In the last 30 years, the practice of yoga has gained popularity in cities all around the United States.
Mainstream American culture has not only adopted this 4000-year-old practice but has become obsessed with it.
Yoga studios are popping up all over the country and fostering active, thriving communities of yogis of all experience levels.
While yoga’s physical benefits are well documented, it’s mental benefits may be the reason it has become so popular.
Yoga’s poses combined with controlled breathing offer you a meditative and mentally restoring benefit unlike any exogenous substance on the market.
Emotional Benefits Of Yoga
The beauty of yoga is that there are so many styles and variations that it really leaves the door open to do it for different reasons.
Many people love the physical benefits that come from a 90-minute sweaty yoga session.
There’s no doubt that most styles of yoga can give your body a physical tune-up.
However, the biggest payoff may be the emotional and psychological benefits that come from yoga.
Most yogis can attest to the ancient practice’s uncanny ability to remove stress and put you in a state of calm and relaxation.
Even beginners can get this benefit. And for many beginners, it’s this emotional switch that gets them hooked.
While most exercise is meant to jack up your cortisol and pump you full of energy, the charm of yoga is its ability to settle your nerves put your body at ease.
Yoga And Breathing
The basic idea of yoga is to force you to control your breath while holding poses that challenge the body.
The meditative benefits that come from simply learning how to control your breath can be incredibly profound.
While you may rarely find yourself needing to resort to a Down Dog or a Birds of Paradise pose to deal with a real-life challenge.. (different strokes for different folks)
You may often find the skill of slowing your breath down to control your thoughts and reactions to situations life-changing.
Breathing retraining including diaphragmatic breathing techniques have been used in treating many psychiatric disorders.1Steven Taylor. Breathing Retraining in the Treatment of Panic Disorder: Efficacy, Caveats and Indications Scandinavian Journal of Behaviour Therapy. 2010
This is where the magic of yoga really shines.
These unconscious, stress-relieving habits are what keep people coming back to the mat and bending beyond their known capacity.
READ MORE: Best Nootropics For Enhancing Yoga Benefits
The specific style of breathing in yoga is referred to as pranayama.
Pranayama comes in a number of different forms. Pranayama is the breath during or between poses. It can also be the action of holding the breath or even speeding up the breath like a panting dog.
This controlled, alternating breathing is what gives yoga it’s ability to shift the body into the parasympathetic nervous system and lower stress.2Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II–clinical applications and guidelines. J Altern Complement Med. 2005
Yoga and Stress Relief
There are a number of physiological reasons for yoga’s stress-relieving benefits.
One of the main reasons is the practice’s ability to lower the production of stress hormones in the body.. most notably cortisol levels.3Thirthalli J1, Naveen GH, Rao MG, Varambally S, Christopher R, Gangadhar BN.. Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga Indian J Psychiatry. 2013
The action, depth, and frequency of breath can have a direct effect on your autonomic nervous system.4Kreibig SD. Autonomic nervous system activity in emotion: a review. Biol Psychol. 2010
In the course of a 90-minute class you can physically transform yourself from a stressed out, rushing ball of panic and worry, to a total pile of deep-breathing, all-loving mush.
Mental Health Benefits Of Yoga
Yoga has a direct, positive influence on the mind-body connection which translates into a direct positive effect on mental well-being.
The movements and poses in yoga have been designed in a way to encourage your body’s physiology to promote mental optimization.
Many people who suffer from mental health issues use yoga therapeutically to help their conditions.
Simply learning how to control breathing can help improve mental health.
We know that those who have a condition that affects breathing suffer from high rates of anxiety and depression.5Kunik ME, Roundy K, Veazey C, Souchek J, Richardson P, Wray NP, Stanley MA.. Surprisingly high prevalence of anxiety and depression in chronic breathing disorders.Chest. 2005
In fact, a number of studies have been conducted that highlight yoga’s effectiveness in treating and alleviating mental health conditions.
