From Hatha and Ashtanga to Iyengar and Bikram, yoga in all its varieties has become fully entrenched in the mainstream. As yoga has become increasingly popular, reports of its benefits—mental as well as physical—have spread far and wide. In this article, we’ll dive beneath the waves of hype to explore the scientific bedrock supporting the impressive mental benefits that can come from cultivating a regular yoga practice.
Yoga has been around for about 7,000 years for good reason. Do a Google search and you’ll see yoga defined as: “a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.”
In our current age, yoga exists as an all-encompassing wellness practice. Yoga benefits your mental, physical, and spiritual health, something few other physical practices achieve. The word yoga evolved from the Sanskrit “yuji,” which translates approximately to yoke or union. Fitting, given that yoga strengthens the union between mind and body.
The ancient practice of yoga has grown and changed over the centuries, and different forms of yoga have developed their own specific philosophies and approaches. Yet certain fundamental elements remain consistent: breathing exercises, meditation, and poses that cultivate calmness while building physical strength and flexibility. Your personal goals, be they winding down from a stressful week of work or increasing your self-confidence in your physical abilities, can help you determine which modality of yoga is the best match for you.
The most popular type of yoga in the United States, hatha yoga, combines physical poses called asanas with focused breathing and brief interludes of deep relaxation including a pose called savasana.
Scientific interest in the use of meditation and other alternative approaches to stress-reduction and mental health care—including yoga—can be dated back to at least the 1970s. However, not all the reported benefits of yoga are born out by research.
5 Scientifically Validated Mental Benefits of Yoga
An ever-increasing body of scientific studies support the mental health benefits of yoga. It appears this physical practice can relieve stress, lead to less anxiety, alleviate symptoms of depression, improve sleep quality, and even enhance your overall quality of life.
What makes yoga such a dynamic approach to addressing mental illness and mental health challenges is that it engages participants’ mental, spiritual, and physical selves in one holistic stroke. Modern science is acknowledging the realities of a mind-body connection more and more, and this ancient practice is a precisely tuned mind-body modality.
Noting how various medical studies have proven that yoga can effectively treat certain physical conditions, the authors of a particularly compelling study titled The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women set out to determine what effects—if any—yoga had on stress, anxiety, and depression in women living in Iran.
For the study, 52 women with a mean age of 33.5 went to hatha yoga sessions conducted over the course of 4 weeks—specifically, participants attended 60-70 minute sessions guided by an expert yoga teacher 3 times each week. The study authors concluded that “yoga has an effective role in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression that can be considered as complementary medicine.” Note that researchers define complementary medicine as “a category of treatments and interventions that have not been raised in modern medicine.”
One biological mechanism behind the impressive mental health benefits of yoga is its ability to boost the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your body. This brain chemical regulates nerve transmissions, and low GABA levels are known to worsen symptoms related to anxiety disorders.
The effects of yoga on your well-being go far beyond a single neurotransmitter, however. Both yoga classes as well as individual, self-directed yoga sessions for as little as 12 minutes a day have been shown to measurably improve mood, mindfulness, life satisfaction, and resilience. A yoga program can even reduce markers of inflammation.
According to a recent study conducted by researchers from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the profound effect yoga has on the nervous system stems from its ability to create a deep, physiological state of relaxation, which actually changes the expression of genes related to energy metabolism and more.
Now that you have some context for how yoga increases well-being, let’s explore five specific mental benefits of yoga.
1. Relieve Stress
If you have even a passing familiarity with the benefits of yoga techniques, you know yoga helps with stress. According to a study published in 2016: “Reducing stress levels can greatly improve the health and quality of life, and yoga is arguably the best overall system ever invented for stress reduction. This ancient method gives an insight on the link between physical body and the state of mind, and any system of yoga can greatly help to reduce stress levels.”
A wealth of research makes clear that one reason for yoga’s ability to lower stress levels is that it decreases the quantity of cortisol the body secretes.
For example, findings published in Medical Science Monitor, a peer-reviewed medical journal, showed that participating in a 3-month Iyengar Hatha yoga program led to significant decreases in cortisol levels as well as other markers of stress and psychological health.
2. Lower Anxiety Levels
A desire to find ways to navigate feelings of anxiety leads many people to yoga, and scientific studies show yoga helps address symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Though it’s not yet entirely clear how yoga lowers practitioners’ anxiety levels, experts have found that it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. One of the three divisions of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system carries out “rest and digest” activities—essentially, the opposite of the “fight or flight” stress responses. This seems to help your brain access a state of safety and security.
