When Chanel Nelson found out she would need to have back surgery to fix two herniated discs, her neurosurgeon recommended she start building up core strength to help her recover afterward.

To build up that strength, Nelson committed to going to yoga every day for 30 days. At the end of those 30 days, Nelson noticed her back pain had lessened and postponed the surgery. And then she kept postponing the surgery and kept going to yoga.

“It brought me back,” Nelson told the Deseret News. “It was my physical and emotional healing. I like to say yoga saved me from having surgery because I never ended up having surgery.”

Nelson isn’t the only one who has found healing through yoga. While doing yoga might not prevent surgery for everyone, research has found there are many health benefits it can provide if it’s the right fit for you. Some doctors are even prescribing yoga to patients due to its health benefits.

There are now established yoga therapy programs at major health care centers, including The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. According to Yoga Journal, there are “more than 500 research papers on yoga therapy (that) have been published in peer-reviewed journals.”

“The practice of yoga is not as easy or as quick as taking medication, but mounting evidence suggests it is worth the effort and investment,” Ina Stephens writes about medical yoga therapy for the journal Children.

Physical health benefits of yoga

Yoga was introduced to the world 5,000 years ago in India, and has been a celebrated practice in the East since. People in the West are slowly starting to be introduced to yoga — more than 14% of Americans practiced yoga in 2017, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One Harvard study “found that people who practiced yoga for at least 30 minutes once a week for at least four years, gained less weight during middle adulthood.”

A large part of what researchers ascribed to the discovery of weight management in connection with practicing yoga stemmed from not just the physical exercise, but the mindfulness that comes from a yoga practice.

“Both years of yoga practice and number of minutes of practice per week were associated with better mindful eating scores,” the study said. “Practicing yoga helps you be more aware how your body feels.”

Yoga and stress management

That mindfulness can help with other areas of life as well, including managing stress, anxiety and depression. One study found that “yoga is more effective in decreasing anxiety symptoms than aerobic exercise.”

When it comes to managing stress, Dr. Doreen Wiggins, a breast surgeon at Lifespan and the director of the Cancer Survivorship Medicine program, prescribes yoga to her patients to help “empower” patients who are facing cancer treatments.

“Yin Yoga is a great form of yoga because it allows you to hold poses and to perhaps sit with a little bit of discomfort, so it could actually help us foster some resilience because many of us are sitting with discomfort right now,” Wiggins told You Aligned.

Yoga and sleep

One aspect of health that Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, a researcher at Harvard Medical School who wrote the book “Your Brain on Yoga,” touts is how a regular yoga practice can improve sleep.

“Sleep is actually a very sensitive biological function,” Khalsa said during a teleseminar, “Your Brain on Yoga,” for the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation. “This is a very sensitive mind-body marker of chronic stress, and it is something that immediately improves when you start to practice yoga.”

One study found that a regular yoga practice helped increase the quality of sleep in adults as well as helped lower symptoms of depression.

Khalsa says that good sleep comes down to a solid ability to deal with stress, which he says yoga can help with.

“Many people will get immediate effects from practicing yoga over the course of a few minutes,” Khalsa said. “As one continues to practice over time, there are structural changes that take place in the brain where people become more resilient to stress and less impaired.”

To get the best results with better sleep? Practice yoga regularly, not just once a month, he says.

Shortly after Nelson discovered her passion for yoga, she became a yoga teacher in addition to working as a surgical tech. She says a lot of the health benefits she finds from her yoga practice stem from just that — a practice of it.

“It’s not about handstands or splits,” Nelson said. “The process to get to those places — we talk about the journey — that’s where we get the benefits. It’s the journey.”

Where to get started with yoga

There are many different styles of yoga taught by a variety of teachers. Do your research first to find out what kind fits best for you and check with your doctor before getting started if you have any health conditions that could affect your experience with yoga.

Here are some of the most popular styles of yoga:

  • Vinyasa yoga — a flow of movement coordinated with breath to flow from one movement to another.
  • Hatha yoga — yoga that is grounded in a physical practice and is typically a slower pace than vinyasa.
  • 26 postures or Bikram yoga — this practice is always done in a hot sauna-like room and follows a sequence of a set 26 postures.
  • Yin yoga — a slower-paced version of yoga that focuses on seated postures that are held for longer periods of time.

Many affordable and even free classes are offered online through YouTube or other sites where you can get started. But if you have the ability to attend a class in person, it can be extremely beneficial, especially when it comes to finding community through practice.

Nelson advises exercising patience with yourself when you’re getting started with yoga or if you’re coming back to the practice after a break, and she says she reminds herself that when she first started she couldn’t touch her toes.

“There’s humility in it. Be kind to yourself,” Nelson said.

Shona Kay owns a greenhouse called Greenhouse Wellness in Orem, Utah, where she hosts wellness workshops and free yoga classes led by different instructors, where students can practice yoga and wellness amid plant life. She told the Deseret News that one reason she practices yoga is to get out of her head.

“With most other exercises, there’s competition — how am I doing in terms of this other person or with them?” Kay said. “With yoga, you can close your eyes the entire time and you still get the benefits. It’s just you here. There’s no winning or losing or even arriving.”

She says that the power of yoga for her is its ability to bring her back into alignment with who she is and what she needs.

“When that conversation is open, you’re connected to your intuition, you’re aligned to your purpose to be more of you who you are,” Kay said. “That’s why yoga is such a whole healing. It’s not magic. We aren’t broken, it’s just bringing us back into alignment with who we are.”