As our lives become more hectic and frenetic—with jammed-full calendars and a seemingly constant stream of messages pinging our phones and computers—self-care practices become paramount. “When people can use simple tools to relax, they feel better about themselves and more in charge,” explains Martin Rossman, MD, a clinical faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, and author of The Worry Solution: Using Your Healing Mind to Turn Stress and Anxiety into Better Health and Happiness.
As Rossman and other experts will tell you: self-care practices can relieve mental stress, melt muscle tension, and help you feel confident that, yes, you can tackle your lengthy to-do list and handle whatever else may come.
The Self-Care Benefits of Yoga
Yoga is hands down one of the best self-care tools. Spending time on your mat can benefit your brain, heart, and bones, and even change the expression of your genes. Better yet, “yoga does all these things simultaneously,” says Timothy McCall, MD, co-author of Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care, a medical textbook of yoga therapy. “It’s synergistic. The transformation helps with more than one symptom—lives can change—which is something we don’t see much in modern medicine.”
Scientists continue to put research behind the long-touted health benefits of yoga in addition to constantly uncovering new ways this ancient practice creates healthier lives. “The amount of research is just taking off,” says McCall, adding that if you plotted out the research on yoga from 1950 to 2000, there would be a slight upward slope. The curve would escalate dramatically starting in 2000 and even more so after 2010.
To get the most out of yoga, McCall says it’s best to keep a daily practice, even on your busiest days. “Even 10 to 15 minutes a day is valuable in re-patterning dysfunction in your body. It’s about personal practice. That’s where transformation happens,” he says.
Whether you need some inspiration in order to commit to your yoga practice, or simply want to know where the current research stands, read on for 18 of the most groundbreaking recent discoveries on yoga’s healing powers.
Although you should still wash your hands and follow other standard precautions during cold-and-flu season, pranayama (yogic breathing practices) may boost immunity against these common ailments, according to Medical University of South Carolina researchers. In a small study published in 2016 in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 20 healthy adults either did two 10-minute yogic-breathing exercises or read for 20 minutes. The first practice for the yogic-breathing group involved sitting on chairs with their eyes closed, inhaling deeply through both nostrils, and then exhaling a slow “Om.” The second practice, Thirumoolar pranayama, called for counting the breath: Participants inhaled for two counts, held their breath for eight counts, and exhaled for four counts. At the same time, they did alternate-nostril breathing. Those who did breathwork showed reduced levels of three pro-inflammatory molecules called interleukins and higher levels of antibodies called immunoglobulins, which are key for fighting germs, bacteria, and viruses that cause cold and flu, explains study author Sundar Balasubramanian, PhD, a research professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and founder of PranaScience Institute.
See also 16 Poses to Boost Your Immune System
Reduce chronic inflammation
Pranayama may also lower long-term inflammation, according to the same study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. When you have an infection or virus, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, which serve as a type of alarm system, letting your cells know it’s time to fight an invader. But chronic inflammation leads to chronically elevated levels of cytokines, which in turn will lead to tissue damage, Balasubramanian explains. “Yogic breathing reduced the number of cytokines we measured in saliva,” he says. One theory is that yogic breathing produces high-molecular-weight proteins, such as mucin, that function as sponges and absorb excess cytokines so they are not freely available to do their damage, he says, adding that these sponges could still release cytokines when needed to fight infections.
Gain more self-control
Active meditations (such as Kundalini Yoga, kirtan kriya, or other moving meditations with varying combinations of postures, chanting, mudras, and breathwork) affect brain
regions that play a role in self-control and executive function, according to a review of 13 meditation studies that was published in 2016 in Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports. “This could help you stick to your plans or curtail urges you know in the long run will not serve your highest goals,” explains researcher Bianca Acevedo, PhD, a social neuroscientist and assistant researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who also says committing to a daily practice is more important than time spent. “If you meditate at least three minutes every day, that’s enough to produce results,” she says. Over time you may find it easier to resist the urge to hit the snooze button or yell when your partner frustrates you.
Improve social and speaking skills
If you stumble through your sentences when you meet new people or get a lump in your throat when you give a presentation or teach a yoga class, meditation can help. The 2016 review of meditation studies that was published in Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports also found that meditation activated regions of the brain involved in speech, including the superior temporal lobe, paracentral lobule, and precentral gyrus. “Based on the brain scans in the studies, we would expect yoga practitioners to see improvements in social engagement and processes, communication, articulation, and speech,” Acevedo says.
