To celebrate the release of her new book Yoga for Pain Relief, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is getting the message out about how yoga can help you improve your health and happiness. Below, she shares some of the most exciting findings on the benefits of yoga from the growing field of mind-body research. I wanted to share these developments with you so perhaps you can use them to persuade the people in your life who are on the fence about yoga and meditation to give it a try.
1. Yoga can help remodel your brain. Yoga isn’t just about poses; meditation was developed as an integral part of yoga practice. And a 2009 study by UCLA researchers found that regular meditators had more gray matter in regions of the brain that are important for maximizing attention span and regulating emotions.
2. Yoga is good for your back. Several studies over the last five years have shown that yoga can reduce back pain and reliance on pain medication. Your best bet for getting started is a yoga DVD or class that focuses on simple, breath-centered movement or healthy alignment, not necessarily a tough workout.
3. Yoga can help you lose weight, but not the way you think. A few studies have looked at how many calories you burn in yoga, and the news isn’t good for those trying to blast fat. Even an active session of standing poses and backbends won’t burn much more than a moderately paced walk. However, yoga can help you lose weight in a number of other ways. By increasing mindfulness and body appreciation, and reducing stress and mindless eating, many people who practice yoga find their eating habits and weight positively changing without much effort.
4. Yoga can reduce stress and make you happier — and it doesn’t matter what style you do, as long as it’s a good fit for you. A ground-breaking 2006 study by Boston University showed that a single session of yoga, from gentle Kripalu to sweaty power yoga, increased brain levels of a chemical that reduces anxiety. The key: Practitioners got to choose their regular favorite style of yoga.
5. Yoga can be risky. Every couple of months, some new report of a yoga-related incident shows up in a medical journal. The most common reports are injuries to the lungs and abdomen from intense, rapid breathing exercises and a progression of eye disorders (such as macular degeneration or glaucoma) due to headstand practice. When in doubt, if something creates strain and discomfort, skip it or find a way to make it simpler and slower.
6. A full yoga lifestyle can reverse heart disease and slow the progression of cancer, as shown by the work of Dean Ornish at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute. The catch: This powerful yoga intervention is not a 30-minute session of a few poses. It includes a change in diet and social support, adoption of relaxation and stress reduction practices, and other aspects of practicing yoga as a lifestyle, not just a form of physical exercise.
7. Yoga is good for your bones. Several new pilot studies have found that a basic yoga practice that includes standing and balancing poses, as well as moderate weight-bearing on the arms, can slow down bone loss in adults with osteopenia or at risk for osteoporosis. You don’t have to wait until you are at risk to reap the bone-building benefits of yoga. Other research on bone health has shown that what you do in your teens, 20s and 30s plays a big role in maintaining strong bones as you age.
Compiled by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of the new book, Yoga for Pain Relief. Kelly McGonigal is yoga teacher and health psychologist at Stanford University and the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.