Yoga and Health Outcomes
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
I’ve heard it said that Yoga is our 'real' health Insurance, and love the sense of empowerment for personal health outcomes that arises through our yoga practice.
Yoga has many components, aside from the physical practice of asanas, there is pranayama, the breathing practices which help to strengthen the respiratory system and regulate our central nervous system. Next we have meditation practice, which can take many forms, including moving meditation, sitting meditation and Yoga Nidra (practised in savasana); and alongside there are the philosophies of yoga, which bring us to explore concepts such as ahimsa (non-harm) and shaucha (cleanliness/order/purity).
Health Outcomes and Home Practice
Ross et al (2012) found that developing and sustaining a home practice of yoga was a stronger predictor of health outcomes than attending a class or the number of years of practice. Why might that be? It’s not alluded to in the research, though wonder if it may be due to the autonomy and commitment that come with developing a home practice; along with our ability to tune into the needs of our body, mind and breath through increased self-awareness.
I am not trying to put people off attending classes! For many, including myself, guided classes still provide a gateway for building the skills needed for enjoying an effective self-practice habit. In my own journey, for many years I did my best to practice yoga from books (pre internet); and it was only when I practised with a yoga teacher twice weekly that I began to notice progression and impact from my practice. That growth accelerated when I began to formally study yoga.
With these layers of experience (books, classes, formal instruction) my home practice began to naturally evolve, simply by coming to the mat and noticing what my physical body and mind wanted and needed in that moment (whether it be Yoga Nidra, or low-level mindful movement, or more active sun salutations or meditation or breath-work / pranayama).
An intensive home yoga practice is considered to be five times a week (or more), and practitioners who engage in this frequency of practice tend to experience a broader range of yoga practice, including asana, pranayama (breathing), meditation and philosophy. And this broader range of practice leads to a broader range of health outcomes, as each branch of yoga has been linked with different health outcomes, for example:
The practice of physical poses (asanas) are associated with improved outcomes for sleep, diet and BMI.
Pranayama and meditation are associated with improved mindfulness and subjective well-being, and may be particularly beneficial for managing depression and anxiety.
Gentle poses (supine restorative poses and relaxation pose) are associated with higher level of consumption of fruit and vegetable, a higher rate of vegetarianism and lower alcohol consumption.
Research Based Health Outcomes
The review of yoga practice and health benefits by Ross et al (2012), found the following health benefits:
Systolic and diastolic blood pressure
Levels of Immunoglobulin A
‘Natural Killer Cells’
Yoga improves outcomes associated with chronic SNS/HPA-axis activation
Body composition (including BMI)
From personal experience, I have seen improvement in BMI (height appropriate) and improved cholesterol levels (exceptional for age). With midlife came sleep challenges, and Yoga Nidra has been a blessing for managing sleep disturbance and fatigue. Though the research base for the health benefits of yoga is growing, maybe it is only when we experience the benefits personally that we begin to ‘get’ yoga and make it an everyday feature of our lives.
In our fast-paced modern life, we can find ourselves strung out, pulled in many directions, moving through our day with speed and letting self-care practices (exercise, nutrition, sleep) fall away. Building a home yoga practice enables us to come back to ourselves, to renew and affirm our self-care practices and to gain control of our health trajectory (which in turn may reduce our need for medical intervention for noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers - see the W.H.O. vision for reduction in noncommunicable disease).
Ross A. and Thomas S.A. (2010) The Health Benefits of Yoga and Exercise: A Review of Comparison Studies. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.) · January 2010
Ross A., Friedmann E., Befand M. and Thomas S. (2012) Frequency of Yoga Practice Predicts Health: Results of a National Survey of Yoga Practitioners. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2012.