Yoga is one of the most popular and sensationalized alternative therapies and practices in the world. With millions of people practicing the ancient tradition, modern day scientists are inspired and increasingly grant-funded to generate evidence-based research for how yoga can help the mind and body.
While the positive impacts of the practice of yoga (increased strength, flexibility, and balance) can be more easily identified and monitored on the physical body, yogis agree the practice of yoga positively benefits the mind as well by helping yogis manage stress, calm their nerves, and relieve depression.
However, the influence of yoga for improved mental health is harder to notice and trace. The fact that scientists are taking time to conduct peer-reviewed and randomized control trial studies (the gold standard of research) is of great benefit for yogis interested in learning how yoga can help with different types of mental disorders and general mental health.
This article will examine three types of mental disorders as well as look at how research suggests yoga can help.
1. Anxiety Disorders: Yoga can help to slow down neuron firing and balance brain chemistry.
Anxiety disorders classified in the American Psychiatric Association’s [ACA] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition [DSM-5] share threads of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances resulting in activation of the nervous systems fight-or-flight response.
Examples of anxiety disorders are Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia), Panic Disorder (Panic Attack Specifier), and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
From a neurophysiological perspective, the expression of anxiety is a complex activity requiring coordination of different neural pathways and neurotransmitters, like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps to slow down neuron firing and regulate nerve activity. Low concentrations of GABA in the brain mean that excitatory neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain are not counterbalanced, and can manifest as anxiety and restlessness.
In a 2007 parallel-groups design study conducted in collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Boston University School of Medicine, researchers noted a 27% increase in GABA levels in participants after completing a 60-minute yoga session while there was no change in the comparison group that read for 60 minutes.
The researchers commented that yoga is worth exploring as a means to help disorders with low GABA levels (e.g. anxiety and depressive disorders). In addition, yoga is reported to stimulate an underactive parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes rest and digestion.
2. Depressive Disorders: Yoga can help decrease symptoms by cultivating positive thinking to help change brain structure.
While depressive disorders classified in the ACA’s DSM-5 may differ in in duration, timing, and origin, they all share the presence of a sad, empty, or irritable mood, as well as somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function.
Depression can have physical roots like an imbalance of the thyroid, which should be checked out by a physician in a physical exam. More often, depression screenings include self-report inventories like the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) or Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS). In a 2013 meta-analysis conducted by Duke University School of Medicine, Indian Council of Medical Research Center for Advanced Research in Yoga, Patanjali Research Foundation, and Duke Institute for Brain Science, researchers noted that no studies showed adverse effects for participants practicing yoga.
The meta-analysis also noted that numerous randomized control trials reported yoga practitioners had a statistically significant decrease in BDI scores. In another study in 2013 published in the Indian Journal for Psychiatry, researchers noticed that patients receiving yoga (with or without anti-depressants) experienced a greater reduction in depression scores on the HDRS compared to individuals only taking antidepressants.
The researchers also concluded that yoga as an intervention has substantial antidepressant effects due to our brain's ability to change, also known as neuroplasticity.
Another study reported that individuals who showed decreased symptoms of depression after psychotherapy treatment (such as positive psychology and cognitive restructuring) had a significantly larger pCREB, a cellular biomarker of neuroplasticity. Many of those techniques used are found in yoga—specifically, the practice of mindful and loving-kindness meditations.
3. Trauma- and Stress-Related Disorders: Yoga can help to regulate stress and improve quality of sleep.
In the ACA’s DSM-5, stress disorders fall under the umbrella of trauma- and stress-related disorders. Examples of trauma-and stress-related disorders include Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Acute Stress Disorder, and Adjustment Disorder.
There is fantastic research emerging from the Justice Resource Center on the psychological benefits of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga. In addition, Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score is a great read for yogis interested in delving into the intricate and unique ways the brain, mind, and body hold fragments of trauma throughout a person’s life.
Chronic stress has been linked to creating havoc with the central stress response system, or hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis (also referenced as the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical axis). Maintaining balance of the HPA axis is crucial for holistic health.
Symptoms of increased activity of the HPA axis include chronic stress, panic disorder, and hyperthyroidism, while decreased activity can manifest in chronic fatigue syndrome, climacteric depression, and hyperthyroidism. Emerging evidence suggest that yoga helps down-regulate the HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system, which allows for better overall functioning and ability to manage stress.
In addition, yoga may aid in managing circadian patterns of stress hormones, thus ensuring better quality of sleep.
Yoga Has Numerous Benefits, But It’s Not a Cure-All Solution
The growing body of research assists yogis to create more intelligent and evidence-based practices. With the increase in empirically supported benefits of yoga, yogis can better inform their personal and professional practices.
However, yoga is not a cure-all. Like all things, yoga benefits from being a part of a healthy lifestyle, which may include working with a qualified mental health professional and taking prescribed medications. Please feel free to comment below with ways yoga has helped you and other cool facts or articles about how yoga can help with mental disorders.