“Inhale: 1-2-3-4-5. Exhale: 1-2-3-4-5.” If you’ve been doing breathing exercises to feel calmer, happier, and more focused, you know how soothing yoga is.
Despite being an ancient practice, yoga has become increasingly popular, and for good reason. It is suitable for people of all ages and impactful for treating chronic conditions.
Interestingly, scientists have discovered that this practice has several mental health benefits. Let’s explore the relationship between yoga and psychology, as well as the evidence-based benefits of yoga.
What Is the Relationship Between Yoga and Psychology?
“How is holding poses and stretching going to make my mental health better?” If you’ve asked yourself this question, you need to change how you think of yoga. It is more than an exercise form because it encompasses many life principles, including:
- Moral Code (Yama)
- Self-discipline (Niyama)
- Postures or poses (Asanas)
- Mindfulness of Breathing (Pranayama)
- Detachment from Senses (Pratyahara)
- Concentration (Dharana)
- Meditation (Dhyanna)
- State of Rest (Savasana)
- Ecstasy (Samadhi)
While some of these principles are focused on the physical experience, most of them are centered on mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
So, the connection between yoga and psychology is simple — both are centered on connecting a person with their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and core values.
Mental Health Benefits of Yoga
Yoga combines breathing techniques, physical postures, meditation, and relaxation. Practicing authentic yoga requires introspection, deep reflection, and earnest contemplation of your inner self, much like what you do in therapy. And unsurprisingly, more therapists are incorporating yoga into their practice for better outcomes.
Let’s look at some of the mental health benefits of yoga that are backed with scientific evidence.
Multiple studies have shown that yoga decreases the secretion of cortisol — the primary stress response hormone. It comes about after regular practice that trains your parasympathetic nervous system.
Exercise is a helpful way to relieve stress, but yoga can do more to train your body and mind through a relaxation response. It combines physical fitness with the philosophy of self-compassion and mind-body awareness and enhances resilience.
To cope with difficult situations, yoga encourages you to:
- Recognize what is happening
- Allow life to be just as it is
- Introspect your inner experience with kindness
- Realize that you’re not defined or limited by your emotions and experiences.
Some stress comes from being self-critical and judgmental towards self, and this practice fosters self-kindness, resulting in stress relief.
From mild nerves to full-blown panic, anxiety manifests as a natural response to stressful situations. It can be a disruptive emotion, and yoga sessions can help calm down your nervous system.
Various studies prove that this practice can be part of an effective anxiety treatment plan. In one study, a 12-week yoga intervention resulted in more significant improvements in anxiety than a walking exercise program.
In another study, the anxiety scores of women who described themselves as “emotionally distressed” improved by 30% after three months of yoga classes.
To help you cope with anxiety, yoga:
- Empowers you to recognize the thoughts, feelings, and actions that trigger anxiety
- Increases mind-body awareness
- Teaches how to effectively self-soothe
- Replaces unhealthy coping mechanisms
Reduces Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms
Post-traumatic stress disorder can dominate the lives of those it affects. It’s thought to be caused by a dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. Alongside medication and psychotherapy, yoga can be a valuable part of treatment plans.
PTSD affects people physiologically, cognitively, and emotionally. Yoga transcends all these domains and aids in recovery.
People who suffer from PTSD are unable to regulate their physiological survival response. They may know they aren’t in danger but still experience hypervigilance and panic. Yoga can help you stabilize the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and better engage with counseling and psychotherapy.
Regular yoga practice trains the ANS to be more adaptive. Meditation can improve neural functioning. Additionally, the exercise helps trauma survivors develop mind-body awareness. Several studies have proven that yoga relieves PTSD symptoms.
Depression is a widespread and serious medical illness. People with depression have high levels of cortisol caused by brain changes. The condition is also linked to reduced levels of GABA neurotransmitters.
Yoga provides a personalized response that takes into account both mind and body. This practice helps cope and overcome depressive symptoms because it
- Lowers cortisol levels
- Increases thalamic GABA levels
- Encourages participation in exercise
- Provides a sense of community
The findings of multiple studies prove that yoga can be an effective alternative for many depressed individuals who can’t access psychotherapy or antidepressants due to side effects, unmet needs, lack of resources, and personal choice.
Researchers have found that yoga can directly impact neural patterns in the brain, improving one’s ability to concentrate.
One study by the University of Illinois established that eight weeks of yoga significantly improved the cognitive function in the brains of elderly individuals who had previously been leading sedentary lifestyles.
Another study by the University of Waterloo found that practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation can increase energy levels, allowing participants to focus on present tasks. It helps release endorphins and increase blood flow that’s essential for improved brain function.
Promotes Better Sleep
Poor sleep can contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, and depression, among other conditions. According to one study, practicing yoga can help increase the secretion of melatonin — a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness.
Several studies have proven the efficacy of yoga in improving the quality of sleep. In one study, patients with lymphoma experienced fewer sleep disturbances and reduced need for sleep medications after practicing yoga.
Additionally, this practice has a significant and positive effect on many conditions that cause insomnia and other sleep problems. It alleviates anxiety, depression, stress, and chronic pain and helps prepare your body to fall asleep.
Boosts Your Mood
Ever wake up feeling blue? Perhaps you’ve had a terrible day at work, and nothing seems to put a smile on your face. Consistently doing yoga can make you more capable of managing negative emotions so you can enjoy good moods more often. The practice boosts GABA levels and helps you feel more positive.
Improves the Overall Quality Of Life
Many people use yoga alongside conventional medical treatment to reduce their symptoms and improve their lives. There is evidence that shows a positive effect of yoga for people with the following conditions:
- Prostate cancer – In one study, patients who attended yoga classes twice a week while undergoing radiation treatment for prostate cancer were less fatigued and had improved sexual and urinary function.
- Stroke – Yoga may improve post-stroke recovery. In a pilot study of yoga-based rehabilitation for chronic stroke patients, researchers noted improved recovery times and better balance.
- Ulcerative colitis – In a clinical trial, patients with ulcerative colitis who practiced yoga had a better quality of life than those who were provided with written self-care advice.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – The recovery of patients with rheumatoid arthritis depends on several physical and physiological factors besides treatment. Yoga can help improve the psychological symptoms of the disease.
The Bottom Line
Yoga is an ancient practice and meditation that provides many physical and mental health benefits. Whether you’re dealing with stress, anxiety, lack of resilience, or recovering from an illness, yoga could be of great help. But if you want to reap the full benefits of this comprehensive practice, it’s important to be consistent and practice it regularly. While yoga can’t be the only treatment for mental health conditions, it can be used as a complement to psychotherapy and help bring calm and mindfulness to your life.