Studies have shown yoga to be beneficial for both physical and mental health, but the biological mechanisms for why have been poorly understood -- until now. New research from the University of Oslo has determined that yoga practices can have an almost immediate impact on gene expression, particularly in immune cells.
From previous research , we know that yoga is linked to not only lower stress levels, but also bone health, reduced back pain, relief from depression, and lower risk factors for heart disease, among other health benefits. However, the means by which these positive effects are enacted have been poorly understood.
The small Norwegian study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, has found genetic evidence of yoga's impact on the immune system. In the study, researchers examined 10 participants who underwent a weeklong yoga retreat where they did meditation, yogic postures and yogic breathing exercises. Examining the participants' blood before and after four-hour yoga sessions showed that the yoga practice changed the expression of 111 genes in circulating immune cells. In contrast, music and walking-based relaxation changed the expression of 38 genes.
"There are rapid (within two hours of start of practice) and significant gene expression changes... during a comprehensive yoga program," the research team writes in the study. "These data suggest that previously reported effects of yoga practices have an integral physiological component at the molecular level which is initiated immediately during practice and may form the basis for the long-term stable effects."
The results suggest that yoga may as effective, or even more so, than traditional exercise in inducing health benefits through changes on the genetic level, the study's authors note.
And although it's long been known that yoga can reduce stress, a UCLA study also recently determined how the practice can induce relaxation. Practicing a type of chanting yogic meditation daily for eight weeks was found to lower stress levels by reducing biological mechanisms responsible for increasing the immune system's inflammation response -- and stress is known to spur inflammation.
Looking to combat stress through yoga? Click here for an instructional guide to the best tension-busting yoga poses, and click here for "off-the-mat" stress-reduction tips from a yoga expert.
LOOK: The best yoga poses for stress relief: