Scientists do not know exactly how yoga works for good health. Some say it reduces stress like other mind-body therapies, and others believe that yoga causes the release of endorphins, natural painkillers and "feel good" chemicals in the brain. Studies show yoga can lower heart rate and blood pressure, increase muscle relaxation, and increase breathing capacity.
All branches of yoga mentioned above use three major techniques: breathing, exercise (asana or postures), and meditation. These three techniques improve health in many ways:
- Breathing. In yoga, breathwork is known as pranayama. Pranayama increases blood flow and reduces oxygen consumption. That brings more oxygen to your brain, and improves the way your body uses oxygen. Breathing exercises can also increase how much air you draw into your lungs. Getting lots of air into your lungs helps you feel alert and focused.
- Asanas (postures). Provide a gentle-to-intense workout that boosts strength, flexibility, and balance.
- Meditation. Quiets the mind and causes both physical and emotional relaxation, which helps reduce blood pressure, chronic pain, anxiety, and cholesterol levels.
A typical yoga session
Most people learn yoga by taking a group class with an experienced instructor, but one-on-one sessions are also available. These private or semi-private sessions cost more. Classes usually last from 45 to 90 minutes and start with warm-up exercises, move to a guided series of yoga postures designed to stretch and tone all areas of the body, and end with deep relaxation or meditation. Throughout the class, the teacher helps you with breath control and proper body alignment.
Your instructor will encourage you to practice at home to get the most from yoga.
Some people may feel stiff as their bodies get used to different postures. As with any physical activity, yoga can cause injury if not done correctly. It is important to practice yoga with a trained teacher.
Be sure to check with your doctor before trying yoga if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, or a recent back injury, as you would with any exercise program. Choose one of the gentler forms of yoga.
Pregnant women may need to avoid some postures. Special classes are available for expecting mothers. Be sure to call your doctor if any exercises cause headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, or severe pain in your back, legs, or joints.
Remember that yoga instructors are not doctors. Only you and your doctor can decide if a certain yoga posture is too hard or might injure you depending on your condition. If you feel like a posture might cause injury, DO NOT do it or ask your instructor to modify it for you.
Anand MP. Non-pharmacological management of essential hypertension. J Indian Med Assoc. 1999;97(6):220-225.
Banerjee B, et al. Effects of an integrated yoga program in modulating psychological stress and radiation-induced genotoxic stress in breast cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy. Integr Cancer Ther. 2007;6(3):242-50.
Beddoe AE, Lee KA. Mind-body interventions during pregnancy. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2008;37(2):165-75.
Berk B. Yoga for moms. Building core stability before, during and after pregnancy. Midwifery Today Int Midwife. 2001;(59):27-29.
Bharshankar JR, Bharshankar RN, Deshpande VN, et al. Effect of yoga on cardiovascular system in subjects about 40 years. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. Apr 2003;47(2):202-206.
Bijlani RL, Vempati RP, Yadav RK, et al. A brief but comprehensive lifestyle education program based on yoga reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus. J Altern Complement Med. Apr, 11 2005;11(2):267-274.
Birkel DA, Edgren L. Hatha yoga: improved vital capacity of college students. Altern Ther Health Med. 2000;6(6):55-63.
Carlson LE, Speca M, Patel KD, Goodey E. Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress, and immune parameters in breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychosom Med. Jul-Aug 2003;65(4):571-581.
Cox H, Tilbrook H, Aplin J, Semlyen A, Torgerson D, Trewhela A, Watt I. A randomised controlled trial of yoga for the treatment of chronic low back pain: results of a pilot study. Complement Ther Clin Pract. Nov 2010;16(4):187-93.
Ernst E. Breathing techniques -- adjunctive treatment modalities for asthma? A systematic review. Eur Respir J. 2000;15(5):969-972.
Field T. Yoga clinical research review. Complement Ther Clin Pract. Feb 2011;17(1):1-8. Epub ahead of print.
Galantino ML, Bzdewka TM, Eissler-Russo JL, et al. The impact of modified Hatha yoga on chronic low back pain: a pilot study. Altern Ther Health Med. Mar-Apr 2004;10(2):56-59.
Garfinkel MS, Singhal A, Katz WA, Allan DA, Reshetar R, Schumacher HR Jr. Yoga-based intervention for carpal tunnel syndrome: a randomized trial. JAMA. 1998;280(18):1601-1603.
