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What Yoga Can and Can't Do for You

Sure, it's a stress-buster, but it also helps with anxiety, depression, insomnia, back pain and other ills, experts say

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Results from medical research on yoga are mixed, according to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, though the findings tend to be more positive than negative.

Yoga has been found to improve quality of life, reduce stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression and back pain. It has also been found to lower heart rate and blood pressure. And, perhaps not surprisingly, yoga has been shown to improve fitness, strength and flexibility, according to the alternative medicine center.

Research has not found yoga to be helpful for asthma. And, the research on arthritis has produced various results so, according to the center, the jury is still out on whether yoga may be helpful for arthritis.

Health experts note, however, that yoga should be considered a complementary therapy, not a replacement for standard therapy. For instance, if you have high blood pressure, yoga may help bring it down slightly, but you'll still need to take high blood pressure medication as prescribed by your doctor.

The good news is that yoga is generally very safe to try. Some people -- including pregnant women and those with high blood pressure, glaucoma or sciatica -- may need to modify poses to reduce the chance of injury.

It's important to start with a beginner class and "take baby steps in the beginning," Rohde said. "Don't feel like you're competing with the rest of the people in the class."

Roy agreed. "Part of this culture is no pain, no gain, but yoga should definitely be no pain," she said, suggesting that people new to yoga shouldn't even participate in a class initially. "Sit at the back of the room, and check out the class. Get to know the teacher to see if you feel comfortable there."

All three experts described yoga as a great tool for kids. "Yoga is safe and effective, and it's a wonderful way to bond with your child, and for your child to feel their own sense of self," said Abrahams. Both Roy and Rohde suggested that yoga could be a useful addition to physical education or health classes if taught properly.

So, given the health benefits of yoga, why don't more doctors prescribe it for their patients? Roy attributes that mostly to a lack of awareness of the potential benefits, something yoga aficionados hope to improve in September, designated National Yoga Awareness Month. And, the situation is already changing, she said.

"More doctors are becoming conscious of yoga and the mind-body connection as it relates to medical things," Roy said. "It's much more acceptable now to refer a patient for things like acupuncture, massage therapy and other complementary therapies."

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