Yoga’s Benefits For Depression
There has been quite a bit written in the medical literature about yoga’s anti-depressant effects.
In fact, this meta-analysis reviewed 18 randomized-controlled studies on yoga’s anti-depressant effectiveness and of the 18, 17 showed yoga significantly improved subjects’ symptoms of depression.6Purvi Mehta MA, MS, Manoj Sharma, MBBS, CHES, PhD. Yoga as a Complementary Therapy for Clinical Depression Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. 2010
In many cases, more so than anti-depressant drugs.
This can be for a number of reasons.
One of which is yoga’s ability to promote parasympathetic activity and heart health.7Krishna BH, Pal P, G K P, J B, E J, Y S, M G S, G S G.. Effect of yoga therapy on heart rate, blood pressure and cardiac autonomic function in heart failure J Clin Diagn Res. 2014
These heart-healthy benefits include:
- Significant decreases in heart rate
- Decreases in blood pressure and rate pressure product
- Significant increase in heart rate variability
These heart benefits are important because we know that heart health can directly influence mental health.8Marc De Hert, MD, PhD,* Johan Detraux, M Psy, and Davy Vancampfort, PhD. The intriguing relationship between coronary heart disease and mental disorders Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2018
Yoga has been successful in lowering levels of oxidative stress, which underlies inflammation which has been implicated in most chronic diseases including depression.9Taneja DK. Yoga and health. Indian J Community Med. 2014
Yoga has also been shown o significantly increase levels of antioxidants in the body including glutathione, superoxide dismutase, vitamin C and vitamin E.10Pal R1, Singh SN, Halder K, Tomer OS, Mishra AB, Saha M. Effects of Yogic Practice on Metabolism and Antioxidant-Redox Status of Physically Active Males. J Phys Act Health. 2015
Yoga’s Benefits For Anxiety
One of yoga’s most popular benefits is its ability to lower anxiety. This may be a reason why it’s so popular in a place like New York City. If you can calm anxiety there… you get the idea.
One of the biggest reasons for the anxiolytic effects are yoga’s ability to increase GABA in the brain.11Streeter CC, Whitfield TH, Owen L, Rein T, Karri SK, Yakhkind A, Perlmutter R, Prescot A, Renshaw PF, Ciraulo DA, Jensen JE. Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study. J Altern Complement Med. 2010
GABA competes with other excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate in the brain to promote calm and relaxation.
It’s very possible that this is what you feel after lying in savasana and rolling up your mat after a good class.12Cramer H, Lauche R, Anheyer D, Pilkington K, de Manincor M, Dobos G, Ward L. Yoga for anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Depress Anxiety. 2018
Yoga’s ADHD Benefits
A hidden benefit of yoga may be its ability to increase focus and lower symptoms of ADHD.13Sana Jarraya, Matthias Wagner, Mohamed Jarraya, and Florian A. Engel, 12 Weeks of Kindergarten-Based Yoga Practice Increases Visual Attention, Visual-Motor Precision and Decreases Behavior of Inattention and Hyperactivity in 5-Year-Old Children. Front Psychol. 2019
This makes sense since direct, intense attention to detail is necessary to perform many of the asanas.
I’ve personally noticed that when I place my focus on something as simple as feeling my toes on the floor or gripping the mat with my fingers I improve my ability to perform difficult poses.
This may also be a reason why yoga has become so popular amongst successful working professionals. Improving focus and attention can sometimes be the difference between success and mediocrity.
Not to mention, yoga makes a great alternative to ADHD pharmaceutical solutions.
How Often Should You Do Yoga
It’s important to remember that yoga is a practice.
It takes time to get good, and even “good yoga” is highly subjective.
It’s one of the few physical activities that you can’t get better at for competition purposes.
While at the same time, there are plenty of mental health and nootropic benefits to be gained at the beginner’s level.
While yoga is not for everyone, I highly encourage everyone to at least try it.
Taking a class is the best way to start, but there are plenty of free, online videos to help you get started.. and those come without the stress of running late.