How Yoga Works
Physical, Mental, and Social Benefits

A woman doing yogaThere are many ways in which yoga works. Some ways – like improving the physical wellbeing, are more obvious than others; scientists are still coming up with hypothesis about yoga’s ability to improve social skills.

On the physical level, yoga can help tone the muscles, increase flexibility, and improve certain conditions and overall wellbeing and quality of life.

On the mental level yoga is believed to be beneficial for improving some mood-related disorders like depression, helping anxiety and stress by inducing the state of relaxation, and even improving cognitive skills.

On the social level, it was shown to improve social skills (please, see the studies below for more information on the above).

Traditional Understanding of How Hatha Yoga Works
Kundalini Chakra Diagram

Kundalini Chakra Diagram

Traditionally, the main aim of hatha yoga is to balance the two major nadis (energy channels) in our body – Pingala, which is associated with qualities of being masculine, solar, warm, extrovert, and active; and Ida, associated with qualities of being feminine, lunar, cold, introvert, and passive. It is believed that once the two main nadis are in balance, they balance the remaining nadis (there are 72,000 nadis in our body), leading to improved health and wellbeing. Once Pingala and Ida nadis are balanced, it leads to balancing of Sushumna nadi which is located in the middle of the body and is neutral in qualities. It is believed that once Sushumna nadi is activated it leads to the awakening of Kundalini Shakti – Universal energy. Awakening of this energy leads to liberation – the state of Samadhi. Samadhi is though to be the final aim of yoga.

General Benefits

happy people doing yoga

Studies show that yoga has a potential in helping with the following conditions:

Might Help Build Up Muscle and Prevent from Arthritis, Osteoporosis, and Back Pain

Desikachar K, Bragdon L, Bossart C. The yoga of healing: Exploring yoga’s holistic model for health and well-being. Int J Yoga Ther. 2005;15:17–39.

Improved Flexibility

McCall T. New York: Bantam Dell a division of Random House Inc; 2007. Yoga as Medicine.

Helping Improve Overall Wellbeing in Cancer Patients

“In 2012 researchers carried out another review of studies that looked at the physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga for people with cancer. 13 trials were included. In patients with breast cancer the reviewers said that they found that yoga helped to reduce distress, anxiety, depression and tiredness (fatigue). It also helped to improve quality of life, emotional wellbeing and social wellbeing.”[1]


Reduction in Anxiety and Helping Psychiatric Disorders (Depression and Others)

peaceful woman“In a 2007 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (Vol. 13, No. 4), researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and McLean Hospital used magnetic resonance imaging to compare levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) before and after two types of activities: an hour of yoga and an hour of reading a book. The yoga group showed a 27 percent increase in GABA levels, which evidence suggests may counteract anxiety and other psychiatric disorders. GABA levels of the reading group remained unchanged.”[1]

“University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist David Shapiro, PhD, found that participants who practiced Iyengar yoga three times a week for eight weeks reported significant reductions in depression, anxiety and neurotic symptoms, as well as mood improvements at the end of each class (Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 4). Many of the participants achieved remission and also showed physiological changes, such as heart rate variability, indicative of a greater capacity for emotional regulation, Shapiro says.”[2]

“A new report presented at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Conference 2015 in April linked yoga to lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, especially in women at risk for mental health problems.”[3]

In the May 2015 issue of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, “researchers found that women experiencing postpartum depression saw a significant improvement in their anxiety, depression, and health-related quality of life after just eight week of yoga (twice a week) compared to their counterparts who did not practice yoga. In another unrelated study in the Indian Journal of Palliative Care, breast cancer patients who practiced 60 minutes of yoga daily over a 24-week period, which included surgery and radiotherapy or chemotherapy… reported a big drop in depressive symptoms compared to the non-yoga group.”[4]

“Consistent yoga practice improves depression and can lead to significant increases in serotonin levels coupled with decreases in the levels of monamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters and cortisol.[5] … A number of studies demonstrate the potential beneficial effects of yoga interventions on depression, stress, and anxiety.[18,21,22]”[5]


[2] ibid.


[4] ibid.


Helps Induce Relaxation

“Yoga encourages one to relax, slow the breath and focus on the present, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system and the flight-or-fight response to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response.[5] The latter is calming and restorative; it lowers breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and increases blood flow to the intestines and vital organs.”[1]


Helps Reduce PMS

In the study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, May 2015, “researchers found that 11 women who practiced yoga in the follicular phase (from first day of period until ovulation) and luteal phase (during ovulation) of a menstrual cycle felt more relaxed or were in a more peaceful mental state immediately afterward compared to the control group.”[1]


Improvement in Social Skills

kids playing in water“A series of experiments conducted by organizational behavior researchers at Stanford University and published in January’s Psychological Science (Vol. 20, No. 1) suggest that acting in synchrony with others—be it while walking, singing or dancing—can increase cooperation and collectivism among group members. “In a yoga class, everyone is moving and breathing in at the same time and I think that’s one of the undervalued mechanisms that yoga can really help with: giving people that sense of belonging, of being part of something bigger,” McGonigal says”.[1]