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that regularly participating in a yoga class can dramatically lower perceived levels of anxiety for those dealing with anxiety disorders. According to the study’s authors, their results indicate that “yoga can be considered as a complementary therapy or an alternative method for medical therapy in the treatment of anxiety disorder.”
Yoga has been found to have powerful effects for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition characterized by intense anxiety and fear following a traumatic event. A research team from the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts evaluated the efficacy of yoga for chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. After attending a weekly hour-long yoga class for 10 weeks, 52% of participants no longer met criteria for PTSD. “Yoga may improve the functioning of traumatized individuals by helping them to tolerate physical and sensory experiences associated with fear and helplessness,” the study authors wrote, “and to increase emotional awareness and affect tolerance.”
3. Decrease Depression
Yoga can also help to mitigate symptoms of depression. As discussed previously, yoga decreases cortisol secretion. This helps alleviate depression because elevated levels of cortisol suppress serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to contribute to depression.
A survey of five randomized controlled trials published in the Journal of Affective Disorders analyzed several different types of yoga as treatment modalities for individuals with depression ranging from mild to severe. The authors determined that yoga has beneficial effects on symptoms of depression.
Other researchers have come to the same conclusion. A team from the University of California, Los Angeles examined how a short-term course of Iyengar yoga affected the mood of individuals dealing with mild depression. Participants attended two 1-hour Iyengar yoga classes weekly for 5 consecutive weeks. The classes emphasized postures believed to treat depression, such as back bends, standing poses, and inversions. By the mid-point of the study, participants reported significant decreases in depression symptoms that were maintained until the study’s conclusion. They specifically noted that their moods were more positive and that they had more energy after each yoga class.
4. Improve Sleep Quality
As you may know, getting good quality sleep is vital to both your physical and mental well-being. A lack of sleep can lead to health issues including high blood pressure and depression.
Older adults can be particularly prone to suffering from insomnia and disrupted sleep. A 2005 study conducted with a geriatric population found that practicing yoga could decrease the time it took participants to fall asleep, increase the total number of hours slept, and increase how rested they felt upon waking.
A separate study found similar results: decreased sleep disturbances, improved sleep quality, and improved sleep duration. Plus, the authors noted that practicing yoga could decrease the need for sleep medications. Scientists have even pinpointed how yoga produces these effects. Findings published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine evaluated the effects of Hatha yoga on the secretion of melatonin, which regulates sleep and wakefulness. After 3 months of yoga, the amount of melatonin present in participants’ blood had increased.
5. Enhance Quality of Life
Given the myriad ways we’ve covered so far that yoga can improve your mental well-being, it’s hardly surprising that it can enhance your overall quality of life.
A study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine looked at how yoga influenced quality of life for 135 participants. After 6 months, participants experienced improvements to balance and flexibility as well as a number of quality-of-life measurements including energy levels.
Researchers have also explored how yoga can improve quality of life for individuals facing serious, potentially fatal diagnoses, such as cancer. A team from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center looked at how 8 weeks of yoga affected pain, fatigue, distress, invigoration, acceptance, and relaxation. The team found that participants experienced significant increases in invigoration and acceptance. “On the day after a day during which women practiced more [yoga], they experienced significantly lower levels of pain and fatigue, and higher levels of invigoration, acceptance, and relaxation,” the authors noted.
How Yoga Deepens the Mind-Body Connection
As mentioned previously, when you practice yoga, it can strengthen and deepen the connection between body and mind. This allows you to reach a neurobiological state of relaxation that can bring profound benefits.
While many of the ways we seek relaxation, such as spending time with friends and family, can unquestionably be enjoyable, they don’t produce calmness on a cellular level. In order to carry on a conversation, we need to perceive and respond to social cues, which requires both brain and body stimulation. This, in turn, necessitates the release of hormones such as adrenaline that pump through our brains, hearts, muscles, and all around our bodies. This means that even when we treat ourselves to off-the-clock socialization, our bodies are in a state of biochemical tension.
To allow our nervous systems to relax, we must engage the bodily processes that shift us from a state of tension and excitement to calm and relaxation. Studies show that mind-body practices like yoga are incredibly powerful tools for doing just that.
Experts have established that when you practice yoga, it can actually change the firing patterns of your nerves as well as the balance of chemicals in your bloodstream. By focusing your attention on aligning your body in a yoga pose while simultaneously breathing steadily and deeply, you communicate to your body that nothing in the environment requires immediate action and it can relax. This slows or even pauses the release of activating biochemical messengers like adrenaline, fatty acids, and sugar.
