1. It reduces chronic pain.The physical component of yoga is intended to stretch and strengthen specific muscle groups. Doing yoga has been shown to reduce chronic pain, especially lower back pain. In addition to the benefits gained by stretching and toning your muscles, the meditation component of yoga is effective at reducing our perception of pain. One study found that people who meditated reported a 40% reduction in pain intensity and a 57% reduction in pain unpleasantness. These numbers indicate that meditation may be more effective than morphine at reducing pain.
2. It increases respiratory efficiency and helps with asthma.Focused breathing is a fundamental part of yoga. Its spiritual purpose is for the cultivation of life force and the attainment of higher awareness, but it also leads to a larger lung capacity and a slower rate of breathing. These effects are beneficial for anyone but especially helpful for those with asthma.
3. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system.The human autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts. The sympathetic nervous system governs high-stress, "fight or flight" scenarios; the parasympathetic nervous system is referred to as the "rest and digest" system that operates in low-stress situations. When one system is active, the other is dormant. Our bodies are healthiest when there is a regular cycle between the two. The high-speed and high-stimulation nature of modern life tends to create a bias for activating the sympathetic nervous system, which can leave us feeling stressed and exhausted. Practicing yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system and trains us to use it more frequently, which helps restore the proper balance our bodies need. A more active parasympathetic system means lower blood pressure, better digestion and intestinal mobility, and regular sexual functioning.
4. It normalizes body weight and helps prevent obesity.Even though you won't lose as much weight doing yoga as you will with high-intensity cardio, regular practitioners of yoga lose five pounds on average. But the really impressive thing is that yoga helps prevent fluctuations in your weight by balancing your hormones. It has been scientifically proven that doing yoga reduces levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol is fine in moderate levels, but excessively high levels of cortisol have been shown to elicit "food-seeking behavior" in lab rats. You may have heard this phenomenon referred to as "stress eating." When our cortisol levels are lower, we are less prone to overeat, and we feel more sated when we do eat because our bodies are not on the alert. All of this translates to less unintentional weight gain.
5. It improves emotional health and combats depression.Excessive levels of cortisol are linked not only to overeating, but also to depression, so yoga also lowers the prevalence of depressive states. Additionally, less cortisol and increased parasympathetic nervous system activation reduce stress. People who practice yoga report an improved overall mood and sense of well-being.
6. It improves learning, memory, and cognitive functioning.Research has shown that yoga has positive effects on cognition that cannot be matched by conventional forms of aerobic exercise. The meditative component is likely to thank for this since its purpose is to calm the mind and ward off distracting thoughts. In one study conducted on college undergraduates, participants who did yoga and meditated were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, and retain that information accurately.
7. It promotes self-awareness and empathy.Spiritually, yoga is all about being aware of ourselves and the present moment. Holding poses, focusing on our breath, and meditation help us quiet our minds so we can reflect on who we are, where we are in our lives, and where we are going. The self-awareness we get from yoga increases feelings of self-actualization, and we may even feel more motivated to pursue our goals. As well as helping us feel better about ourselves, yoga also makes us feel more connected with other people and increases our empathic responses. It trains us to be less hostile toward ourselves and others.
8. It is possible that it physically changes the brain.It turns out that yoga affects not only the body, but it may also affect the composition of the brain. A recent study found correlational evidence that practicing yoga may protect against the decline in gray matter volume that happens as people age. MRIs of yoga practitioners revealed they had gray matter volumes comparable to people who were much younger than them, which means they were losing gray matter at a much slower rate than people who did not do yoga. Most interestingly, the observed protection of gray matter was mostly in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with positive emotions and the parasympathetic nervous system. More gray matter in these parts of the brain means a greater ability to be happy and relaxed. So it's possible that yoga keeps us happier and more relaxed as we age by affecting the physical properties of our brains. Most interestingly, the observed protection of gray matter was mostly in the left hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with positive emotions and the parasympathetic nervous system. More gray matter in these parts of the brain means a greater ability to be happy and relaxed. So it's possible that yoga keeps us happier and more relaxed as we age by affecting the physical properties of our brains. The body of scientific research on the beneficial effects of yoga continues to grow, but even now we have compelling evidence of the good it can do. Whether you are struggling with a physical malady like obesity, high blood pressure, or chronic pain, or you have emotional issues such as depression and chronic stress, yoga can help. Even if you do not have an illness and simply want to be a happier, more fulfilled person with a real sense of purpose, it can also provide your solution. Each item in this list taken alone is an impressive statement about the power of yoga; together, they paint a clear picture of why you should definitely be doing it.