Better manage stress
In addition to that amazingly relaxed feeling you experience during and after Savasana (Corpse Pose), yoga may help you cope better with day-to-day stressors. During a strong asana practice, levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise; afterward, as you relax, they return to normal. This shift serves as a sort of practice for your nervous system. “The next time your stress hormones rise, you should be able to lower cortisol levels more easily, since your body becomes primed to it during physical activity,” says Kristen Riley, PhD, author of a 2015 review in Health Psychology Review that examined five studies on yoga and stress.
See also Change Your Stress Response
Enhance working memory
Another way yoga improves your mindset and decision-making is simply by keeping your brain sharp. According to a study in PLOS One last year, doing hatha yoga for 50 minutes followed by a 10-minute guided mindfulness meditation once a week for six weeks may improve recollective powers. “Working memory involves the temporary storage and processing of information, such as following directions or reciting a phone number in your head,” explains study author Devon Brunner, lab manager at the Neuropsychology and Psychopathology Lab at Texas State University. More research is needed to figure out the exact connection, but it’s likely that the benefits stem from a combination of things happening during yoga, such as integrating breath and movement and redirecting attention, she says.
Lower blood pressure
As your body gets better at managing stress thanks to your yoga practice, this may lead to lower blood pressure, preliminary studies suggest. Recent meta-analyses published
in 2017 in three separate medical journals found that yoga and meditation appear to reduce systolic blood pressure (the top number, which is the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats). Researchers say this apparent reduction is likely
connected to the way our bodies handle and recover from stressors. “Evidence indicates yoga and meditation may reduce stress reactivity (how intensely your body reacts to a stressful experience), which can be associated with reduced elevations in heart rate and blood pressure,” says Michaela Pascoe, PhD, author of one of the papers and a research fellow studying stress, inflammation, well-being, and mental health at Victoria
University in Melbourne, Australia.
Improve motor function and balance
Acevedo’s research published in Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports also suggests that active meditations can help you move better, whether that’s during yoga class, taking a hike, or doing fine-motor skills such as chopping vegetables, buttoning a shirt,
or playing an instrument. Moving meditation activates brain areas involved in motor functions and action information, which allow you to quickly adjust the positioning of your body, Acevedo says.
Boost mood and confidence
You know you feel better after yoga class, but you may not realize just how much better. The review of studies on yoga interventions for stress (published in Health Psychology Review) looked at psychological factors and found that practicing yoga was linked to increases in positive feelings and self-compassion. More proof that yoga truly helps you see the bright side and show compassion toward yourself and your loved ones.
Improve overall brain health
In addition to improving your working memory, yoga may also keep your brain functioning at its best in the long term. The protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) facilitates the growth and survival of neurons, and low levels of it have been associated with stress, depression, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease. But yoga may protect against these things by boosting BDNF levels. In a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 38 adults participated in a three-month meditation and yoga retreat. Each day for the first half of the trip they did 30 to 50 minutes of breath-focused meditation, 30 minutes of mindfulness meditation, and one-to-two hours of seated yoga. Their schedule for the second half of the retreat included one hour of focused attention meditation twice a day, one-to-two hours of hatha yoga, another one-to-two hours of seated yoga, and about an hour of chanting. All of this boosted BDNF by 300 percent.
“Yoga and meditation practices have repeatedly been shown to be associated with preservation of brain tissue in late life, and these findings suggest that this may be due to enhancements of BDNF signaling,” explains study author Rael Cahn, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. More research is needed to determine if shorter yoga practices can also boost BDNF to this level, but there’s no harm in practicing as close to daily as possible, he says.
Change gene activity
Yoga may even have a beneficial effect on the expression of your genes, reversing the
“molecular signature” of chronic stress, according to a 2017 review published in Frontiers
in Immunology. Scientists looked at 18 studies on the effects of various mind-body interventions (including yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and pranayama) and concluded that overall these practices are associated with a downregulation of nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), a protein complex responsible for DNA damage. Your body produces NF-kB when stress activates your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system, and it’s also responsible for translating stress into inflammation.
