The Surprising Health Benefits Of Yoga


cait fortier headshot

by Cait Fortier

Yoga doesn’t need to be an exclusive activity, only available to those who are young and flexible. Everyone can benefit from it. These days you’ll find people practicing hot yoga at their local community centers, yin yoga in office board rooms, restorative yoga in the comfort of their own homes, or yoga for kids with classes outside at the park.

So what keeps all these different people coming back to the same kind of movement? What are the benefits of yoga, and are there some things that might surprise you?

Did you know?
Yoga has grown significantly in popularity in North America. In the U.S. alone, it has grown by fifty percent in four years leading to 2016. Additionally, nearly 5 percent of U.S. businesses offered yoga at the workplace in 2008. (1)

group of five people doing yoga together

The tree asana or posture is a standing balance pose for beginners.

What is yoga?

The practice of yoga can be traced back 5,000 years to people living in India and belonging to the Indus-Sarasvati civilizations. In the Hindi language, the word yoga means “union.” Yoga follows an ancient Hindu discipline and was primarily focused on spiritual practice and life philosophy. Traditionally, Yoga benefits you by moving you towards peace of mind and enlightenment rather than just improved physical health.

One of the most popular forms of yoga practiced in western society today is Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga combines three elements: “asanas” (physical exercises and postures), controlled breathing practiced in conjunction with asanas; and meditation designed to move someone towards peace of mind and deep relaxation.

Forms of yoga

Yin yoga

A slow and calm style of yoga with postures that are mostly in a sitting position. The postures are held for between 30 seconds up to two minutes or longer. Yin can feel meditative and is great for beginners and experts alike.

Kundalini yoga

A dynamic form of yoga that is both physical and spiritual and consists of simple yogic techniques. It involves pranayama (breath control), asanas, mantras (chants), dhwani (gong) and meditation.

Ashtanga yoga

Involves synchronizing a series of physically demanding postures with the breath. Ashtanga yoga can be challenging and is not recommended for the beginner.

Vinyasa yoga

An adapted version of Ashtanga yoga. The different movements flow from one to another and are coordinated with your breath. Other types of yoga can be considered Vinyasa (such as power yoga) and can vary from easy to difficult.

Bikram yoga

A series of 26 specific Hatha yoga postures completed in a particular routine accompanied by breathing exercises and performed in a heated room. Bikram is a form of hot yoga.

Four surprising health benefits of yoga

1. Better sleep

Improving the length and quality of your sleep will have a positive impact on your overall health. And guess what? Yoga can help with that!

According to results of the 2007-to-2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey, 43 percent of men and 55 percent of women aged 18 to 64 reported difficulty in going to sleep or staying asleep. (2)

One reason that yoga may support improved sleep patterns is that it helps activate a component of our autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for supporting the body in rest, relaxation, and with digestion. (3)

A national survey by the US Department of Health and Human Services showed that over 55 percent of people that practiced yoga found it helped them get a night of better sleep. Additionally, studies have shown that 4 to 8 weeks of yoga results in a positive effect on sleep efficiency and total sleep time. (4)(5)

people doing yoga

Different types of yoga and yoga poses can provide a gentle massage to the spine.

2. Yoga can decrease lower back pain

Most of us have experienced lower back pain. In fact, four out of five Americans will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, as it is one of the most common health problems in the United States. (6) Some of us may even experience it regularly, especially if we sit for long periods during the day at a desk or in a car.

Yoga can be a gentle and mindful practice, but it is also a powerful practice that helps build muscle and increases your overall strength. Yoga helps stretch and strengthen muscles that support the back and spine. Some studies have found that yoga can be equally as beneficial for treating back pain as physical therapy. (7)

3. Better digestion

Yoga can also help with digestion, and optimal digestion can have a significant positive impact on your overall health.

