Yoga and meditation: what are the real health benefits?
Yoga and meditation have been found to produce similar benefits, helping to improve your mental and physical health in a variety of ways.
While meditation primarily works on your mind and thought patterns, yoga gets your body moving and can help improve your physical condition. That’s not to say yoga doesn’t work with your mind and improve your mental health. Research has shown that yoga can also have a positive effect on your mental health, and meditation can also benefit you physically.
If you’re thinking of trying yoga or meditation, you might want to explore the best yoga mats (opens in a new tab) available. It’s wise to have a comfortable mat to practice on, and you may also need a meditation cushion or yoga props to help you with more delicate poses.
What are the proven effects of meditation?
Various studies have shown that meditation can improve mental health. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, published in the Depression and anxiety (opens in a new tab) journal, found 25 different studies showing that meditation can ease symptoms of anxiety.
Meditation also has beneficial effects on physical health. A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (opens in a new tab) found that meditation can temporarily reduce our heart and breathing rates. This suggests that meditation is helpful in reducing “sympathetic activity” in our body and putting us into a state of rest (useful if you’re stressed).
A Harvard study (opens in a new tab)also found that meditation can also change your genes. People who meditated over an 8-week period saw a change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythm and glucose metabolism. This is linked to a decrease in their blood pressure. However, this study was small and did not include a comparison group of non-meditators, so the results should be viewed with caution.
What are the proven effects of yoga?
Yoga is not that different from meditation when it comes to the benefits it has been shown to produce, especially when it comes to mental health benefits.
A clinical trial published in the Alternative therapies in health and medicine (opens in a new tab) found that regular yoga decreased self-reported symptoms of depression in a small group of adults. And the Journal of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice (opens in a new tab)published a study that demonstrated a reduction in anxiety levels in a group of women who regularly took yoga classes.
However, yoga offers additional physical benefits that you don’t get with meditation. For example, yoga has been shown to improve cardiovascular health. The Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology (opens in a new tab) published a comparative study concluding that yoga reduces age-related deterioration of cardiovascular function.
It also improves flexibility – the International yoga journal (opens in a new tab) published a study showing significant improvements in flexibility in athletes who completed a 10-week yoga class.
Other research has shown that yoga can help with pain management. The newspaper Pain published a study that observed participants who had suffered from non-specific chronic low back pain. They compared Iyengar yoga therapy to an education control group. Both programs lasted 16 weeks. The study concluded that there were “significant reductions in pain intensity (64%), functional disability (77%) and use of analgesics (88%) in the group of yoga during the post and 3-month follow-up evaluations”.
How does yoga integrate meditation?
Both yoga and meditation require a certain level of focus and attention, allowing you to experience what it is like to be present. This awareness of the present moment is what helps calm the mind, relieving feelings of depression and anxiety. It helps us activate our parasympathetic nervous system, our function of rest and digestion, which reduces our stress levels and lowers our heart rate.
Yoga can be said to incorporate meditation techniques because of the concentration you apply while holding the postures. While holding a posture, you focus on the sensations of your body and your breath, as you might in a breath meditation, for example. For this reason, it has the ability to help relieve mental health issues and can be effective in altering our thoughts and habits, much like meditation. Yoga is not only a physical practice but also a mental one.
Our expert, Sarah Robinson, is a yoga teacher and writer based in Bath, UK, with a Masters in Psychology and Neuroscience. She comments, “As a practice, many would say that yoga incorporates the ritual of concentration and meditation as much as the physical poses and breathing that are more visually obvious to observers. The tangible benefits of yoga, such as the ability to touch your toes, are easier to register quantitatively than, say, the calm you feel after meditating. Internal practices will always be more difficult to explore.
“The impacts of yoga and meditation on various cognitive and behavioral functions are numerous; from structural brain alterations and improved brain function, to mental health benefits, reduced anxiety symptoms and greater concentration.
Sarah Robinson is a yoga teacher and author based in Bath, UK. His background is in science; she holds a master’s degree in psychology and neuroscience and studied at Bath, Exeter and Harvard University. You can see more of his work at sentayoga.com (opens in a new tab)
How often do you need to practice to see the benefits?
As with everything, the more you practice it, the better you become. Our brain works the same way as our body. Just as repetition in the gym helps build our muscles, repetition in yoga and meditation helps build our focus and stamina, whether it’s holding a yoga pose or sitting down to meditate. Both practices require that we keep practicing focusing on one thing at a time.
Sarah Robinson shares her thoughts on how often you should practice: “Yoga and meditation are open to everyone, whether you are interested in research or not. I like the term “what you practice becomes stronger”. Your abilities will be enhanced if you practice physical balance, such as through yoga asana. Likewise, your ability will improve if you practice meditation techniques such as singular concentration. As with many exercises, several times a week is ideal, but something is always better than nothing.