Gothe NP, Kramer AF, McAuley E. The effects of an 8-week Hatha yoga intervention on executive function in older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2014;69(9):1109-16.
Jorm AF, Christensen H, Griffiths KM, Rodgers B. Effectiveness of complementary and self-help treatments for depression. Med J Aust. 2002;176 Suppl:S84-96.
Khanna S, Greeson JM. A narrative review of yoga and mindfulness as complementary therapies for addiction. Complement Ther Med. 2013;21(3):244-52.
Kreitzer MJ, Snyder M. Healing the heart: integrating complementary therapies and healing practices into the care of cardiovascular patients. Prog Cardiovasc Nurs. 2002;17(2):73-80.
Labarthe D, Ayala C. Nondrug interventions in hypertension prevention and control. Cardiol Clin. 2002;20(2):249-263.
La Forge R. Mind-body fitness: encouraging prospects for primary and secondary prevention. J Cardiovascular Nurs. 1997;11(3):53-65.
Luskin FM, Newell KA, Griffith M et al. A review of mind/body therapies in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Part 1: Implications for the elderly. Altern Ther Health Med. 1998;4:46-61.
Luskin FM, Newell KA, Griffith M et al. A review of mind/body therapies in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders with implications for the elderly. Altern Ther Health Med. 2000;6(2):45-56.
Mahajan AS, Reddy KS, Sachdeva U. Lipid profile of coronary risk subjects following yogic lifestyle intervention. Indian Heart J. 1999;51(1):37-40.
Malathi A, Damodaran A. Stress due to exams in medical students -- role of yoga. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1999;43(2):218-224.
Manjunath NK, Telles S. Improved performance in the Tower of London test following yoga. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2001;45(3):351-354.
Manocha R, Marks GB, Kenchington P, Peters D, Salome CM. Sahaja yoga in the management of moderate to severe asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax. 2002;57(2):110-115.
Miller JJ, Fletcher K, Kabat-Zinn J. Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 1995;17(3):192-200.
Miller AL. The etiologies, pathophysiology, and alternative/complementary treatment of asthma. Altern Med Rev. 2001;6(1):20-47.
Ott MJ. Yoga as a clinical intervention. Adv Nurse Pract. 2002;10(1):81-3, 90.
Pandya DP, Vyas VH, Vyas SH. Mind-body therapy in the management and prevention of coronary disease. Compr Ther. 1999;25(5):283-293.
Pettinati PM. Meditation, yoga, and guided imagery. Nurs Clin North Am. 2001;36(1):47-56.
Ray US, Mukhopadhyaya S, Purkayastha SS, et al. Effect of yogic exercises on physical and mental health of young fellowship course trainees.Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2001;45(1):37-53.
Sahay BK, Sahay RK. Lifestyle modification in management of diabetes mellitus. J Indian Med Assoc. Mar 2002;100(3):178-80
Sathyaprabha TN, Murthy H, Murthy BT.Efficacy of naturopathy and yoga in bronchial asthma--a self controlled matched scientific study. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2001;45(1):80-86.
Sharma R, Amin H, Prajapati PK. Yoga: As an adjunct therapy to trim down the Ayurvedic drug requirement in non insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. Anc Sci Life. 2014;33(4):229-35.
Silverberg DS. Non-pharmacological treatment of hypertension. [review] J Hypertens Suppl. 1990 Sep;8(4):S21-26.
Spicuzza L, Gabutti A, Porta C, Montano N, Bernardi L. Yoga and chemoreflex response to hypoxia and hypercapnia. Lancet. 2000;356(9240):1495-1496.
Steurer-Stey C, Russi EW, Steurer J. Complementary and alternative medicine in asthma: do they work? Swiss Med Wkly. 2002;132(25-26):338-344.
van der Kolk BA, Stone L, West J, et al. Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J Clin Psychiatry. 2014;75(6):e559-65.
Wahbeh H. Mind-body interventions: applications in neurology. Neurology. 2008;70(24):2321-8.
Wang YY, Chang HY, Lin CY. Systemic review of yoga for depression and quality of sleep in the elderly. Hu Li Za Zhi. 2014;61(1):85-92.
Yang K. A review of yoga programs for four leading risk factors of chronic diseases. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2007;4(4):487-91.