Yoga is an ancient and complex practice, rooted in Indian philosophy. It began as a spiritual practice but has become popular as a way of promoting physical and mental well-being.
Although classical yoga also includes other elements, yoga as practiced in the United States typically emphasizes physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dyana).
There are many different yoga styles, ranging from gentle practices to physically demanding ones. Differences in the types of yoga used in research studies may affect study results. This makes it challenging to evaluate research on the health effects of yoga.
What are the health benefits of yoga?
Research suggests that yoga may:
- Help improve general wellness by relieving stress, supporting good health habits, and improving mental/emotional health, sleep, and balance.
- Relieve low-back pain and neck pain, and possibly pain from tension-type headaches and knee osteoarthritis.
- Help people who are overweight or obese lose weight.
- Help people quit smoking.
- Help people manage anxiety or depressive symptoms associated with difficult life situations.
- Relieve menopause symptoms.
- Help people with chronic diseases manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Although there’s been a lot of research on the health effects of yoga, many studies have included only small numbers of people and haven’t been of high quality. Therefore, in most instances, we can only say that yoga has shown promise for particular health uses, not that it’s been proven to help.
Can yoga help with pain management?
Research has been done on yoga for several conditions that involve pain. Studies of yoga for low-back pain and neck pain have had promising results, and yoga is among the options that the American College of Physicians recommends for first-line treatment of chronic low-back pain. Preliminary evidence suggests that yoga may also be helpful for tension headaches and knee osteoarthritis pain.
- Low-back pain.
- A 2020 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality evaluated 10 studies of yoga for low-back pain (involving 1,520 total participants) and found that yoga improved pain and function in both the short term (1 to 6 months) and intermediate term (6 to 12 months). The effects of yoga were similar to those of exercise.
- The American College of Physicians recommends using nondrug methods for the initial treatment of chronic low-back pain. Yoga is one of several suggested nondrug approaches.
- Neck pain. A 2019 review of 10 studies (686 total participants) found that practicing yoga reduced both the intensity of neck pain and disability related to neck pain and improved range of motion in the neck.
- Headaches. A 2020 review of 6 studies (240 participants) of yoga for chronic or episodic headaches (tension-type headache or migraine) found evidence of reductions in headache frequency, headache duration, and pain intensity, with effects seen mostly in patients with tension-type headache rather than migraine. Because of the small numbers of studies and participants, as well as limitations in the quality of the studies, these results should be considered preliminary.
- Knee osteoarthritis.
- A 2019 review of 9 studies (640 total participants) showed that yoga may be helpful for improving pain, function, and stiffness in people with osteoarthritis of the knee. However, the number of studies was small, and the research was not of high quality.
- A 2019 guideline from the American College of Rheumatology and the Arthritis Foundation conditionally recommended yoga for patients with knee osteoarthritis based on similarities to tai chi, which has been better studied and is strongly recommended by the same guideline.