People who attended only one 90-minute yoga class a week for 16 weeks reduced their back pain by two thirds and their pain medication usage by 88 percent, according to one study in the aptly named journal Pain. One of many theories on how it works: Pressing into the floor activates your pressure receptors, blocking the neural pathways that signal pain, suggests Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. To get the benefits, skip the hard-core yoga and emphasize meditation and stretching. “Tight muscles can be a factor in pain, and calming your nervous system will help relax them,” says Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine.
Still more proof of yoga’s power to alleviate ouches: Migraine sufferers who took up the habit for three months reported fewer and less intense headaches, a 2007 study in the journal Headache shows. It goes to work on head throbbing on a few fronts. For starters, yoga reduces cortisol by relaxing you. “Nasty stress hormones only aggravate pain,” Field says. Yoga also promotes better sleep, and the more soundly you snooze, the fewer pain chemicals your brain secretes. As with treating back pain, pick a calming practice, Dr. McCall advises. Zenning out in a long Savasana (Corpse pose) at the end of class will help. So will focusing on exhalations. If it feels good, make each twice as long as your inhalations.
People on antidepressants who added thrice-weekly yoga for two months said they felt less depressed, anxious and angry, University of California Los Angeles research notes. In 65 percent, their depression went into remission. “Yoga helps your body produce serotonin, a natural antidepressant, and helps lower cortisol levels, which are elevated in people with depression,” Field says. If you’re in a slump (but still fairly fit), energizing poses such as Sun Salutations may lift you out of it. “There’s a misconception that yoga is only about relaxation,” Dr. McCall says. “Some practices can stimulate you.”
Could a yogi heal your eating issues? In a recent study of 50 adolescent girls with eating disorders, scientists found that an hour of yoga a week for eight weeks reduced subjects’ symptoms and their overall preoccupation with food. Anxiety and depression pop up more often in people with eating problems, says study coauthor Amber Frye-Johnson, a research scientist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Yoga fans have lower rates of both. “All yoga makes people more accepting and loving toward themselves and their body,” Dr. McCall says. You may need a relaxing or energizing class, depending on your symptoms. Consult your doctor and YogaAlliance.org to find the right one.