Yoga could slow the harmful effects of stress and inflammation

Marlynn Wei, MD, JD

Contributing Editor

Stress accounts for between 60% and 80% of visits to primary care doctors. Chronic stress has been linked to accelerated biological aging, and increased chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, two processes that cause cellular and genetic damage. Scientists refer to chronic, low-grade inflammation in the body as “inflammaging.” Inflammaging has been associated with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stress, depression, and a weakened immune system.

Several recent studies suggest that yoga could slow the harmful physical effects of stress and inflammaging. There are many different types of biomarkers in the blood that can be used to measure the level of chronic inflammation and stress in the body. Cortisol varies throughout the day based on the circadian rhythm, and a higher baseline level of cortisol is one indicator of high chronic stress. Cortisol becomes less variable throughout the day in people who are chronically stressed, signaling an overactive fight-or-flight or sympathetic nervous system. Another biomarker is brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a naturally occurring protein in the body that regulates neuroplasticity and promotes brain development. People who have depression, anxiety, or Alzheimer’s disease have been found to have lower levels of BDNF.

Studying yoga’s effects on stress

In an exploratory study published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, researchers found that 12 weeks of yoga slowed cellular aging. The program consisted of 90 minutes of yoga that included physical postures, breathing, and meditation five days a week over 12 weeks. Researchers found indications of lower levels of inflammation and significantly decreased levels of cortisol. The study also found higher levels of BDNF after the yoga program, suggesting that yoga could have potential protective effects for the brain as well.

In another recent study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers found that a three-month yoga retreat reduced inflammation and stress in the body. The yoga retreat incorporated physical postures, controlled breathing practices, and seated meditations. Participants did two hours of sitting meditation, one to two hours of moving practice, and one hour of chanting daily. Levels of protective anti-inflammatory markers increased after the retreat, while harmful pro-inflammatory markers decreased. Researchers also found that BDNF levels tripled. Participants felt less depressed, less anxious, and had fewer physical symptoms.

These studies suggest that yoga could slow down the harmful effects of chronic stress at both the psychological and physical levels. It also indicates the benefits of a yoga practice that incorporates more than just poses by including yoga breathing and meditation or deep relaxation.

There are many simple yoga breathing (pranayama) techniques that can lower your stress levels that you can do at home for as little as a few minutes a day. Yoga breathing types can be calming or activating, depending on the type. One example of a calming yoga breath is alternate nostril breathing. You can practice it for as little as one to two minutes at home.

Alternate nostril breath (Nadi shodhana)

  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position, perhaps with your back supported by a wall.
  2. Close your eyes, reminding yourself not to judge anything you’re doing.
  3. Take a few slow breaths in and out.
  4. Rest your left hand on your left knee.
  5. Fold your ring finger and little fingers toward the palm on your right hand.
  6. Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand in the middle of your forehead, between your eyebrows. You can also curl your index and middle finger toward your palm and rest them on your forehead if that feels more stable.
  7. Exhale slowly through your nose, allowing your lungs to empty completely.
  8. Close your right nostril with your thumb.
  9. Inhale gently and slowly through your left nostril for 5 counts.
  10. Press and close your left nostril with your ring and little fingers. Hold for 2 counts.
  11. Lift your thumb to release your right nostril, and exhale slowly through your right nostril for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.
  12. Inhale gently and slowly through your right nostril for 5 counts.
  13. Press and close your right nostril with your thumb. Hold for 2 counts.
  14. Release your left nostril, and exhale through your left nostril for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.
  15. Start another cycle by inhaling through your left nostril. Continue to this pattern for 10 cycles. After you exhale from one nostril, remember to breathe in from that same nostril before switching.

We offer several more breathing techniques along with over a hundred yoga poses and basic meditation techniques in our book Introduction to Yoga.

Related Information: Introduction to Yoga


  1. Jim Ratliff

    Neither of these studies had control groups, making these studies pretty useless. (They are just before-and-after measurements. I’m sure that if someone just took a vacation, getting away from the stresses of normal life, for the same length of time as the retreat, they’d also see a reduction of levels of stress markers. You have to control for that.)

    I’m really disappointed by poor quality of reporting in this blog. (This isn’t, by far, the only example.) It makes it so I can’t trust anything you say without reading the studies myself. Who’s writing this thing? A marketing person?

  2. Azmat Alibhai

    Yoga is magic! I had a stroke 2 years ago and I completely recovered with yoga, meditation, breathing and micronutrients. I was paralysed and lost my speech – yoga was the magic

  3. Cynical

    That’s all well and good but the amount of yoga these people were doing is not exactly realistic. I want a study of real people who can fit one session a week in, two if they are lucky. I have no doubts yoga is good for you but a 3 month yoga retreat…..really. Lucky for some. My levels would be improved if that was all I had to worry about for three months.

  4. maryjenkins

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    Yoga burn makes the whole process simple and fun. I have looked at all corners of the internet and have yet to find another plan that is so complete. Whether you are a beginner, or you have had some yoga experience in the past, yoga burn will impress you either way.

    I have had some basic experience with yoga personally so when I first thought of giving yoga burn and try I was concerned that it may not be the right fit for me, turns out the plan was a perfect fit.

    Are you one of those runners up at 5am running through town avoiding all the weirdoes still out from the night before? Me either, and that’s why yoga burn works for me. It fits my lifestyle. I can do the stages in the comfort of my own home, yet still get all the benefits of the early riser runner.

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  5. Emad

    i just started youga for 8 month and i feel i have less stress .
    but my sleep time unfortunately decreased .
    i read a article in one of the Persian website that says ” those who work yoga may affected by sleep time . it couze some thing that we found recently ”
    i read more article until i found if i eat some apples and some other . . . i’ll be better . by the way yoga is good if it dosent affect on your sleep like me .
    thanks for your article


    Preventatism has similar effects; the advantage is that one can use it when working or playing or even sleeping! It is proposed that it can be more effective than meditation or yoga, although both are useful.

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