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Yoga has always been a practice of mental development (and for many people, in recent years, physical development) with the goal to experience expanded consciousness and enlightenment. As the ancient sage Patanjali describes in the first lines of the Yoga Sutras, the purpose of yoga is actually to still the turbulence of the mind.
As the increasing popularity of yoga in the U.S. intersects with the international mental health crisis, it’s not surprising that researchers are looking to qualify yoga’s actual value in promoting psychological well-being.
Yoga and Mental Health
More than any other aspect of yoga, researchers have studied how it impacts individuals with mental health conditions. The results are overwhelmingly encouraging, suggesting that yoga can help improve mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD) among others.
Complementing such findings are ground-breaking studies (which you will find referenced throughout this article) which suggest yoga practice is actually correlated with changes in the structure and function of the human brain. These measurable neuroplastic changes are not just exciting and vindicating, they also show why and how yoga can be beneficial to men and women who are struggling with their mental health.
The following ways yoga supports mental health are based upon research which includesthe physical (asana) practice.
Just how Yoga changes the brain trials on yogic meditation (deep breathing) and brain functioning have been carried out since the 1960’s, however, a landmark moment was a study by Chris Streeter and his team the in 2007. Their work revealed that just one hour of yoga asana practice by seasoned yoga practitioners was correlated with statistically significant increases in GABA, a chemical that functions as your brain’s chief inhibitory neurotransmitter. (It should be noted that these very same results may not have been discovered with someone new to yoga practicing for one hour.) In 2010, Streeter compared the metabolically matched exercise of walking with yoga and discovered that a session of yoga significantly increased GABA levels in comparison to walking.
The value of this chemical is a curious one: it inhibits signals in the brain, rather than promoting them. In effect, it prevents your brain from becoming too busy, inhibiting stray thoughts and fear circuits typically associated anxiety and depression. Those with chronic pain, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression express very low levels of GABA, manifesting as an inability to shift perception and physiological reactions. Streeter’s findings support yoga’s usage for all these conditions while highlighting yoga’s potential benefit over other types of physical activity.
Yoga’s Role in Psychological Treatments
Schmalzl hypothesized that the continuous starting and stopping of movements found in yoga enriched the connection between the caudate as well as other motor areas of the brain. Furthermore, the constant preparation which takes place during yoga practice – moving from one position to another with control and mindful attention – would naturally harness the energy of frontal-cortical regions, thereby galvanizing the connection between this region as well as the caudate.
If this truly is an accurate rendering of the mechanisms Gard cites, it implies a significant role for yoga in psychological treatments. Those with mental health issues, such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder, are likely to have less volume and activity in cortical frontal regions of the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex (PFC). A robust PFC gives us the opportunity to shift attention, respond in novel ways, and appropriately manage our competing goals. From a neurological perspective, an effective psychological intervention would help support the increased strength and activity of the PFC.
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Changing Behaviors and Habits
The unfortunate reality is the fact that changing your behavior and habits can be very challenging, hence the high levels of relapse or non-remittance found in mental health conditions. Attempting to shift behavior and dismantle deeply entrenched negative ways of thinking is an uphill battle at best. If yoga offers an opportunity to encourage PFC functioning without needing to fight these embedded ways of thinking, it can make the arduous process of self-transformation just a little bit easier. For some, yoga practice could possibly serve as an alternative for other forms of therapy, while for others it may be a much-needed complement to primary intervention.
Researchers have also discovered that yoga may have a rejuvenating or perhaps protective effect on the human brain. A study focusing on specific brain regions found that the practice of yoga can lead to an increase in brain volume. In a study in 2017, Rui Afonso found that long-term practitioners of yoga had significantly thicker PFCs compared to subjects who did not practice yoga. Like the hippocampus, the PFC naturally attenuates with age, meaning the PCF gets thinner and therefore functions less well.
In a study in 2014, researchers Sara M. Szczepanski and Robert Knight discovered that the PFC is actually correlated with an enhanced organization and balance of goal-directed thought and behavior – what is typically referred to as executive functioning of the brain. This is very exciting since it suggests through solid evidence what most yoga practitioners have always felt – that yoga can help us stay sharp and regulate our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as we age.
With one in four people affected by mental health disorders at some point in their lives, many people are viewing yoga as an effective approach that may help protect and restore the mental health of individuals throughout the world. As yoga becomes more accepted and practiced to support mental health disorders, we hope more research will be published to guide those interested in what type of yoga to practice and how frequently. This is only the beginning.
*Please Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or health program.*