In this deep state of biochemical relaxation, oxygen saturation of the blood improves, as does the blood balance of acidity and alkalinity. It’s also common for heart rate and blood pressure to drop, at least temporarily.
Unsurprisingly, this can result in important physical benefits, such as increased flexibility and strength, improved blood flow, and more.
5 Physical Benefits of Yoga
The following physical benefits of yoga are just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Improve Flexibility
Improved flexibility is one of the primary benefits of practicing yoga. As proof, you’ll see how your ability to contort yourself into (seemingly) impossible poses steadily increases as you progress through the discipline. Of course, yoga at its core involves simple movements, like bending down and touching your toes—physical abilities that we don’t want to lose as we grow older.
2. Increase Strength
Throwing around heavy weights in the gym isn’t the only way to build strong, durable muscles. The concept of pumping iron is a decidedly modern one, and people have gained muscle strength in other ways for millennia. Yoga will get you to the same destination with the caveat that, with this approach, you won’t have to sacrifice flexibility. You may not have biceps as big as your head from practicing yoga, but big biceps have never been a marker for optimal health.
3. Bring Posture Into Alignment
Without getting into an in-depth anatomy lesson, let’s just say our physical makeup is not the most conducive to great posture. In fact, muscle strains and recurring pain due to poor posture are an everyday reality for a large number of people. Bad posture can even lead to larger issues like degenerative arthritis of the spine.
Remember the mind-body connection described above? One of the primary ways that yoga improves your posture is by building body awareness. A greater awareness of how the body works inevitably leads to a better idea of how you should be carrying it.
4. Optimize Blood Flow
Ever hear the phrase such and such “really gets my blood flowing?” Yoga is a prime example. That’s because the relaxation exercises incorporated in yoga can help your circulation.
As the authors of a scientific study published in the International Journal of Yoga put it: “Yoga encourages one to relax, slow the breath and focus on the present, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system and the flight-or-fight response to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response. The latter is calming and restorative; it lowers breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and increases blood flow to the intestines and vital organs.”
This increased blood flow and better circulation can dramatically improve your overall health, leading to healthier heart function, digestion, and more.
5. Prevent Damage to Joints
As a regular yoga practice allows your joints to perform through their full range of motion, it can help to prevent the breakdown of cartilage and protect the health of your joints. Yoga makes it easy to keep joints lubricated, supple, and mobile.
Meditation, like yoga, works to cultivate the union of the body and mind (with a nod to your spiritual side as well). Both disciplines can rightfully be considered two sides of the same coin. Therefore, it’s never a bad idea to employ them jointly as a means of becoming a more centered, well-rounded person, as Faith Hunter of DOYOUYOGA.com explains in the video below.
Is Yoga Therapy?
Given the significant mental health benefits associated with practicing yoga, it’s logical to wonder: is yoga therapy?
According to the American Psychological Association, yoga can be an important part of a psychotherapy treatment plan, thanks to its capacity to improve symptoms of stress, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders as well as to enhance overall well-being and build a sense of belonging to a community. In conjunction with other therapies, yoga has shown to be effective in treating schizophrenia too.
Some experts even practice what they call yoga therapy, a type of therapy that uses yoga postures, breathing exercises, meditation, and guided imagery to improve mental and physical health. Proponents say this type of therapy can be used both to treat diagnosed mental and physical health issues and as self-care strategy for overall prevention and maintenance.
Yoga therapy can be a wonderful supplement to traditional therapeutic methods. If you are currently in therapy or using medications to address mental health concerns, be sure to speak with a trusted professional before discontinuing those in favor of yoga. The best results may come from a combined approach rather than a substitution. It’s crucial that you have realistic expectations of the role yoga can play in improving mental health and well-being.
Yoga: Uniting Mind and Body
As you now know, one meaning of the word yoga is to unite. Over time, the practice of yoga can help you grow your ability to sense connections between your mind and body. Ultimately, you will gain awareness of a fundamental truth: your mental and physical health are not separate areas but one interconnected system.
Yoga postures, deep breathing, and meditation will encourage you to recognize the duality of life. You are both your body and your mind, tension and relaxation, discomfort and ease. When you improve your physical health, your mental health will also benefit, and vice versa. Practicing yoga will show you how this plays out in concrete ways.
Long-term yoga practitioners may find they begin to live in a more integrated way, making choices informed by a steady perception of their mental and physical state at any given point in time.
If you’re looking for a holistic approach to enhancing your mental, physical, and overall well-being, you should certainly consider trying yoga.