What is yoga? Is there any evidence of health benefits? Are there any health risks?
What is yoga?
Yoga is a form of mind-body fitness. It involves a combination of muscular activity and an internally directed mindful focus on awareness of the self, the breath and energy. It integrates physical, mental and spiritual components to potentially improve aspects of health. For instance it appears to help people manage stress.
Some people practise yoga mainly as a form of exercise (for instance as an alternative to Pilates), some mainly for what they perceive as mental or spiritual benefits and some for a combination of the two.
It is classified by the US National Institutes of Health as a form of Complementaryand Alternative Medicine.
A useful form of exercise?
The NHS’ verdict is that most studies suggest yoga is a safe and effective way to increase physical activity, especially strength, flexibility and balance.
Yoga doesn’t count towards the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, set out in UK government guidelines. However, it does count as a strengthening exercise and at least two sessions a week will help you meet the guidelines on muscle-strengthening activities.
Activities such as yoga and tai chi are also recommended for older adults at risk of falls, to help improve balance and co-ordination.
What are the different types of yoga?
There are different types of yoga and variations on those types, including -
- Hatha – the most popular form in the West. It focuses on physical techniques, including disciplines, postures, gestures and breathing, as well as on meditation.
- Bhakti Yoga or Yoga of devotion – a spiritual or devotional approach which doesn’t involve such extensive yogic practices. This is the path most followed in India
- Raja Yoga or Yoga of Self-Control; Jnana Yoga or Yoga of the Mind; Karma Yoga or Yoga of Service; and Tantra Yoga or Yoga of Rituals.
Another popular form of yoga currently is Bikram – 26 poses in a heated room.
Can it help lower back pain?
Yes, according to a systematic review of the evidence published in 2013.
Can it help manage depression?
In a small scale pilot study reported in 2013, family dementia care givers practiced yogic meditation daily. This led to improved mental and cognitive functioning and lower levels of depressive symptoms. There was also an increase in telomerase activity suggesting reduction in stress–induced cellular ageing. A larger review found moderate evidence that yoga had positive short term effects for people with depression.
Can it help breast cancer patients?
One trial observed 200 breast cancer survivors who had not practiced yoga before. The half who started to practice yoga reported less fatigue and higher levels of vitality three months after treatment had ended. Blood tests before and after the trial showed that three markers for inflammation (which has long been associated with the development of cancer) were lower by 10 to 15 percent.
Are there other health benefits?
Small scale studies have shown, by measuring biological markers, that yoga reduces inflammation in heart failure patients and can improve levels of glucose and insulin in patients with diabetes. Another small study suggested that yoga could help patients maintain balance after a stroke. As these were small scale studies, larger studies are needed to confirm these initial findings.
Can the research on yoga be trusted?
Many clinical trials have been designed to assess its therapeutic effects and benefits. While these trials are often promising questions are frequently asked about the way the research was conducted. The verdict is often that more research is needed. An example is a 2014 review of the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment for hypertension – which concluded that the evidence was encouraging but inconclusive.
Is yoga safe?
Problems can occasionally arise, including sprains and strains, and problems with spine, shoulder, joints and eyes - although the number of cases is very small. That’s why the advice is usually:
- Ask a trusted source (such as your health care provider or a nearby hospital) to recommend a yoga practitioner.
- Ask about the physical demands of the type of yoga in which you are interested and inform your yoga instructor about any medical issues.
- If you’re a beginner, avoid extreme practices such as headstand, lotus position and forceful breathing.
- Yoga appears to help people with a range of conditions, especially anxiety and stress, depression and lower back pain. It seems to help maintain balance when you're older or after a stroke. It may also help breast cancer and heart attack patients and patients with diabetes.
- Yoga is generally safe but as with any exercise, if you have health issues you are advised to check with your doctor first before starting a programme.
- Scientific studies on the benefit of yoga have increased but more good quality research is still needed.
Original article published June 2011. Reviewed and updated by Karen Rollins, October 2014. Next review date, October 2017.