Yoga is a physical activity that differs from conventional exercise in that it offers mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions. This is not to say that conventional exercise lacks these qualities, but rather that these dimensions are not integral to practicing fitness activities in the way that they are to practicing yoga. Growing research evidence shows that yoga practice impacts the sympathetic nervous system and benefits both physical and mental health.
Researchers at the School of Nursing, University of Maryland, Baltimore, analyzed 12 studies that compared the effects of yoga and exercise on several health outcomes. Yoga interventions appeared to be equal or superior to conventional exercise in almost all outcomes measured, except those involving physical fitness. For example, yoga participants consistently experienced more stress reduction; higher levels of antioxidants; less inflammation; more decline in fasting blood glucose, blood lipids and salivary cortisol levels; and better remission of menopausal symptoms. In contrast, exercise participants consistently had more improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, as measured by VO2max, and greater gains in strength and muscle endurance.
Study authors saw a need for further research to examine the distinctions between exercise and yoga and between the different types of yoga and their various techniques. In particular, they suggested that studies should look at a variety of populations, both healthy and not, since effects vary depending on subjects’ health status.
The study was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2010; 16 , 3–12).