The popularity of yoga has grown tremendously in the past decade. More than 10% of U.S. adults have practiced yoga at some point in their lives. Yoga practitioners on average spend on average US$90 a month, and the yoga industry is worth more than $80 billion worldwide.
Yoga is now a mainstream activity in the U.S. and is commonly portrayed as a healthy lifestyle choice. I am a behavioral scientist who researches how physical activity – and specifically yoga – can prevent and help manage chronic diseases.
Many people attribute improvements in their physical and mental health to their yoga practice. But until recently, research had been sparse on the health benefits of yoga. As the body of rigorous research on yoga grows, more and more work is showing the many health benefits of a yoga practice.
The name “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” meaning to unite, join or connect the mind, body and soul. The first text on yoga was written by the sage Patanjali over 2,000 years ago in India. Patanjali described yoga as “citta-vrtti-nirodhah,” or “stilling the mind.” This was achieved through a mix of breath work, meditation, physical movement and body purification practices, as well as ethical and moral codes for living a healthy and purposeful life.
Over the years, various yoga teachers have modified the original Patanjali yoga, resulting in different styles that vary in their intensity and focus. For example, some yoga styles such as Vinyasa focus more on intense movements similar to an aerobic workout. Restorative yoga includes more relaxation poses. Iyengar yoga uses props and emphasizes precision and proper alignment of body. These different styles provide options for individuals with different physical abilities.
Generally speaking, yoga instructors in the U.S. today teach styles that incorporate postures, breathing exercises and sometimes meditation.
As yoga has grown in popularity in recent years, researchers have begun to study its effects and are finding that it has great benefit for mental and physical health.
Yoga involves physical movement, so it is no surprise that most types of yoga can help to improve a person’s strength and flexibility. In one study with healthy untrained volunteers, researchers found that eight weeks of yoga improved muscular strength at the elbow and knee by 10%-30%. Flexibility at the ankle, shoulder and hip joints also increased by 13%-188%.
There are a number of less obvious but meaningful benefits from yoga as well. Research has shown that yoga practice can reduce risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and abdominal obesity. Studies on older adults have shown significant improvements in balance, mobility, cognitive function and overall quality of life.
Yoga seems to be effective at managing pain, too. Research has found that yoga can improve symptoms of headaches, osteoarthritis, neck pain and low-back pain. In fact, the American College of Physicians recommends yoga as one of the options for initial nonpharmaceutical treatment for chronic low-back pain.