See also 25 Ways to Beat Stress
Yoga helps you better manage stress, but, of course, rough days still happen. Pranayama is the perfect antidote when you’re feeling high-strung. “Slow, steady yogic breathing
induces what we refer to as the relaxation response—a state of rest that decreases heart rate,” says Riley. This type of breathing reduces activity in your hypothalamic-pituitary-
adrenal (HPA) axis—the chain of communication between the hypothalamus in your brain, the pituitary gland at the base of your brain, and the adrenal glands on your kidneys—leading to decreases in cortisol (a stress hormone) and catecholamines (neurotransmitters, including adrenaline, that contribute to the classic fight-or-flight response), she says. “Yoga also appears to enhance parasympathetic nervous system activity,” which is responsible for helping you feel calm and relaxed, says Pascoe, author of a meta-analysis on yoga and stress reduction, published last year in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
See also The Art of Relaxation
In addition to busting stress, mind-body practices such as yoga have been shown to lower anxiety and may help women conceive, according to a 2018 review published in Applied Nursing Research. Researchers examined 11 studies where women used complementary therapies in conjunction with in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and found that hatha yoga reduced their anxiety and depression, while increasing fertility and quality of life. “My hypothesis is the deep relaxation helps decrease women’s cortisol levels. This allows their bodies to be in ideal health for an IVF procedure,” says study author Jenna LoGiudice, PhD, RN, midwifery track coordinator at Fairfield University.
Build bones (even as you age)
Asana is good for your skeleton. A 2016 study published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation found that older adults who consistently followed a 12-pose, 12-minute yoga sequence for about four days a week for two years increased bone density in their spines, hips, and femurs. “Many yoga poses pit one set of muscles against another, putting exceptionally high levels of pressure on the bones,” says study author Loren Fishman, MD, a Columbia University physiatrist specializing in rehabilitative medicine. This causes the cells that make bone—osteoblasts—to do their jobs, even in adults over 60 with osteoporosis or osteopenia. The medical community generally accepts that you don’t build bones later in life, yet these findings suggest otherwise, he says.
See also Best Way to Build Bones
Improve body image
Time on your mat can help you become more body positive and avoid the loop of constantly berating yourself over perceived flaws. In a 2016 study published in the journal Body Image, Australian researchers surveyed 320 women—124 practiced Iyengar Yoga, 69 practiced Bikram, and the others didn’t do yoga—about body image, embodiment, self-objectification, and desire for thinness. They found that the yogis had more positive body images overall. And although those who practiced Bikram were more likely to cite appearance-based reasons for participating in yoga, this was one of the least important motivations for both groups of yogis. The study authors suspect that the spiritual and mindful aspects may be what is at work here. Practicing yoga may “facilitate love and acceptance of the body one has been given, along with an attitude of honoring the body as a temple,” researchers say.
See also A Practice to Help You Break Up with Your Bad Body Image Once and for All
A combination of yoga, pranayama, and meditation may help you live longer and age more gracefully, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity by researchers in New Delhi. Ninety-six healthy adults followed a program that included about 90 minutes of these practices five days a week. After 12 weeks, they showed improvements in several markers of cellular aging, including maintaining telomere length (telomeres are the endcaps of chromosomes) and increasing telomerase (which is an enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres). Telomere attrition is associated with aging and lifestyle diseases. So yoga, pranayama, and meditation may prevent the onset of diseases and prolong a healthy life, researchers say. “Though we can’t change our chronological age, we can definitely slow down the pace at which we age with yoga and meditation,” say study authors.
Increase pain tolerance
Yogis are better at managing pain than those who don’t practice, suggests a 2013 study in the journal Cerebral Cortex. Researchers put yogis and non-yogis through a series of pain-related experiments, including prodding their arms with thermal rods and immersing their hands in frigid water. The yogis tolerated the heat slightly longer and the cold water more than twice as long as the non-practitioners. Brain scans revealed that the yogis had more gray matter in multiple brain regions, including the insula, an area that’s associated with pain processing and regulation. Researchers speculate that yogic relaxation techniques, such as breath control and focusing on sensations without reacting, can up your pain tolerance in the short-term and lead to brain changes that improve your pain tolerance in the long run.
Whether you’re looking to build or preserve muscles, asana can help. In one small 2013 Colorado State University study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32 adults who hadn’t done yoga for at least four months were split into two groups. One practiced Bikram yoga for 90 minutes three times a week, while the other did no exercise. After eight weeks, the yogis increased their deadlift strength by 13 percent. And in another small study, doing 24 cycles of Sun Salutations six days a week for 24 weeks increased upper- and lower-body strength. Doing vinyasa two times a week for at least a year may also help older adults maintain muscle mass, according to a study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity in January.