It looks like America is getting the memo: The benefits of yoga are well worth it. A 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) concluded that almost 10 percent of all Americans, or over 21 million people, now regularly practice yoga (up significantly from 6 percent of all Americans in 2007 and 5 percent in 2002). (1)
Yoga has evolved to become one of the most commonly used complementary and alternative health practices in the world. Today, it’s even more popular than chiropractic adjustments and osteopathic manipulation, meditation, herbal treatments and massage therapy. The NHIS reports that the most common reasons both adults and children turn to yoga include easing chronic low-back pain, improving overall functioning, reducing stress and improving overall physical fitness, strength and flexibility. Yoga is also a wonderful way to counteract the effects to too much sitting.
One of the many beautiful things about yoga is there are so many different types of yoga, there’s sure to be one that fits your personality and inspires you.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is meditative, “mind-body” movement practice that first made its way to Europe and the United States from Asia (mostly India) around the mid-1800s. It didn’t really start gaining much popularity until about the 1960s and 70s here, though. Because it involves both movement and controlled breathing and focus, many of the benefits of yoga are similar to those of tai chi or martial arts.
Dozens of influential teachers throughout history have shaped yoga. Many actually created their own unique schools of yoga and started lineages which continue to attract millions of devoted followers. Yoga’s roots go back to ancient India, although the practice itself is not religious in nature. Today, the most popular schools of yoga include Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Bikram (also known as hot yoga) and Iyengar. All of these types of yoga stem from a form of yoga called Hatha. And each have their own set of unique core principles, teaching styles, methodologies and physical benefits.
Yoga Journal broadly defines Hatha Yoga as:
“A set of physical exercises (known as asanas or postures), and sequences of asanas, designed to align your skin, muscles, and bones. The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can flow freely.
Compared to other popular forms of “exercise,” yoga is more holistic in nature because it combines physical movement with controlled breathing techniques. In yoga, the postures are known as asanas. The regulation of breath is referred to as pranayama. Together, these unite to bring great meditative focus and aspects of relaxation.(3) This is exactly why yoga devotees report benefits of yoga including both improvements in physical musculoskeletal conditions and mental health.
According to hundreds of studies conducted over the past 40-plus years, benefits of yoga:
- Decreased stress and anxiety
- Fewer depression symptoms
- Better balance and flexibility
- Improved sleep quality
- Increased immunity due to stimulating the lymphatic system
- Detoxification through helping rid the body of toxins and heavy metals
- Increased strength and stamina
- Improved blood flow
- Better digestive functioning, including reduced symptoms of IBS
- Reductions in symptoms associated with pregnancy and postpartum depression
- Less chronic pain, including those caused by musculoskeletal problems like lower back pain, or from frequent headaches
- Better body acceptance and reduced body image disorder symptoms
And there are big investments in uncovering and proving even more yoga benefits. Large, government-funded studies are currently underway researching the benefits of yoga for: diabetes risk, HIV and low immune function, arthritis, menopausal symptoms, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and smoking cessation.