does yoga reduce stressSo many people who practice yoga expound on its virtues.  I’ve heard many talk about the physical and emotional benefits of yoga.  People say it makes them feel good, calm, peaceful.  Since it’s a practice that’s been around for thousands of years and the people who practice it certainly tend to look healthy and relaxed, I was curious if there was research to back up the benefits I often hear about.

As a form of exercise, it makes sense that yoga has both physical and mental benefits.  Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, those natural chemicals in the body that produce a feeling of well-being. This release of endorphins is part of why exercise, in DBT, is considered key to reducing emotional vulnerability.

If you find that your emotions are often swinging wildly from one extreme to the next or that small events have the ability to trigger extreme emotion for you, then there may be some simple lifestyle changes that you can make to dramatically reduce the intensity and frequency of your painful emotions.  Along with balanced eating and sleep, getting regular exercise is one of those lifestyle changes.

Yoga has long shown promise in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression. A review of research on the effectiveness of yoga for the treatment of anxiety disorders in 2004 found encouraging results, but cited a need for further well conducted research.

Recently a study published in the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that certain types of yoga sessions (a focus on yoga posture, as opposed to breathing) increase GABA levels in the brain. Anxiety is associated with low Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels.  GABA is the primary neurotransmitter known to counterbalance the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which in the case of anxiety is over-active.

The study found that yoga participants had greater reductions in anxiety and greater improvements in mood than people who walked for exercise.  These mood improvements and reductions in anxiety were correlated to changes in GABA levels.  The increase of activity in the GABA system found using yoga postures are similar to those found with medications.

Although this is a preliminary study, its positive results do seem to warrant further research.  This new research on  the specific effects of yoga practice on the brain begins to explain why yoga improves mood and decreases symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Have you tried yoga?  Has it improved your mental health?

Photo by lulu lemon athletica, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.