Improve physical and mental health
Melissa Galea Holmes, MSc, MA
When we do yoga, we're doing so much more than twisting our bodies into pretzels. Different types of yoga benefit our body and mind and provide relief from various ailments.
If you think yoga is just for active, healthy people, think again. A growing body of evidence shows the wide-ranging benefits of yoga for physical ailments, mental illness, and emotional distress. If you have a diagnosed health problem, there’s likely a yoga that can help.
Traditionally, the aim of yoga has been personal transcendence, or enlightenment, and health gains have simply been among the perks. Today, yoga is increasingly used as therapy for a range of conditions.
Laurel Hicks, a yoga teacher based in Windsor, Ontario, is conducting research on yoga therapy. “Right now, there is an emerging field of investigation into yoga and mindfulness. There are many studies showing health benefits spanning a variety of physical problems and psychological illnesses.”
In practice, yoga views the body and mind as part of an integrated system, functioning best in a state of balance. This mind-body equilibrium is achieved through a series of poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana). Various styles of yoga apply different combinations of these three elements to improve health.
Always consult a health care practitioner before implementing a yoga program if you have a health condition.
Yoga for the body
In terms of physical conditions, yoga may offer relief from musculoskeletal pain, pregnancy symptoms and labour pain, and respiratory illnesses.
Pain, pain go away
Pain is complex, and a mind-body approach is central to standard treatment—consistent with principles of yoga. Yoga has been linked to less frequent or intense pain, and regular practice can make day-to-day functioning easier and boost mood. Benefits span a range of conditions, including back pain, headache, arthritis, and general muscle soreness.
Pregnancy and labour
Prenatal yoga is a popular specialized yoga therapy, and there seems to be no shortage of dedicated teachers across the country. During pregnancy, gentle physical activity, such as hatha yoga, is thought to help relieve stress and manage symptoms including swelling, mood swings, discomfort, and weight gain.
The benefits of yoga while expecting extend to the delivery room. Hicks says, “Yoga helps the mother stay calm through body awareness, breathing, and movement, allowing the body to release natural pain-relief hormones.” In addition to reduced pain, prenatal yoga is linked to a shorter labour and fewer complications, such as low birth weight and gestational hypertension.
A deep breath
Breathing exercises are central to yoga, and developing slower, deeper breathing patterns forms the basis of therapy for respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Breathing exercises may also be helpful for those with asthma: yoga may reduce airway hyper-reactivity, leading to fewer attacks and enhanced quality of life.
Yoga for the mind
The impact of yoga on mental and emotional health is among its greatest benefits.
Generalized anxiety disorder is a common condition linked to a hyperactivated nervous system response to the bustle of everyday life. Through meditative inward focus, yoga reduces cortisol, a hormone linked to the stress response. At the same time, it is thought to increase activity of alpha brain waves, boosting our peace of mind.
Exercise and mindfulness are key components of yoga and have been used successfully to help treat depression. A recent meta-analysis of eight studies noted that hatha yoga in particular may be beneficial and could promote positive thoughts and self-acceptance in people who are depressed.
A good sleep is crucial to physical and mental well-being. Over time, late nights and early mornings can reduce immune function, dampen mood, and even increase the risk of a heart attack. High levels of physical and mental stress can lead to a restless night. Just 30 minutes of gentle yoga that emphasizes breathing and meditation can help us wind down. For chronic sleep disorders, such as insomnia, yoga may increase total sleep time, reduce awakenings through the night, and improve overall sleep quality.
How does it work?
The many health benefits of yoga are well documented, but exactly how it works is harder to untangle. According to Hicks, “The science is working on catching up to what people have experienced themselves, by doing yoga.”
One key theory is that, like massage, yoga stimulates pressure receptors under the skin. This enhances nervous system activity, reducing stress-induced cortisol levels. Yoga also releases serotonin, a natural analgesic that blocks specific pain neurotransmitters and reduces cortisol.
Another important avenue involves the circulation of key molecules—including cytokines, chemokines, and adipokines—which regulate immune reactions and the inflammatory response. This network of molecules is also involved in sleep regulation through the release of melatonin.
If you’re thinking about yoga therapy, visit your health care practitioner for advice. Yoga is frequently recommended by health care practitioners and could be especially helpful for conditions that are chronic or systemic, and difficult to treat.
Start gentle, progressing to more advanced techniques. For beginners, Hicks believes meditation can be the greatest challenge. “In many classes, you practise movement and breathing, with less emphasis on meditation. But there’s plenty of evidence that, alone, mindfulness and meditation can improve health.”
Don’t be discouraged—if you continue to practise the physical poses and breathing, you will eventually learn the benefits of meditation as well. And the body and mind will surely thank you for that.
Tips for your first yoga session
Choosing yoga for your health
Check listings online or in community publications for dedicated yoga studios or classes at your local fitness or community centre.