Impacting various bodily systems and processes

Another way to look at how yoga supports health is how it impacts various physiological systems.

In this view, we think of the body in terms of such systems as:

  1. Skeletal System
  2. Muscular System
  3. Nervous System
  4. Respiratory System
  5. Digestive System
  6. Immune System
  7. Lymphatic System
  8. Circulatory System / Cardiovascular System
  9. Endocrine System

Highlights below.

Skeletal & Muscular Health

Dr. Baxter Bell has summarized the general effects of asana practice into these categories:

  1. Strength
  1. Flexibility
  1. Balance
  1. Agility
  1. Posture

Here are examples of how these general benefits affect specific health conditions:

  1. Improving muscle strength can help with any condition that causes weakness (e.g. sarcopenia, chronic fatigue syndrome, recovery from broken bones or other lack of use such as having been bedridden as a result of illness or surgery).
  1. Improving bone strength can help with osteoporosis and osteopenia.
  1. Improving flexibility can help with any condition that causes stiffness (e.g. osteoarthritis or parkinson’s disease).
  2. Improving balance can help with any condition that impacts balance (e.g. frailty

from aging and inactivity, multiple sclerosis, parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathy from diabetes, and poor eyesight.)

  1. Improving agility can help with any condition that affects nimbleness and response time, including any condition that affects balance and slowing of brain-body nerve conduction.)
  2. Improving posture helps with problems caused by poor physical alignment (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain).

The First 20 Minutes

The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk—all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active. – Gretchen Reynolds

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Nervous System Effects

Yoga’s impact on the nervous system is a key factor related to many other effects.

  1. Yoga reduces chronic stress, helping to prevent and/or manage stress-related diseases (e.g. heart disease, hypertension, and digestive disorders).
  2. Yoga is also an aid for other conditions that are caused or exacerbated by stress (e.g. anxiety and depression).
  3. Stress management helps reduce inflammation which may address inflammation-related problems (e.g. most forms of arthritis and gastrointestinal conditions).

Build Methodically & Mindfully

The main routines in yoga’s repertoire for stress management are breathing exercises, guided imagery, and relaxation exercises. For persons with elevated blood pressure or hypertension controlled by medication, breathing exercises should be done in a reclining position until a degree of breath control is gained. When you can willfully diminish your normal respiratory rate by one-third for two minutes, you can begin normal yoga pranayama exercises in a seated position. In other words, if your normal breath is 15 cycles per minute, you must reduce it to 10 cycles per minute for two minutes before seated practice is recommended. – Mukunda Stiles

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Respiratory Health

Yoga’s consistent focus on the breath leads to many benefits that are cascading effects related to overall healthy functioning, and yoga can also support students with specific respiratory issues.

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Digestive Health

Yoga practices support digestive health in general, as well as specific conditions.

Digestive Health in General

  1. Digestive health is supported by overall well-being, of course. Mindful yoga practices support nervous system balance, stress reduction, pain management and more. Learn more: Why Yoga Works.
  2. The digestive system works best when the nervous system is in a balanced state, which for most people means spending more time in rest and digest mode (as opposed to flight or fight mode). Yoga has a positive effect on the nervous system, thereby promoting proper digestive system functioning. By reducing stress and calming the nervous system, yoga helps to calm an irritated digestive system.
  3. Yoga can also teach students to listen to their body, helping them to gain the skills to more easily identify which foods or other factors aggravate their digestion.

More Specific Effects

  1. Healthy Gut Bacteria – Stress management may also play a role in maintaining healthy gut bacteria, which influences the metabolism of certain nutrients in food, regulation of the immune system, and experiences of hunger, satiety and sleep.
  2. Organ Health Asanas can benefit the digestive system by supporting good circulation to the digestive organs, strengthening the muscular support around the organs and stimulating good elimination. “Increased blood flow to the small (and large) intestine means stronger intestinal contractions, more digestive enzymes, and chyme moving along with a bit more vigor.” (Olga Kabel)
  3. Effective Esophagus Functioning “Restorative poses where your head and chest are higher than your belly and standing yoga postures can improve the functioning of your esophagus, and stress management practices will help both you and your esophagus relax.” (Yoga for Healthy Aging)
  4. Symptom Relief & Prevention For conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, a yoga practice can help to bring the digestive system back into balance during an acute flare up and can extend symptom-free periods. (Yoga for Healthy Aging)
  5. Shortened Recovery Time Restorative practices, relaxation techniques and pranayama can help to shorten recovery times from flare ups and from surgery. (Yoga for Healthy Aging)

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Immune & Lymphatic System Effects

The immune system prevents illness and promotes healing. The lymphatic system defends against pathogens and other foreign material. As with other systems of the body, yoga can support immunity in general as well as support people experiencing particular conditions.

  • Yoga can boost immune system functioning, supporting those with immune system disorders (e.g. HIV/AIDS and adrenal insufficiency).

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Circulatory System Health

The circulatory system is also called the cardiovascular system. It transports blood to — and carries waste from — cells. Healthy circulation is related to health of the heart, brain and other organs.

  • Reducing chronic stress helps to prevent heart disease, stroke, arrhythmias, and other circulatory system problems.
  • The following research found some forms of yoga to be effective for cardiovascular health.

Effective for Cardiovascular Health (2014) link

  • The European Journal of Preventive Cardiology published a review of 37 randomized controlled trials which included 2,768 people, measuring the benefits of yoga compared with exercise and no physical activity.
  • These trials were conducted with styles of yoga which included movement that “could be considered more rigorous.”
  • Eva Norlyk Smith PhD reports here on the report, noting that it “offers some of the strongest evidence so far that yoga as a stand-alone practice may indeed be effective therapy for cardiovascular health… The cumulative evidence across these studies indicated that yoga may be as effective in reducing risk factors for heart disease as traditional physical activities such as biking or brisk walking.”
  • When compared to no exercise, yoga was found to reduce BMI (Body Mass Index), lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol.
  • While the report explained that ” the mechanism behind the therapeutic effect of yoga for cardiovascular disease is still unclear,” it also noted yoga’s impact on stress, “which in turn leads to improvements in neuroendocrine, metabolic and cardio-vagal functions, and related inflammatory responses.” (source)
  • For those with preexisting conditions or pain, yoga may be more accessible than some forms of cardiovascular exercise such as cycling, for example.

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Endocrine System Health

Endocrine system health is associated with overall good health and healthy lifestyle practices around food, sleep and exercise. (source)

  • Yoga practices that support endocrine health include breath, asana, sound and meditation.

A research summary in the Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy suggests that yoga has a positive impact on the endocrine system via hormone regulation. As YogaUOnline describes here, the research showed:

  • A decrease in cortisol (related to feelings of well-being and pain management)
  • Elevated serotonin
  • The release of oxytocin during visualization, and
  • Higher levels of melatonin (related to sleep quality and immunity)

See Also

Particular Injuries & Conditions

The sections above describe how yoga generally impacts health. To study how yoga impacts particular injuries and conditions, see:

Online Resources

Please see online version for links to more resources.