The Benefits of Yoga Go Way Beyond Improving Your Flexibility

From boosting your immune system to improving your ability to handle stress, unroll your mat to enjoy these upsides of downward dogs.

It's no secret that the benefits of yoga transcend just being able to (finally) touch your toes or hold a steady plank. From physical strength to stress relief, regular downward dogs and crescent lunges can transform the rest of your life, too.

Here, learn more about some of the top benefits of yoga that will have you unrolling your mat ASAP.

Benefits of Yoga
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Boosts Immune System

Whether you're fighting off a common cold or simply protecting your body for flu season, adding a short yoga flow to your daily routine could help prevent illness by strengthening your immune system. By influencing gene expression, yoga strengthens your immune system at the cellular level, According to research out of Norway, gentle yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation influence gene expression (aka how your body uses the information in a gene to create a functional product, such as a protein). The best part? These immune-boosting benefits of yoga come quickly — even before you leave the mat.

You also enjoy a pumped-up immune system thanks to your fight-or-flight response, which kicks in the moment you start exercising as a way to boost circulation, as Shape previously reported.

"Both actions activate immunosurveillance, mobilizing immune cells into blood, lymph, and tissues to increase the probability that they come into contact with pathogens," says Jeffrey Woods, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor at the University of Illinois and a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine.

Teaches Intentional Breathing

You might think you have the whole "inhale, exhale" thing down, but one of the main benefits of yoga is intentional breathing, says Brenda N. Umana, M.P.H, 500-RYT, a yoga and meditation educator. "Generally, the instructor will cue when to breathe in and out," she explains.

And one especially important type of breath is the ujjayi breath, also known as the victorious breath, in which you breathe in and out through your nose with lips sealed. "Anatomically, this style of breathing encourages some resistance in the throat muscles associated with breathing," adds Umana. "These muscles are linked to the nerves (mainly the vagus nerve) in your brain that promotes a more restful state in your nervous system (as opposed to being stressed out)." Read: You can call on yoga-inspired breathing techniques for an instant dose of chill in stressful moments.

Reduces Stress and Improves Sleep Quality

Anyone who has ever settled into child's pose knows yoga is calming. "The tensing and relaxation of muscles during yoga — along with mindful awareness of physical sensations — helps us relax," explains physician Jamie Zimmerman, M.D., a Sonima meditation instructor. That may be one reason why just eight weeks of daily yoga significantly improves sleep quality in people with insomnia, according to a Harvard University study.

The stress reduction benefit of yoga comes from the inside out, notes  Paige Willis, yoga instructor and founder of Undone. "Your brain releases various chemicals that work together to help you feel at ease," she explains. "One of these, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), is responsible for sending a wave of calm throughout your body. The others, your happy hormones (i.e oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins), help improve your mood and perspective on life." So TL;DR: If you've had a particularly stressful day at work or you're feeling tense from an argument with a friend, yoga can help relieve those uncomfortable feelings.

And as you continue your yoga practice, you'll be able to call on those relaxing techniques off the mat, too — which lets you head off the stress before you enter full-blown panic mode. Umana compares it to playing basketball at practice vs. during a high-stakes playoff game, "While the practice is a bit contrived [meaning a controlled scenario], someone could toss a ball at [a player] during the game and they know exactly what to do because of the practice," she points out. "Similarly, a yoga [routine] is a bit of a contrived scenario that supports us in the game of life." In that sense, your yoga practice is quite literally a practice that prepares you for stressful situations IRL.

Strengthens Deep Core Muscles and Pelvic Floor

The benefits of yoga for your abs go beyond a superficial six-pack (aka the rectus abdominis muscle). Yoga also increases your core stability and strengthens your pelvic floor muscles, according to ob-gyn Alyssa Dweck, M.D., coauthor of V Is for Vagina. It not only strengthens your muscles (allowing you to hold certain — ahem — poses for longer), but it improves your flexibility, increases your core stability, and strengthens your pelvic floor muscles — which translates into a better ability to contract your pelvic floor muscles for stronger orgasms, she says.

As for deep core muscles, certain yoga practices are centered around pelvic floor engagement, which focuses on pelvic floor muscles such as the coccygeus, iliococcygeus, puborectalis, and pubococcygeus. These core muscles sit at the bottom of the torso and support the bladder, bowel, uterus, and vagina, while also stabilizing your spine, as Shape previously reported.