Helping PTSD

“Psychologists are also examining the use of yoga with survivors of trauma and finding it may even be more effective than some psychotherapy techniques. In a pilot study at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Mass., women with PTSD who took part in eight sessions of a 75-minute Hatha yoga class experienced significantly reduced PTSD symptoms compared with those participating in a dialectical behavior therapy group”.[1]


Aiding Sleeping Disorders

“New research is also supporting yoga’s benefit for other mental illnesses. An as-yet-unpublished randomized control trial by Khalsa offers insight into how yoga may reduce insomnia. In this study, 20 participants who practiced a daily 45-minute series of Kundalini yoga techniques shortly before bedtime for eight weeks reported significant reductions in insomnia severity as compared with those told to follow six behavioral recommendations for sleep hygiene.”[1]


Helping Low-Back and Neck Ache

“One NCCIH-funded study of 90 people with chronic low-back pain found that participants who practiced Iyengar yoga had significantly less disability, pain, and depression after 6 months.”[1]

““In yoga therapy, when you hold a pose, your muscles contract and then slowly relax as you breath in and out. When relaxation sets in, back pain starts to go away.””[2]



Improves Cognitive Functioning

a young woman working on computer“Focused breath equals maximizing oxygenation and movement increases blood flow to brain and body,” says registered nurse Graham McDougall Jr., Ph.D., the lead researcher of the report published in the June issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing. Participants of the study saw significant gains memory performance and had fewer depressive symptoms as well.”[1]


Helps Control Diabetes

April 2015 issue of the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research: “Thirty men with Type 2 diabetes who practiced yoga for six months saw a significant decrease in their blood glucose levels”.[1]


Aiding Cardiovascular Health

“A study published in the April issue of the journal Diabetology & Metabolic Syndrome backs this: Researchers followed 182 middle-aged Chinese adults who suffered from metabolic syndrome who practiced yoga for a year. The activity proved to not only lower their blood pressure, but also help them significantly slim them down, too.”[1]


Benefits of Pranayama

man practicing pranayamaPranayama is yogic techniques and exercises, usually in the form of breathing exercises, aimed at extending life force (also known as “chi” or “ki”). Here are some of pranayama’s health benefits:

Activating Parasympathetic Nervous System

Sympathetic Nervous System is associated with a “fight or flight” response, an increased heart rate and perspiration, slower digestive functioning, decreased saliva production, and faster breathing. It kicks in when the body is in a dangerous or stressful (both physically and mentally) situation. Some examples would be when you have a deadline and you have to quickly finish a project; when you are driving and a person suddenly runs on the road in front of your car; when you are running away from an angry dog.

Parasympathetic Nervous System is activated when we are relaxed and is associated with decreased heart rate and perspiration, improved digestive functioning, increased saliva production, and slower breathing. Some examples of when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated are: during gentle types of yoga; when practicing meditation; when reading a pleasant book in a safe environment.

Yoga is believed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system[1], hence helping slow down the heart rate, improve the functioning of the digestive system, induce relaxation and promote tissue repair (which occurs during deep relaxation).

[1] Pramanik T, Sharma HO, Mishra S, Mishra A, Prajapati R, Singh S. Immediate effect of slow pace bhastrika pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate. J Altern Complement Med. 2009 Mar;15(3):293-5

Helps Reduce Blood Pressure

The alternate nostril technique has been found useful in helping people with hypertension perform focused tasks without raising their blood pressure.[1]

[1] Telles S, Yadav A, Kumar N, Sharma S, Visweshwaraiah NK, Balkrishna A. Blood pressure and Purdue pegboard scores in individuals with hypertension after alternate nostril breathing, breath awareness, and no intervention. Med Sci Monit. 2013 Jan 21;19:61-6

Induced Theta Brain Wave Activity

“Eight participants did brahmari for five to 10 minutes twice a day for four months. The research found that Brahmari increased theta brain wave activity, which is normally exhibited during deep meditation. It also induced feelings of bliss “where thoughts are absent, but consciousness remains.” Thus the study determined that Brahmari is an effective therapy for stress.”[1]

[1],  Vialatte FB, Bakardjian H, Prasad R, Cichocki A. EEG paroxysmal gamma waves during Bhramari Pranayama: a yoga breathing technique. Conscious Cogn. 2009 Dec;18(4):977-88

Can Help Patients with Diabetes

“Diaphragmatic breathing was found to significantly lower oxidative stress by reducing body mass index, waist-hip ratio, fasting and post prandial plasma glucose, glycated hemoglobin, and improving antioxidant levels (malondialdehyde, superoxide dismutase, glutathione and vitamin C). This is important because oxidative stress associated with hyperglycemia can lead to diabetes mellitus and conditions like atherosclerosis and neuropathy. Therefore, the authors of the study determined that diaphragmatic breathing could significantly benefit those with diabetes.”[1]

