When it comes to the benefits of yoga, regular practitioners will tell you it’s a no-brainer. Whether it’s working up a sweat, accessing the breath more easily, or finding complete and utter bliss during a killer savasana, yogis don’t have to be convinced that yoga is good for the body, mind, and soul.
But did you know that there are scientific studies also supporting yoga’s positive effects? Here are a few of yoga’s research-backed suggested benefits.
Please note that yoga should never be used in place of medical treatment and should not be practiced without first consulting your doctor.
Anxiety, Depression, and PTSD
Many yogis praise yoga for its mental benefits, and if you’re wondering whether the scientific literature actually backs this up, the answer is yes!
For instance, one study1 compared women who practiced 90 minutes of yoga twice a week for two months to women who didn’t practice yoga. The women who practiced yoga had much greater decreases in anxiety than the ones who didn’t practice yoga.
Another study assessed the effects of yoga in women with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They either practiced trauma-informed yoga or supportive women’s health education. By the end of the study, more than half of the women who took part in the yoga no longer met the criteria for PTSD, versus just over one-fifth of the women’s health education group.
An earlier study3 of 60 inpatients being treated for alcohol dependence tested the effects of Sudarshana Kriya Yoga. Half of the patients participated in a two-week yoga intervention, and the other half did not do yoga. The yoga group had significantly lower levels of depression and plasma cortisol than the patients who didn’t do yoga.
A study4 of teachers found that yoga significantly increased mental well-being and reduced anxiety.
The addition of yoga to a healthy lifestyle could also help shed some pounds.
A 2019 study5 of overweight and obese men and women took part in an Ayurvedic medicine and Ayurvedic yoga therapy intervention. Along with healthy nutrition recommendations, the participants took therapeutic yoga classes three times a week and were encouraged to engage in home practices two to four times week. During the three-month study period, the group lost an average of 3.5 kg. Three months after the study ended, the participants had lost 5.6 kg, and at six months, this increased to 5.9 kg.
How does this work? Research suggests that the reasoning is not entirely physical.6 People who had struggled to lose weight but were successful through yoga and those who lost weight unintentionally through yoga were interviewed. Five primary themes arose: “shift toward healthy eating, impact of the yoga community/yoga culture, physical changes, psychological changes, and the belief that the yoga weight loss experience was different than past weight loss experiences.”
Well-being in Cancer Patients
The spiritual aspects of yoga and meditation were examined in women diagnosed with breast cancer who were long-term Brahma Kumaris Raja Yoga (a spiritually focused meditation practice) meditators.7 The three women took part in interviews regarding cancer survival’s physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges. Among the themes expressed in the interviews were, “positive state of mind, self-awareness, God’s healing power, spiritual support, and spiritual growth,” as well as “soul consciousness, awareness of eternity, lack of fear, being happy no matter what, and becoming an inspirational model.”
Similarly, a group of metastatic cancer patients integrated in early palliative care took part in a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention.8 The patients developed an accepting attitude in terms of their disease, which aided them in handling disease-associated anxiety and pain, as well as reconnected with their personal and spiritual beliefs.
While inflammation occurs in everyone’s body, chronic inflammation can result in the onset of serious diseases. According to some research, yoga can assist in reducing inflammatory markers in the body.
One study9 compared levels of inflammatory markers after moderate and strenuous exercise in people who did and did not practice yoga. Resting levels of inflammatory markers as well as levels after exercise were lower in the people who practiced yoga than the non-yoga group.
A review10 of 15 existing studies found that most of them supported the idea that yoga reduced inflammation. More yoga was associated with greater reductions in inflammation.
Yoga, in conjunction with usual care, may also benefit people who already have inflammatory diseases. A study11 of rheumatoid arthritis patients found that the addition of yoga to their care routine significantly reduced levels of depression as well as inflammatory markers.
Breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue who practiced restorative yoga for 12 weeks also saw decreases in inflammatory markers.12
Pregnant women - when practicing safely - may see some unique benefits of yoga, too.
One study13 found that prenatal yoga was helpful in reducing prenatal depression. Another observed that prenatal yoga helped to alleviate labor pain and may have even helped improve birth outcomes.14
Other research suggests that yoga may…
- Reduce the number, intensity, and duration of headaches15
- Improve quality of life in older adults16
- Positively affect brain health17
- Reduce low back pain18
1. Javnbakht M, Hejazi Kenari R, Ghasemi M. Effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2009 May;15(2):102-4. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2009.01.003. Epub 2009 Mar 20.
2. van der Kolk BA, Stone L, West J, Rhodes A, Emerson D, Suvak M, Spinazzola J. Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry. 2014 Jun;75(6):e559-65. doi: 10.4088/JCP.13m08561.
