More and more Americans are discovering the benefits of yoga. In fact, more than 20 million Americans include yoga in their exercise regimen. Though it developed from a spiritual practice in Hinduism, modern yoga as a form of exercise is entirely secularized; in many cases, the only real sign of it origins is that the positions are named in Hindi. Whatever the spiritual effects, yoga has important benefits for physical health. Yoga has been shown to help strength, mobility, and energy levels. People who do yoga report better sleep and less food cravings. There is evidence it helps alleviate chronic lower back pain, and it may even help ward off type 2 diabetes.
Yoga also helps lower stress levels and improve mood. Even prisoners, in what is inherently a high-stress environment, were shown to benefit from yoga—and for them, less stress means better self-control, which, if they are able to maintain it, means they are less likely to re-offend once released. In another study, yoga was shown to reduce anxiety in the broader population as well. Yoga boosts levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which tends to be in short supply in people with depression, anxiety, or similar issues. People who practice yoga have higher GABA levels and showed less anxiety
Other groups also benefit from reduced stress. People undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer often experience fatigue as a result of the treatment. Yoga helps fight that fatigue. In addition, research has found that, in part due to stress reduction, patients who do yoga find that it improves their quality of life. Radiotherapy patients who do yoga report more energy, better ability to live more normal lives, and better overall health. Patients even reported more of a sense of well-being after treatment if they had done yoga during the treatment than if they had not.
Yoga also has been shown to benefit seniors. One study found that when people over 55 practice a form of yoga called hatha three times a week, it boosts their cognitive ability, including ability to focus. Post-menopausal women in a different study reported sleeping better, with the practice of yoga helping with the insomnia that can come with age.