September is National Yoga Month—a
great time to talk about the newfound benefits of this age-old practice. You
probably know that yoga helps keep your body strong and flexible. But what you
might not realize is that it helps keep
your mind fit and healthy, too.
There are many different styles of yoga, but most involve
some combination of physical postures, controlled breathing, and meditation. Studies
suggest that yoga can be an excellent stress buster and mood booster. Here’s a
look at the latest research findings.
Yoga may help rebalance the autonomic nervous system,
according to a recent
article in Medical Hypotheses.
The autonomic nervous system is part of the nervous system that controls
involuntary body functions, such as breathing, circulation, and digestion. It’s
comprised of two opposing sets of nerves: sympathetic and parasympathetic. When
you’re stressed, the sympathetic branch is revved up, and the parasympathetic branch
is tamped down.
Low parasympathetic activity has also been linked to
depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The article authors—led
by psychiatry professor Chris Streeter, MD, at Boson University—argue that one
way yoga helps fight these disorders is by increasing parasympathetic activity.
GABA is a brain chemical that helps regulate nerve activity.
Low GABA levels are another hallmark of depression, PTSD, and other anxiety
disorders. In fact, drugs for treating these disorders may work partly by increasing
GABA activity. It turns out that yoga may do much the same thing.
In an earlier study led by
Streeter, healthy volunteers either practiced yoga or walked three times a
week for 12 weeks. Yoga led to greater improvements in mood and anxiety. And those
improvements were associated with increased GABA levels in the yoga group.
Reaching Across the
Yoga seems to have mental health benefits for people of all
A recent study from Harvard Medical School compared
a yoga class to a regular PE class for high school students.
During the 10 weeks of the study, the mood of those in the yoga group brightened.
In contrast, the mood of the PE students got worse. Many mental health problems
first crop up during the teen years, so a more upbeat mood may be especially
A small study from the University of Michigan
looked at the pluses of prenatal yoga for pregnant
women. All the participants were considered at risk due to elevated scores
on a depression screening test. After 10 weeks of yoga, their depression
symptoms were reduced—especially encouraging in light of the fact that many
women worry about taking antidepressants during pregnancy. The women also
reported feeling more emotionally attached to their babies in the womb, a
wonderful side benefit of a more positive mood.
UCLA researchers studied a particular form of
yoga meditation, called Kirtan Kriya, in family caregivers who
were looking after someone with dementia. The caregivers, who ranged in age
from 45 to 91, had lower levels of depression symptoms after eight weeks of practicing
yoga meditation for 12 minutes a day, compared to relaxing with music. They
also showed improvements in overall mental function and attention.