There is more to gain from yoga than you might think. Aside from improving your flexibility and developing the ability to relax deeply, there are many surprising benefits of yoga, particularly in a physiological way.
Let’s run through some of the benefits of yoga with Diane Lee, a senior yoga alliance teacher and owner of Bath Yoga Studio. Be prepared for some surprising benefits of yoga!
The surprising benefits of yoga
1. Yoga helps you retain a better posture
Your head is like a bowling ball - big, round, and heavy. When it’s balanced directly over an erect spine, it takes much less work for your neck and back muscles to support it. However, move it several inches forward and you start to strain those muscles. Hold up that forward-leaning bowling ball for 8 - 12 hours a day and it’s no wonder you are tired… and fatigue might not be your only problem.
Yoga can improve posture by correcting any overarching in the spine. Bilateral stretching of the muscles realigns poor postural habits and core muscles can be strengthened to help maintain better postural alignment.
2. Yoga encourages more vital blood flow
During yoga, circulation to the peripheral limbs of the hands and feet whilst inverted can improve general circulatory gains and hormone regulation. Your heart is not having to pump as hard as you are aiding venous flow. As you twist, the contraction, relaxation and compression and release of the internal organs encourages oxygenated blood to flow.
The heart relaxes when the hips are higher than the heart. To get into these positions, try inverted poses such as Headstands, Shoulder Stands, Bridges and Wheels. Swelling can be reduced from the lower limbs as blood pumps back with less restriction and effort towards the heart.
Yoga also boosts levels of haemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. It also thins the blood by making platelets less sticky and by cutting the level of clot-promoting proteins in the blood. This can lead to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes since blood clots are often the cause of these killers.
3. Yoga reduces blood pressure
Yoga has long been associated with stress reduction - need more convincing? A study published in the Harvard Medical School (2008) has found that yoga appears to blunt the harmful effects of heightened stress by influencing the body’s response to stress.
Researchers looked at subjects and studied how yoga impacted their pain threshold. A mix of yoga practitioners, people with fibromyalgia (a condition considered as a stress-related illness that’s characterised by hypersensitivity to pain), and healthy volunteers.
The three groups were subjected to external pain (pressure on the thumbnail) - the yoga practitioners had the highest pain tolerance and lowest pain-related brain activity on a brain scan. It is believed that for individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, stress or pain, yoga may be a way to manage symptoms.
4. Yoga can help with back pain
This is quite a big one as back pain is a major problem for many people across the UK.
Back pain in yoga is a symbol of life being imbalanced (maybe a poor work relationship or spouse woes) - backs and pelvises can destabilise. This can then result in increased worry and the assumption that the back pain must mean there are more serious issues lurking and medical treatment is needed.
October 2017 saw the ‘Better Backs’ campaign from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities across the country. Holistic interventions such as yoga and sports massage were key recommendations.
- Yoga creates more space between the vertebrae and eases disc compression, and wear and tear.
- Yoga rebalances unhealthy sedentary jobs that require long hours sitting at a desk and/or commuting.
- Yoga combats stress through breathing exercises that allow the parasympathetic nervous system to work, the calm, marathon running system!
- Breath lengthens tight muscles and opens space in joints.
- Yoga creates more proprioception (the ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment) which will help better posture.
5. Yoga can ease digestive problems
Ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation - all of these can be exacerbated by stress. There’s a resurgence of IBS suffering in the 21st Century due to the constant racing in life to achieve, succeed and aspire. Yoga is great for stress relief as it promotes deep relaxation and a focus on breathing.
Yoga as a gentle or faster-paced exercise can remove waste substances and toxins from the body quicker, through twisting and flexing and extending the muscles, fascia and joints. By stimulating the circulatory system, cells are provided with nutrients and oxygen and waste is removed through metabolism.
6. Yoga can help keep viruses and sickness at bay
As mentioned above, yoga can help stimulate the circulatory system and this includes the lymphatic system. This system’s primary role is to stimulate the spleen and the thymus to release lymph: fluid containing white blood cells that help detoxify the body and support immune functioning.
The way the lymph fluid gets around the body is by being squeezed along our vessels by the movement of the body - twists and movements of the body (like those moves performed in yoga) can help detoxify the body and improve our immune system functions.
7. Yoga makes us happy!
Studies have found that practising yoga regularly can have an impact on your serotonin levels and decrease cortisol. A study by the University of Wisconsin found that the left prefrontal cortex showed activity post-yoga that correlates with greater levels of happiness and better immune function. The longer yoga is practised for, the most dramatic the left-sided activation of the cortex!
Taking time to become more present, grateful and conscious can bring more awareness to your mind. It can help improve psychological well-being, self-esteem and give the feeling of being energised.
Okay, so now you know some of the more surprising benefits, but how much yoga do we have to do to get these benefits? Well, at Bath Yoga Studio, we advise that optimal yoga would be 2-3 times per week, to ensure muscle length is maintained and any adaptations, say with tighter muscles re-causing stiffness, can potentially be avoided.
Give yoga a go and see if you can feel the surprising benefits that yoga can bring to both your body and mind. We're fairly certain you'll never look back!
Diane Lee: Senior Yoga Alliance teacher and owner of Bath Yoga Studio
I have been practising Yoga for fifteen years, and following a period of frustration in the corporate world sitting at a desk and long commutes, I decided on a drastic change of career. I had always loved the feeling Yoga has given me at an emotional and physical level so I moved my body away from being desk-bound and embark upon doing something I enjoyed.
I completed a 200-hour, month-long immersion in an Ashram in Boulder, Colorado and in 2004 started teaching yoga in Bath. I opened Bath Yoga Studio in 2014 and then in 2017, I set up The Academy for Yoga Training Ltd to teach yogis to become Yoga Teachers from the Bath Yoga Studio facility.
Bath Yoga Studio is a multi-award winning city centre yoga studio, in the centre of the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city of Bath. We specialise in hot yoga classes, as well as invigorating Flow, Forrest-Inspired Yoga and more relaxing classes like Yin and Restorative Yoga.