3. Vedamurthachar A, Janakiramaiah N, Hegde JM, Shetty TK, Subbakrishna DK, Sureshbabu SV, Gangadhar BN. Antidepressant efficacy and hormonal effects of Sudarshana Kriya Yoga (SKY) in alcohol dependent individuals. J Affect Disord. 2006 Aug;94(1-3):249-53. Epub 2006 Jun 5.
4. Telles S, Sharma SK, Gupta RK, Pal DK, Gandharva K, Balkrishna A. The impact of yoga on teachers' self-rated emotions. BMC Res Notes. 2019 Oct 22;12(1):680. doi: 10.1186/s13104-019-4737-7.
5. Rioux J, Howerter A. Outcomes from a Whole-Systems Ayurvedic Medicine and Yoga Therapy Treatment for Obesity Pilot Study. J Altern Complement Med. 2019 Mar;25(S1):S124-S137. doi: 10.1089/acm.2018.0448.
6. Ross A, Brooks A, Touchton-Leonard K, Wallen G. A Different Weight Loss Experience: A Qualitative Study Exploring the Behavioral, Physical, and Psychosocial Changes Associated with Yoga That Promote Weight Loss. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2016;2016:2914745. doi: 10.1155/2016/2914745. Epub 2016 Aug 10.
7. Agarwal K, Fortune L, Heintzman JC, Kelly LL. Spiritual Experiences of Long-Term Meditation Practitioners Diagnosed with Breast Cancer: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Pilot Study. J Relig Health. 2020 Feb 15. doi: 10.1007/s10943-020-00995-9. [Epub ahead of print]
8. Poletti S, Razzini G, Ferrari R, Ricchieri MP, Spedicato GA, Pasqualini A, Buzzega C, Artioli F, Petropulacos K, Luppi M, Bandieri E. Mindfulness-Based stress reduction in early palliative care for people with metastatic cancer: A mixed-method study. Complement Ther Med. 2019 Dec;47:102218. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2019.102218. Epub 2019 Oct 19.
9. Vijayaraghava A, Doreswamy V, Narasipur OS, Kunnavil R, Srinivasamurthy N. Effect of Yoga Practice on Levels of Inflammatory Markers After Moderate and Strenuous Exercise. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015 Jun;9(6):CC08-12. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2015/12851.6021. Epub 2015 Jun 1.
10. Djalilova DM, Schulz PS, Berger AM, Case AJ, Kupzyk KA, Ross AC. Impact of Yoga on Inflammatory Biomarkers: A Systematic Review. Biol Res Nurs. 2019 Mar;21(2):198-209. doi: 10.1177/1099800418820162. Epub 2018 Dec 20.
11. Gautam S, Tolahunase M, Kumar U, Dada R. Impact of yoga based mind-body intervention on systemic inflammatory markers and co-morbid depression in active Rheumatoid arthritis patients: A randomized controlled trial. Restor Neurol Neurosci. 2019;37(1):41-59. doi: 10.3233/RNN-180875.
12. Bower JE, Greendale G, Crosswell AD, Garet D, Sternlieb B, Ganz PA, Irwin MR, Olmstead R, Arevalo J, Cole SW. Yoga reduces inflammatory signaling in fatigued breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2014 May;43:20-9. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.01.019. Epub 2014 Jan 30.
13. Gong H, Ni C, Shen X, Wu T, Jiang C. Yoga for prenatal depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry. 2015 Feb 5;15:14. doi: 10.1186/s12888-015-0393-1.
14. Chethana B, Raghunandan C, Saili A, Mondal S, Saxena P. Prenatal Yoga: Effects on Alleviation of Labor Pain and Birth Outcomes. J Altern Complement Med. 2018 Aug 30. doi: 10.1089/acm.2018.0079. [Epub ahead of print]
15. Anheyer D, Klose P, Lauche R, Saha FJ, Cramer H. Yoga for Treating Headaches: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Gen Intern Med. 2019 Oct 30. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-05413-9. [Epub ahead of print]
16. Oken BS, Zajdel D, Kishiyama S, Flegal K, Dehen C, Haas M, Kraemer DF, Lawrence J, Leyva J. Randomized, controlled, six-month trial of yoga in healthy seniors: effects on cognition and quality of life. Altern Ther Health Med. 2006 Jan-Feb;12(1):40-7.
17. Gothe NP, Khan I, Hayes J, Erlenbach E, Damoiseaux JS. Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature. Brain Plast. 2019 Dec 26;5(1):105-122. doi: 10.3233/BPL-190084.
18. Groessl EJ, Liu L, Schmalzl L, Chang DG, McCarthy A, Chun WI, Sinclair C, Bormann JE. Secondary Outcomes from a Randomized Controlled Trial of Yoga for Veterans with Chronic Low-Back Pain. Int J Yoga Therap. 2019 Sep 11. doi: 10.17761/2020-D-19-00036. [Epub ahead of print]