In this article, we ask what yoga is, we look for any evidence of its health benefits and outline any health risks.
- What is yoga?
- Is yoga a useful form of exercise?
- Is yoga safe?
- What are the different types of yoga?
- Can yoga:
- help manage lower back pain?
- help manage depression and anxiety?
- help breast cancer patients?
- help prevent or manage diabetes?
- strengthen our immune system?
- Can the research on yoga be trusted?
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 the awareness of self, breathing, and energy.
Yoga integrates physical, mental and spiritual components to potentially improve aspects of our health.
For instance, a review of the evidence published in 2013 suggested that yoga appears to help people manage stress, while a 2015 review suggested ways in which yoga affects the way our bodies function. These findings may explain why yoga has been reported as reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Some people practise yoga mainly as a form of exercise (for instance as an alternative to Pilates); some practise it mainly for what they see as the mental or spiritual benefits, and others for a combination of the two.
The US National Institutes of Health advises that yoga has shown promise for a number of health issues, although more large-scale, high-quality research is needed to confirm its value.
Is yoga a useful form of exercise?
The NHS’s verdict is that yoga (as well as Pilates and Tai Chi) builds strength and balance and can reduce the risk of falling. These three practices may also ease the symptoms of various health conditions.
Yoga counts as a strengthening exercise. At least two sessions a week will help you meet the guidelines on muscle-strengthening activities.
Yoga does not count towards the 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, as set out in UK government guidelines.
Is yoga safe?
Problems can occasionally arise when practising yoga, although these are ‘mild and transient’.
A 2018 review of the evidence advised that practitioners reported problems included sprains and strains, and advised that ‘people with serious acute or chronic illnesses should seek medical advice before practising yoga’.
Before taking up yoga:
- 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 (see the next paragraph) and tell your yoga instructor about any medical or health issues you have.
- If you’re a beginner, avoid extreme practices such as a headstand, lotus position and forceful breathing.
What are the different types of yoga?
There are different types of yoga and many variations on those types:
Can yoga help manage lower back pain?
Yes, according to a systematic review of the evidence published in 2021.
This research concluded that yoga can be recommended for patients with lower back pain, and added that ‘yoga revealed robust short-term and long-term effects for pain, disability, and physical function, when compared with non exercise controls’, although it added that other forms of exercise have similar effects.
Remember: if you have a serious acute or chronic illness, seek medical advice before you practise yoga.
Can yoga help manage depression and anxiety?
Reduction of the severity of depression
In a randomised controlled trial in 2017 involving adults with mild-to-moderate major depression, an eight-week hatha yoga intervention resulted in statistically and clinically significant reductions in the severity of depression.
Improved mental and cognitive functioning
In another study – a short, small-scale pilot study reported in 2013 – family dementia care-givers practised daily yogic meditation. This led to improved mental and cognitive functioning and lower levels of depressive symptoms. There was also an increase in telomerase activity suggesting a reduction in cellular ageing induced by stress.
Yoga as an ‘ancillary’ treatment for depression
A larger review found that there was moderate evidence that yoga had positive short-term effects for people with depression, and that yoga could be considered an ancillary treatment option for patients with depressive disorders.
Yoga for anxiety
A 2018 systematic review, focusing on yoga as an additional treatment for anxiety, concluded that yoga ‘might be an effective and safe intervention for individuals with elevated levels of anxiety’, but ‘there was inconclusive evidence for effects of yoga in anxiety disorders’. More high-quality studies were therefore needed.
Can yoga help breast cancer patients?
A review of the evidence in 2023 analysed the efficacy of different exercise therapies in reducing fatigue in patients with breast cancer. It concluded that yoga was the most effective exercise therapy to relieve cancer-related fatigue in these patients. Combined aerobic and resistance exercises also relieved the pain, but not as effectively as yoga.
A review of studies into yoga for breast cancer patients, published in 2017, also concluded that there was moderate quality evidence that yoga helped improve health-related quality of life and helped to reduce fatigue and sleep disturbances.
Can yoga help prevent or manage diabetes?
A systematic review in 2022 compared the effect of yoga on diabetes-related indicators as a short-term treatment against the usual care for this condition. It found that yoga practice can improve the levels of blood glucose (i.e., sugars) and lipids (e.g., cholesterol) in the blood in patients with type 2 diabetes.
The benefits of yoga for people with diabetes is also a topic covered by Diabetes UK.
Can yoga strengthen our immune system?
While much research has explored the potential benefits of yoga for reducing stress, current research (2020) suggests potential benefits for our immune system: yoga helps to reduce well-known inflammatory indicators in our bodies, for instance cytokines (‘signalling’ proteins that help control inflammation).
More research is needed here, as this is an interesting line of inquiry.
Can the research on yoga be trusted?
‘More research needed’
Many clinical trials have been designed to assess yoga’s therapeutic effects and benefits. While these trials are often promising, questions are frequently asked about the way in which the research has been conducted. The verdict is often that ‘more research is needed’, as in the case of this 2017 review of yoga as a treatment for depression.
Lack of effective recommendations
There are also questions about the amount of yoga people should do and in what form.
An example is a 2014 review of the effectiveness of yoga on blood pressure in prehypertension. This review concluded that, although yoga therapy can be recommended to, and used by, a prehypertensive population, the research falls short of providing a proper structured ‘dosage’ of yoga poses and breathing techniques.
- Yoga may help people with a range of health conditions, especially anxiety, stress, lower back pain and possibly depression. It seems to help maintain balance in older people or after a stroke. Yoga may also help patients with diabetes and patients with breast cancer.
- Yoga is generally safe but, as with any exercise, if you have health issues you are advised to check with your doctor before starting a programme.
- Scientific studies on the potential benefit of yoga have increased but more good-quality research is still very much needed.
Reviewed and updated by Karen Rollins, May 2023 – Next review date, June 2026
These articles on the Age Watch website may also interest you:
Fitness: Tai Chi
Fitness: Keeping fit – why bother?