[1], Hegde SV, Adhikari P, Subbalakshmi NK, Nandini M, Rao GM, D’Souza V. Diaphragmatic breathing exercise as a therapeutic intervention for control of oxidative stress in type 2 diabetes mellitus. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2012 Aug;18(3):151-3

Helping Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

“A study involving 19 people with non-erosive GERD found that relaxed abdominal breathing for 30 minutes daily significantly affected their health and well-being. After four weeks, their stomach acidity had significantly decreased and their quality of life scores improved. After nine months, there was also a noteworthy decrease in usage of their on-demand proton pump inhibitor (the standard acid-suppressant drug) to less than one-third. There was no improvement in any of these variables in the control group receiving no intervention.”[1]

[1], Eherer AJ, Netolitzky F, Högenauer C, Puschnig G, Hinterleitner TA, Scheidl S, Kraxner W, Krejs GJ, Hoffmann KM. Positive effect of abdominal breathing exercise on gastroesophageal reflux disease: a randomized, controlled study. Am J Gastroenterol. 2012 Mar;107(3):372-8

Helping Relieve Oxidative Stress

swimmers in the swimming pool“Oxidative stress is the burden placed on the body by free radicals due to metabolism and environmental toxins (air, food, water, etc.) and can contribute to accelerated ageing and disease.

A study was conducted on extreme athletes performing exhaustive exercise as this form of exercise causes oxidative stress. The study tested the effect of one-hour of diaphragmatic breathing post-exercise. The research found that diaphragmatic breathing significantly reduced oxidative stress. It also lowered cortisol levels and reactive oxygen metabolites and improved antioxidant levels including melatonin. As a result, diaphragmatic breathing was determined to be an appropriate recovery technique to protect athletes from the adverse effects of exercise-induced oxidative stress.”[1]

[1], Martarelli D, Cocchioni M, Scuri S, Pompei P. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:932430

Helping Women in Preterm Labor

“A study of 60 women hospitalized for preterm labor found that abdominal breathing performed three times/day for three days provided compelling positive benefits for their physical and emotional well-being. Abdominal Breathing notably lowered their anxiety and stress levels and significantly lowered the dosage of tocolytics (labor suppressants). In contrast, the control group with no breathing intervention continued to see an increase in all these variables.”[1]

[1], Yu WJ, Song JE. Effects of abdominal breathing on state anxiety, stress, and tocolytic dosage for pregnant women in preterm labor [Article in Korean] J Korean Acad Nurs. 2010 Jun;40(3):442-52

Benefits of Shatkarmas

candle gazingShatkarmas are also known as shatkriyas, and are part of kriyas. Shatkarmas are techniques aimed at the purification of the body. They include Neti (nasal cleansing), Dhauti (digestive tract cleansing), Nauli (cleansing of the organs in the abdominal region), Basti (large intestine cleansing), Kapalbhati (the technique aimed at mainly helping cranial sinuses; includes the following techniques: Vata, Vyuta, Sheta), and Trataka (gazing technique, includes gazing at the candle flame, crystals, sun, etc.).

Reduction in the Serum Glucose and Serum Cholesterol

Shatkarmas have been shown to be helpful in reducing the Serum Glucose and Serum Cholesterol[1].


Applications of Yoga
NHS and Cancer Research UK

NHS and Cancer Research UK mention yoga on their websites as “an ancient form of exercise that focuses on strength, flexibility and breathing to boost physical and mental wellbeing”[1]. You can read more about yoga on NHS website and Cancer Research UK website.


As part of PTSD Treatment

“…clinical psychologist Richard Miller, PhD, has developed a nine-week, twice-weekly integrative restoration program based on the ancient practice of yoga Nidra. In 2006, the Department of Defense began testing iRest with active-duty soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who were experiencing PTSD. At the end of the program, participants reported a reduction in insomnia, depression, anxiety and fear, improved interpersonal relations and an increased sense of control over their lives. Since then, iRest classes have been established at VA facilities in Miami, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Miller has also helped develop similar programs for veterans, homeless people and those with chemical dependencies and chronic pain.”[1]


Therapists Do Yoga

Different therapists benefit from incorporating yoga in their client’s treatment programs, as well as their own wellbeing regime: “Psychologists may also benefit from using yoga and other forms of exercise for their own care, Greenberg says. In a 2007 survey of licensed APA members by the APA Board of Professional Affairs Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance, 48 percent reported that vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue are likely to affect their functioning.

“Practicing yoga personally and adopting a stance based on yoga principles such as non-judgment, compassion, spirituality and the connection of all living things can help relieve stress, enhance compassion and potentially make you a better therapist,” she says. “If you can come to a level of peace with yourself, there may be more nurturing that you exude toward your patients.””[1]


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