Yoga is a mind-body exercise effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression and improving brain function and mental health. Learn how to get started.
Yoga is a practice of poses and breathing techniques designed to strengthen and balance the body and the mind.
Currently, 15 million Americans practice yoga regularly and every year that number grows by 20%. (1)
Why the sudden explosion in interest in this 5,000-year-old practice?
It could be because of the many proven general health benefits of yoga — improved strength and flexibility, weight loss, and management of pain and chronic illnesses. (2)
But quite possibly the interest in yoga is due more to its mental health benefits since its meteoric rise in popularity coincides with skyrocketing rates of stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and other common mood disorders.
More than 90% of people start a yoga practice for stress relief or physical health benefits, but they stay with yoga for emotional or spiritual reasons. (3)
Here are some of the proven ways yoga can transform your brain, mood, and mental health.
Yoga for Anxiety Relief
All kinds of physical exercise reduce stress, but yoga may be one of the best.
Yoga modulates perceived stress and anxiety by slowing down rapid breathing and heart rates, lowering high blood pressure, and increasing heart rate variability. (4)
Exercise of all kinds increases “feel good” neurotransmitters but yoga stands out as a proven GABA booster.
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is one of your main inhibitory neurotransmitters.
It puts the brakes on brain activity, enabling you to relax.
When you are low in GABA, your brain gets stuck in the “on” position — it’s like driving a car with a brick on the accelerator and no brakes!
This understandably can leave you feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and overstimulated.
Just a single one-hour session of yoga can increase GABA levels by 27%. (5)
If you are feeling stressed or anxious, easy yoga poses to try include fire log pose, cow pose, lotus pose, salutation seal, upward salute, and cat pose.
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Yoga for Depression
Numerous studies have shown yoga to be of benefit for those with depression.
One study on participants with major depression found that 20 sessions of yoga led to an elevation of mood and reduction of anger and anxiety. (6)
Another study on young adults with mild depression found that biweekly yoga classes resulted in improved mood and reduced anxiety and fatigue. (7)
Yoga compares favorably in its effects to other mind-body techniques.
When compared to visualization and breathing exercises, those who practiced yoga felt more alert, energetic, and had a more positive mood. (8)
The increase in GABA from yoga that helps anxiety also ease the symptoms of depression. (9)
One study found that practicing yoga 12 minutes a day for eight weeks decreased inflammation, a risk factor for depression. (10)
Yoga increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that acts like fertilizer for the brain, stimulating the formation of new brain cells.
BDNF has natural antidepressant effects.
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It is an indicator of brain plasticity which is linked to reduced depression. (11)
Beginner poses for depression include corpse pose, easy pose, and upward facing dog.
You’ll find these and other poses for depression at Yoga Journal.
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Yoga to Improve Memory and Concentration
Yoga can boost brain power even more than doing conventional exercise.
Just one session of Hatha yoga was found to significantly improve working memory and concentration. (12)
Study participants performed significantly better after 20 minutes of yoga than after other forms of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise done for the same length of time.
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So the next time you’re feeling mentally fuzzy at work, instead of grabbing a cup of coffee, grab a chair and do some desk yoga.
Beginner poses that you can unobtrusively do at your desk include neck rolls, eagle arms, and seated spinal twist.
More advanced poses you can do in a chair include sun breath, sun pose, and knee-to-chest cobra.
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Yoga for Psychiatric Disorders
Research published in The Journal of Psychiatric Practice suggests that yoga may help those with bipolar disorder manage their symptoms. (14)
When more than 100 bipolar patients were asked to rank how yoga impacted their lives, 20% called the practice “life changing.”
Harvard Mental Health Newsletter reported some remarkable effects of yoga on a variety of psychiatric disorders. (15)
One study examined the effects of a single yoga class on psychiatric hospital inpatients with bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia.
After the class, average levels of anger, tension, hostility, fatigue, anxiety, and depression dropped significantly.
Another study focused on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who drank alcohol heavily and took antidepressants.
A five-day stress reduction program that included yoga poses and breathing techniques reduced their symptoms from the “moderate to severe” category to “mild to moderate.”
These benefits were still evident at a 6-month followup.
Finally, a group of women suffering from severe emotional distress took twice weekly yoga classes.
At the end of three months, these women reported significant improvements in depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, perceived stress, sleep quality, and well-being.
Yoga Protects Against Brain Aging
There’s evidence that yoga protects the brain from shrinking that normally occurs with age.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers found a correlation between doing yoga and increased brain volume. (16)
Older yoga practitioners had larger brain volumes than expected and, in fact, their brains were typical of those of much younger people. (17)
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How to Start Doing Yoga
Americans spend an astounding 10 billion dollars annually on yoga-related products, but a pair of stretch pants and a mat or rug are all you need to get started.
If you are brand new to yoga, I recommend you take at least a few yoga classes.
Proper instruction will assure you get the most from your sessions and, while injury is unlikely, a good teacher will assure that you don’t get hurt.
One of the most popular styles of yoga is Hatha yoga.
It consists of assuming yoga postures and learning to control your breath and to quiet your mind.
It’s an excellent beginner’s yoga due to its slow pace and relatively easy poses.
Finding yoga classes should be easy.
You can search for yoga studios near you at YogaFinder.com.
Other places to find yoga classes are at fitness clubs, community centers, schools, or your local YMCA.
Don’t be concerned that you can’t do yoga because you are too overweight, inflexible, out of shape, or old.
There are yoga poses suitable for every level.
Some can even be done at your desk or while sitting in a chair.
But be forewarned that yoga can often be a “gateway” practice — one that leads you on a path to a generally healthier lifestyle!
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The Health Benefits of Yoga: Need Inspiration?
If you still need some inspiration to get started with your yoga practice, I highly recommend the 5-minute YouTube sensation below.
Arthur Boorman, a disabled Gulf War veteran, was told he would never walk unassisted again.
He took up yoga, lost 140 pounds and is now doing headstands.
His story is a poignant reminder that you should never place limitations on what you think you can accomplish.