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When you scroll through Instagram, it seems like everyone you know is nailing single-arm balances and handstands (in front of a mountain or on a picturesque beach, no less).
But for those of us who aren’t hard-core about the practice, simply holding Downward-Facing Dog can be challenging.
The good news: You don’t have to be the most flexible person in the room to reap the benefits of practicing yoga. Still, you may wonder what good the occasional class is doing for your body and mind.
Well, let out an om: You don’t need to hit the yoga studio every day (or at all) to see physical and mental change.
Whether you’re aiming for the flexibility of a gymnast or a calmer mind, yoga has immeasurable benefits. A 2012 study found that yoga improved flexibility and posture.
No doubt you’ve heard that it can also improve your balance. But is there any science to back that up? Absolutely, according to a 2014 study. Researchers found that young adults had better balance after doing three 1-hour yoga sessions per week for 5 weeks.
And if you thought yoga was too gentle to be a solid workout, think again. A 2015 study found that a 12-week program improved muscle strength and endurance.
If you’ve been ditching yoga to make time for more sweat-centric workouts, know that research suggests yoga is just as healthy for your heart as taking a cycling class.
There are plenty of overall health perks too: Research from 2013 shows yoga can decrease inflammation, boost your immune system, and improve symptoms of chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
More recent research also found that a steady yoga practice can do wonders for your mental health and mood, reducing depression.
But can an average person actually reap these benefits, or do you have to spend half your salary on unlimited access to a yoga studio to see a change?
First things first: “We know from exercise that the more you do, generally the more benefits you get,” says William J. Broad, a science journalist and the author of “The Science of Yoga.”
“Yoga is no different. Practicing once a week is good. Practicing three to four times per week would be better,” he said.
But just as with yoga pants, one size doesn’t fit all. Loren Fishman, MD, a back pain specialist who studied yoga and uses it in his rehabilitative practice, believes that even 1 minute spent in practice can be enough to reset someone’s outlook:
“One minute in meditation can have a frustrated, angry, terrible-feeling person feeling resourceful, kind, and fun,” he says.
While this way of thinking probably won’t lead to Cirque du Soleil-level moves, that doesn’t mean you won’t see — or feel — results.
“Practicing yoga once a week gives you a time every week to focus on your breathing, which, in turn, allows you to be present,” says yoga instructor Heidi Kristoffer. “Being in the present moment gives you a total time-out from the rest of the world and resets your system.”
A 1-hour yoga class won’t tout the same calorie-blasting effects as an hour of cardio. But it will increase your blood flow, get your oxygen moving, and, “get any stuck parts of your body ‘unstuck,’” Kristoffer says.
“If you commit to a weekly practice, depending on the class you take, your flexibility will improve over time, leading to fewer injuries, and you will experience toning in all of your muscles,” Kristoffer says. “Not to mention a stronger core, which leads to less back pain.”
Science can back up some of these claims. For example, an older but compelling study found that a single yoga class could significantly reduce tension, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and fatigue among inpatients at a psychiatric hospital.
In another study, doing yoga just once a week for 6 weeks was enough to improve spine and hamstring flexibility.
A 10-year study with 700 participants found that just 12 minutes of yoga per day is enough to see improvements, at least when it comes to preventing osteoporosis and strengthening bones.
It’s clear that yoga has mental and physical benefits anyone can experience after just a few classes.
However, since there are so many different kinds of yoga, there’s no general rule for how much yoga a person has to do to see physical results. But age may be a factor.
“I would argue that a 20-something person who is in their prime of life and reasonably good shape needs less yoga to sustain their practice than someone in their 50s or 60s,” Broad says.
A 2015 study analyzing the effects of yoga on women over 50 found that practicing asanas (yoga postures) even once a week led to an increase in spinal joint mobility and hamstring flexibility.
Of course, if you want to evolve your practice and nail those mountain-top handstands, you should practice yoga several times per week, says Amanda Murdock, a yoga instructor and founder of the Murdock Movement.
“If you practice several times a week, you will see longer-lasting benefits, such as better range of motion and flexibility, reduction in stress over sustained periods of time, and better posture, to name a few. You’ll also obviously see faster [physical] results.”
While you’ll benefit in the short term (greater flexibility, better digestion, better sleep), a single yoga class per month will essentially have you starting from scratch each time you walk onto the mat, Murdock says.
It can be difficult to listen to your body when you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing in the class.
That’s why she recommends getting on your mat at least one day a week to become familiar with your body and aware of how you feel after practice versus before practice — which can become a powerful motivator to practice more often.
It doesn’t have to happen in a studio (or even on a real mat), but the frequency can help you be in tune with what your body needs at the time.
“Yoga is a lifelong practice,” Murdock says. “That’s why yoga is much more than just a workout. It’s the mind-body connection and awareness that make a yoga practice powerful, beneficial, and sustainable.”
The verdict’s in: Just one class can deliver some of the mind-body benefits of yoga. Still, to truly reap the physical and mental benefits and improve your practice, it’s better to block off an hour for class at least once per week.
Even if you can’t, once you know the fundamentals of the practice, you can do a little bit every day at home. Broad says, “My own personal mantra is, ‘A little bit often is much better than a lot every once in a while.’”