Digestion is the mechanical and chemical process that helps break down the food we eat into its smallest molecules so that it can be absorbed into and used by the body. When digestion is impaired, it can lead to symptoms like poor nutrient absorption, constipation, loose stools, low energy and mood, bloating and gas. (8)

Studies have found that regular exercise (such as yoga) improves gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and in general can help control our stress response and improve digestion. (9)

One of the easiest ways to improve your digestion is to…relax! When we are relaxed, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated and our bodies can better focus on breaking down and absorbing the food that we are eating. Since yoga helps activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and relaxed state”) it is no wonder that it can help improve our digestion.

Other ways that yoga may help improve digestion include:

  • Increasing muscle tone in the abdomen and muscle activity in the intestines.
  • Improving circulation which may relieve symptoms of constipation.

4. Improve your mood

While there are many reasons to practice yoga to improve our physical health, such as increased flexibility, strengthened muscles, and injury prevention, yoga also offers powerful remedies to our mental well-being.

elder couple practicing yoga together

Bringing your hands together and close to the heart, is a common movement in yoga.

American national survey data from 2012 showed that 94 percent of adults who practiced yoga did it for wellness-related reasons. Of this,17.5 percent did it to treat a specific health condition, whereas 86 percent said it reduced stress and 67 percent said it helped them feel better emotionally. (10)

Similar to other forms of exercise such as running or playing sports, yoga has the ability to improve our mood and make us feel happier. Yoga has the added benefit of helping to reduce elevated stress response and promote a feeling of calm that can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. (11)

Yoga has also been shown to have an impact on our brain’s GABA levels (gamma-aminobutyric acid), an important inhibitory neurotransmitter that essentially puts a halt on nerve impulses when we are in stressful situations and produces a calming effect. (12)

Yoga in all its forms incorporates a meditative component. For example, at the end of most yoga classes, participants relax and meditate for 5-10 minutes lying on their backs with their arms stretched out and eyes closed in a pose called Savasana. Now that sounds relaxing!

woman lying on a yoga mat

Relaxation is a key aspect of practicing yoga.

The bottom line

All these benefits will make you want to rush out the door and start your new yoga practice. But you should start slow.

  • Decide on what you are hoping to achieve and choose the yoga practice that best helps you to achieve that goal
  • Start by taking a beginner class with the support of a qualified teacher
  • Do not use yoga to postpone seeing a qualified health care practitioner about a specific medical problem
  • Enjoy yourself, have fun and namaste

If you are a practitioner, consider signing up to Fullscript. If you are a patient, talk to your healthcare practitioner about Fullscript!

  1. The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace. (2010). Scand J Work Environ Health. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20369218
  2. Duration and quality of sleep among Canadians aged 18 to 79. (2017). Health Reports. [online] Available at: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2017009/article/54857-eng.htm
  3. Understanding the stress response. (2011). Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. [online] Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  4. Wellness-related use of common complementary health approaches among adults: United States, 2012. (2015). National health statistics reports; no 85. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. [online] Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/NHIS/2012/wellness?nav=chat
  5. Treatment of chronic insomnia with yoga: a preliminary study with sleep-wake diaries. (2004). Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15707256
  6. The physical benefits of yoga. (n.d.). Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Healthbeat. [online] Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/physical-benefits-of-yoga\
  7. Yoga, Physical Therapy, or Education for Chronic Low Back Pain. 2017. Ann Intern Med.
    [online] Available at: https://ndnr.com/naturopathic-news/yoga-for-back-pain/
  8. Human digestion–a processing perspective. (2016). J Sci Food Agric. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26711173
  9. Physical activity improves symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome: a randomized controlled trial. (2011). Am J Gastroenterol. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21206488
  10. Yoga: What You Need To Know. (2018). National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. [online] Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm
  11. Exercise, yoga, and meditation for depressive and anxiety disorders. (2010). Am Fam Physician. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20387774
  12. The Neuropsychology of Anxiety: An Enquiry into the Functions of the Septo-Hippocampal System. Oxford University Press. [online] Available at: http://stoa.usp.br/vahs/files/-1/16169/Gray+e+McNaughton+-+Neuropsychology+of+Anxiety.pdf