Yoga and meditation: what are the real health benefits?

Both yoga and meditation have been found to produce similar benefits, helping to improve your mental and physical health in various ways.

While meditation primarily works on your mind and thought patterns, yoga moves your body and can help improve your fitness. This isn’t to say that yoga doesn’t work with your mind and improve your mental health. Research has found that yoga can have a positive effect on your mental health too and meditation can also benefit you physically.

If you’re thinking of giving yoga or meditation a try, you might want to explore the best yoga mats(opens in 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 get into trickier postures.

What are the proven effects of meditation?

Various studies have found that meditation can improve mental health. One meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, published in the Depression and Anxiety(opens in new tab) journal, found 25 different studies showing that meditation can alleviate symptoms of anxiety.
Meditation has also been found to have some physical health benefits. A study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine(opens in new tab) found that meditating can temporarily lower our heart and breath rate. This suggests that meditation is useful for reducing our body’s ‘sympathetic activity’ and placing us in a state of rest (useful if you’re stressed out.)

A Harvard study (opens in new tab)also found that meditation could 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 links to a decrease in their blood pressure. However, this study was small and didn’t include a comparison group of non-meditators so the results should be considered with caution.

What are the proven effects of yoga?

Yoga is not so different from meditation regarding the benefits it’s been shown to produce, particularly when it comes to mental health benefits.
A clinical trial published in the Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine(opens in new tab) found that regular yoga decreased self-reported symptoms of depression in a small group of adults. And the Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice Journal (opens in new tab)published a study that demonstrated reduced levels of anxiety in a group of women who attended regular 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 new tab) published a comparative study that concluded that yoga reduces the age-related deterioration in cardiovascular functions.
It also improves flexibility — the International Journal of Yoga(opens in new tab) published a study showing significant flexibility improvements in athletes who took a 10-week course of yoga.

Other research has shown that yoga can help with pain management. The journal Pain published a study that observed participants who had experienced non-specific chronic low back pain. They compared Iyengar yoga therapy to an education control group. Both of the programs were 16 weeks long. The study concluded that there were ‘significant reductions in pain intensity (64%), functional disability (77%) and pain medication usage (88%) in the yoga group at the post and 3-month follow-up assessments.’