Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2019.

Yoga is a mind and body practice that originated in ancient India. There are several practices in yoga, usually combining physical poses, breathing techniques, meditation, and relaxation. There are several different styles of yoga, including Hatha, Ananda, Anusara, Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Kripalu, Kundalini, Viniyoga, and others. The styles vary in their emphasis on flow between poses, breath, temperature of the room, or speed of movement.1,2

Yoga for health purposes

A National Health Interview Survey conducted in 2007 found that yoga is the sixth most commonly used complementary health practice among American adults. Yoga is used to help people maintain their health and well-being, improve physical fitness, relieve stress, and enhance overall quality of life. Some people also find yoga beneficial for specific health conditions, such as back pain and arthritis.1

Researchers have conducted clinical trials to study the possible benefits of yoga. Some studies have suggested that yoga improves low back pain and function, and several studies have suggested that yoga, like other forms of regular exercise, can potentially improve quality of life, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, relieve anxiety, reduce depression, relieve insomnia, and improve physical fitness and flexibility. Other studies have suggested that yoga does not show a benefit in conditions like asthma, and research has shown conflicting results on whether yoga benefits people with arthritis.1

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A study from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital showed yoga can impact the way the brain functions, and in doing so, improve mood and reduce anxiety. The study found that for novices (with only eight weeks of practicing yoga) and long-time yogis (with years of experience), as little as 15 minutes of yoga relaxation techniques was enough to trigger biochemical changes in their brains. Yoga enhanced the activity of the genes that control energy metabolism, cell function, blood sugar levels, and the maintenance of telomeres, the end caps on chromosomes that protect genetic material. By protecting telomeres, as well as the other health benefits identified, yoga may help the body fight sickness and disease.3

Yoga for cancer patients

People who have lung cancer may practice yoga to help reduce stress, improve mood, manage symptoms, and increase quality of life. A recent study evaluated patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who engaged in yoga for 14 weeks. The patients were able to perform yoga without respiratory distress, and they experienced positive effects in mood, sleep, and quality of life.4

A meta-analysis, which reviews multiple studies, was conducted to observe the physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and cancer survivors. The clinical trials that were evaluated in the analysis included patients with lymphomas and patients with breast cancer. The analysis found large reductions in distress, anxiety and depression, as well as moderate reductions in fatigue and moderate increases in general quality of life, emotional function, and social function. A small increase in well-being was also noted. The effects of yoga on physical function and sleep were small and not significant.5

Precautions when practicing yoga

Yoga is generally safe when practiced under the guidance of a trained instructor. The risk of side effects or serious injury from yoga is low. Rarely, some people experience pain from nerve damage or experience certain types of stroke from practicing yoga. As with any type of exercise, patients are encouraged to talk to their doctor before beginning a new practice.1