Yoga is a holistic practice that works on the mind and body in profound ways. The various practices work on different aspects of the mind and body, inducing a balanced and harmonious state of being. Traditionally, Yoga asanas are thought to work on the physical body, improving strength, flexibility and balance, Pranayama or breathing techniques on releasing blockages, toxins and impurities, Meditation and relaxation techniques on the mind, improving stability, strength and balance. However, even yoga asanas impact the nervous system in a positive way, improving mental health. Similarly, Pranayama works on releasing stress, restoring a relaxed state of being. Let us look at various studies that have delved into yoga’s impact on mental health.
Yoga and mental health studies have indicated yoga benefits several aspects of well-being, including stress management, mental and emotional health, healthy eating habits, sleep and overall lifestyle. An article in the Harvard Gazette explored how mindfulness changes the brain in depressed patients. Benjamin Shapero, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Depression Clinical and Research Program, is working with Gaëlle Desbordes, an instructor in radiology at HMS and a neuroscientist at MGH’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, to explore one alternative approach to treating depression, that is, mindfulness-based meditation. Studies have shown benefits against an array of conditions both physical and mental, including irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While the sample sizes were small, a handful of key areas, including depression and anxiety, had well-designed, well-run studies which showed benefits for patients engaging in a mindfulness meditation program, with effects similar to other existing treatments. Furthermore, back in the 1970s, when transcendental meditation was popular, Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School, explored what he called ‘The Relaxation Response’ identifying common, functional attributes of transcendental meditation and yoga. He described the response as the opposite of the body’s ‘adrenaline-charged fight or flight response’.
Sara Lazar also studied the effects of meditation on the body. She found after 8-weeks of a meditation course, the brains of subjects are thickened, indicating greater awareness and lower stress.
Research on Yoga and Stress
Scientists are now exploring the mechanisms behind how yoga can lower stress. Physiologically speaking, persistent high levels of stress hormones, which includes adrenaline and cortisol, can damage blood vessels and elevate blood pressure. Research has shown with regular yoga practice, one can have low cortisol levels.
Furthermore, studies have also found that practicing yoga for a minimum of three months can lower cortisol levels and perceived stress. It may also reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines which cause inflammation. Another study found yoga is an excellent method to reduce stress. It was also found chanting, singing bowl meditation and sound baths effectively reduce stress.
According to research, yoga is an alternative method for stress relief because it lowers the cortisol (stress hormone) production and increases the production of endorphins. Endorphins are natural pain and stress fighters that act as drugs like morphine and codeine, helping you relax. Another study also showed that yoga produces similar outcomes in minimizing stress as cognitive behavior therapy.
Yoga and Anxiety
Anxiety may include panic disorders, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. A 2016 study on the effect of Hatha Yoga on Anxiety found that practicing Hatha yoga had a promising effect on anxiety. Yoga was also most beneficial in people who had the highest levels of anxiety at the start of the studies. A study from 2010 found that yoga improved mood and anxiety levels more than walking. Researchers suggested that this was due to the higher levels of the brain chemical, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA activity tends to be lower in people with anxiety and mood disorders. The researchers tested GABA activity and found that yoga increased GABA levels in the participants.
In 2017, a study evaluated whether yoga in schools could help children with anxiety. Practicing yoga at the beginning of the school day for 8 weeks improved their well-being and emotional health. Yoga Nidra has been found to significantly reduce anxiety symptoms.
Yoga and Depression
A 2017 review found that yoga could reduce depressive symptoms in many populations, including people with depressive disorder, pregnant and postpartum women, and caregivers. Further research suggested that yoga lowered symptoms of depression by lowering cortisol levels.
Yoga is known to have a positive effect on overall mental health. A 2017 analysis of 23 interventions looking at the effects of yoga-based treatments on depressive symptoms concluded that yoga is an effective alternative treatment for Major Depressive Disorder. Yoga asanas, breathwork and meditation were found to significantly improve depressive symptoms.
Other effects of yoga on mental health
Yoga can significantly improve one’s quality of life by helping manage chronic pain, stress and other ailments.
Self-esteem, another big factor that impacts mental health. Several studies show that yoga improves self-esteem and body image. Evidence also suggests that yoga can help with symptoms of anxiety, obsession and depression in patients with anorexia nervosa.
A John Hopkins study shows that a consistent bedtime yoga routine can help you get in the right mindset, and improve quality of sleep, which impacts mental health in a positive way.
Yoga also uplifts mood. Reduction in GABA or Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid causes mood swings and anxiety disorders. A study conducted by Boston University showed that yoga reduces stress and improves the mood by boosting the production of GABA. Results showed, “The 12-week yoga interference has shown larger improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically harmonized walking exercise”, thus indicating yoga uplifts mood.
Yoga fosters emotional well-being, improving positivity and mental strength. A week-long yoga camp study showed that yoga reduced the negative emotions and increased positive feelings in regular healthy volunteers in an urban setting. Yoga also improves happiness. A cross-sectional comparative study was conducted on 50 subjects. The hypothesis that meditation increases positive thinking, thus increasing happiness. The study concluded that the mean happiness score of the meditators was considerably more significant than those of the non-meditators.
Thus, there is strong evidence that regular yoga practice improves various factors which impact mental health. Apart from the ones mentioned above, yoga boosts confidence, focus and memory. It regulates emotional well-being and decreases negativity. In the body, and the brain, it chemically balances hormones, improves gray matter and brain functioning, which goes a long way in maintaining mental health.
Begin your journey with live online yoga class 3-4 times a week. With regular practice of asanas, pranayama and meditation, you will gradually begin to see the difference in how you manage day-to-day stress, and notice an improvement in mental health.