More than 20 million Americans practice yoga, and that number goes up by the year. It’s no longer a fringe practice – yoga is a mainstream form of exercise that has been beneficial for millions of people. Although yoga, in a traditional sense, refers to an entire body of practices that go beyond just movement and poses, the mainstream version of yoga involving physical postures, called asana, is what I’m focusing on here.
Is Yoga Good for You?
I recommend yoga to many of my clients, as it’s a key aspect of physical therapy and can help eliminate a wide variety of aches and pains, helping to address the physical, spiritual, emotional and mental aspects of the body. Inevitably, though, the question comes up: is yoga actually good for you?
In short (and if you’re pressed for time): yes! In most cases, yoga is a treasure full of many useful benefits and is one of the best ways to alleviate pain. It does get a little more complicated than that, though, so let’s dive into the details.
Health Benefits of Yoga
There are drawbacks to yoga, just as there are with any form of exercise. However, there are also a litany of scientifically-proven benefits that usually outweigh any potential side effects. Below are just a few of the benefits of yoga, according to the American Osteopathic Association:
- Yoga improves flexibility and muscle strength.
- Yoga can help with weight reduction and muscle tone.
- Yoga can help improve cardiovascular health and athletic performance.
And, most importantly? Yoga is one of the best ways to eliminate pain in your muscles and tendons. Improving your flexibility and doing exercises that put your body into alignment can ease more pain than you think! The fact that yoga improves strength, flexibility, improves balance, calms the nervous system, helps with circulation and the immune system, among many other benefits, makes this form of movement one worth considering.
Yoga Can Also Improve Your Mental Health
Aside from the physical benefits of yoga, it’s also recommended an excellent way to relieve stress and improve your overall mental well-being. In general, exercise is one of the best ways to get in a better state of mind – it’s been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and negative moods on a consistent basis.
Yoga takes that a step further, as many yoga routines also involve breathing exercises and meditation. This can help you to sharpen your concentration skills, calm the “fight or flight” response in your brain, and help regulate the basic functions of the body that don’t work well under stress, all while also improving your physical health. It’s a win-win.
Is Yoga Good for You Spiritually?
If you’re worried that yoga will involve religious practices or beliefs, don’t be! While the practice of yoga stems from the Indian Vedas texts – which led to the creation of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism – yoga is not an inherently religious practice. Doing yoga doesn’t make you a Hindu or Buddhist, and it’s likely that many people who do yoga today aren’t even aware of the religious connotation. The yoga that is taught by most yoga teachers these days is entirely stripped of anything but movement patterns, nice music, and an inspiring vibe.
That said, for those seeking spiritual enlightenment or growth, yoga has been found by many seekers to aid in the focus and clarity of the spirit. The scientific benefits of yoga on mental and physical health set a clear stage for each individual's spiritual journey, whatever that may be.
Is Yoga Dangerous?
It’s important to remember that any exercise or physical activity has the potential to be dangerous. Yoga is no different, with an injury rate that matches the average injury rate across other sports. However, knowing your limits and figuring out what your body can handle are key steps to making sure you’re practicing yoga safely.
“Is yoga likely to hurt you? No, probably not...” says Julia Belluz in her Vox article researching several studies on Yoga’s benefits and dangers.
So, when do you need to start worrying whether yoga will be dangerous? Here are a few common situations:
- You have a lot of hip pain or problems with your hip flexors. The hip is commonly overstretched in yoga, and if you become too flexible (or maybe you were already born hypermobile) your hip flexors will become tight in an effort to stabilize you. To avoid making hip problems worse when doing yoga, try to stay away from deep poses that stretch the hip. Hip openers, when progressively done to get deeper and deeper, create hip instability. Hips are supposed to be stable so if your hips become too open, your hip flexors will tighten up on you and result in pain not just in the hips but all over the body
It’s best to progress your practice with a focus less about going deeper into the pose and more about stability, form, and breathing., For example, take a shallower stance and push down into the mat and in towards your center instead of pushing as deep in the pose – this will alleviate some of the stress you’re putting on your hip flexors, preventing possible injury or pain. I wrote an entire book on this subject!
- You’re having some shoulder pain. Yoga can cause or aggravate shoulder pain, particularly if the yoga poses you’re doing involve stretching your arms far above or in front of your head. This position tends to pinch the rotator cuff and if you already have rounded shoulders, it will happen with ease. To reduce the risk of shoulder pain due to yoga, limit the range of motion of your arms at that end range forward motion. This will help to relax the strain on the bones and tendons in your shoulders, making for a pain-free yoga pose.
- You have a history of knee problems. There are plenty of yoga poses that put stress on your knee – if you’ve had problems with your knee or meniscus, try to avoid deep yoga poses, like a deep squat, that could make this worse. One solution I frequently recommend is to put a roll between your knee and calf to spread out some of the tension during poses that put stress on your knee. Also twisting your knee where your foot is one place and your hip is in another can strain the meniscus.
There are plenty of other reasons why yoga might cause you pain, but they are mostly avoidable as long as you know what you’re doing! I’ve put together an entire article detailing some of the most common yoga injuries and what you can do to avoid them here.
Whether you’re looking to try yoga to stay healthy and in shape or your physical therapist is recommending it, go ahead and give it a go! I just love the practice of yoga and it breaks my heart when people get injured doing it. I would love for more people to be able to practice yoga lifelong. With these tips, it’s possible! If you want to learn a little more about holistic physical therapy and many other topics related to yoga and the hips, check out my blog.