"Certain practices in yoga...are used to engage and lock our energy (or prana)," says Umana. "One in particular centers around the pelvic floor muscles, known as the Root Lock (or Mula Baddha). It is a technique used not only in physical practice (or asana) but also in breathwork (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana) as well." In the Root Lock, you'll inhale and exhale while gently contracting the pelvic floor muscles for a few seconds before releasing them. In doing so, you'll be strengthening your pelvic floor, which prevents incontinence, helps relieve constipation, and even intensifies orgasms, as Shape previously reported.

Promotes Mindful Eating

Research from the University of Washington shows that people who regularly practice yoga eat more mindfully compared to other exercisers. "Yoga encourages you to focus on your breathing and the sensations in your body," explains Dr. Zimmerman. "This trains your brain to notice what's happening in your body, helping you pay more attention to sensations of hunger and satiety." The result: You're more likely to eat intuitively (that is, deciding what and how much to eat by listening to your body's needs and cravings) and without the negative influence of diet culture.

Boosts Brain Function

Twenty minutes of yoga improves the brain's ability to quickly and accurately process information (even more so than running does), says a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health. "While most exercise gives you a choice to either zone in or zone out, yoga encourages you to return to the present and pay attention," says Dr. Zimmerman. "This mindful awareness has been correlated with structural changes in the brain, including growth in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with executive function, working memory, and attention."

Improves Heart Health

Your yoga instructor is always talking about "opening your heart" for a reason: One of the main benefits of yoga is its positive effect on your heart health. "Yoga can reduce high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, and stress, all risk factors for heart disease, says Larry Phillips, M.D., a cardiologist at the NYU Langone Medical Center. And it's not just the chill factor: Performing savasana (here's how to get the most out of this "corpse pose," BTW) is associated with greater improvements in blood pressure compared to simply lying on the couch, according to research published in The Lancet.

Restorative yoga can be especially good for your ticker, says Umana. ICYDK, restorative yoga is a type of yoga in which your body is supported by props (think bolsters, blankets, straps, and blocks) to make it easier for you to hold poses for longer periods of time, sans tension. "This allows the body to return to prestress levels by balancing hormones, relieving tensions, and reducing the heart rate," says Umana. "It works directly with calming the nervous system down and can therefore improve or strengthen our heart rate variability."

Builds a Mind-Muscle Connection

Yoga and mindfulness are often spoken about in tandem, and in fact, a major benefit of yoga is the way it builds self-awareness, says Umana. "[With a yoga practice,] you begin to cultivate a relationship with yourself which begins an introspective process of accessing one's behavior, actions, thoughts, and how our mind works." Being on your mat allows you to observe your own thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment, which is the first step in forging a deeper connection with yourself.

"In yoga, there’s no competition, which results in a pretty low-key, low-pressure environment," adds Willis. "This gives you the space to build body awareness, which is your ability to connect with where your body is and what it’s doing in space." In this sense, a yoga practice might enhance your other workouts, too — and not only by improving your flexibility or building your core strength. With yoga, you can practice building a mind-muscle connection, in which you focus internally on the muscle and/or the movement pattern you're trying to create (think: tucking your pelvis to hold the perfect plank, or bending your knees slightly for a deeper downward dog). Your instructor will likely encourage you to think about how certain muscle groups are feeling or engaging during each asana, which is your cue to zone in on your body's movements and stay focused on the present moment.

Helps You Bond with Others

For anyone looking for a new workout buddy or someone to try that new smoothie place with, a yoga class can be a great place to make friends. And having a new addition to your social circle has benefits that go beyond a standing Friday night pizza date; in fact, having adequate social connections can improve everything from sleep quality to cognitive function, as Shape previously reported. Plus, if you're trying to stick with newly formed healthy habits, having friends who share those same habits (read: regular yoga classes) can help influence your behavior for the better.

And if you're looking for a new way to play with your beloved pup, yes, it's possible to do a downward dog with your dog — and it might make the two of you even better companions. Research shows that the amount of quality time dog owners spend with their pets positively correlates to a stronger relationship, and doing yoga with your dog can be just another way you form that bond. Doing yoga (or "doga") with your dog can also help your pup relax while supporting their natural instinct to stretch, helping them maintain flexibility and range of motion as they age. Gentle stretching is even a part of many physical therapy routines for dogs when they're recovering from injury. Say it with us now: "Biiiiiiiig stretch!"

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