatic trial. J Rheumatol. 2015;42(7):1194-202. doi: 10.3899/jrheum.141129.
2. Wahlstrom M, Rydell Karlsson M, Medin J, Frykman V. Effects of yoga in patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation — a randomized controlled study. European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. 2017;16/1):57-63. doi: 10.1177/1474515116637734.
3. Woodyard C. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga. 2011;4(2):49—54. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.85485.