Can Yoga Actually Improve Mental Health? Here's What Science Suggests…

Promising studies show the benefits of yoga in promoting health for the mind, body, and soul.

Mar 29, 2020

(Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art / Shutterstock.com)

Millions of people around the world practice yoga to build strength and flexibility. But new evidence now demonstrates the tremendous benefits of yoga, not just for physical health, but for mental wellbeing, too. 

The practice from India combines physical poses, called asanas, with mindful, controlled breathing. Although yogis have practiced for centuries, science now reveals how the practice comes with many mental health benefits, too, to cope with stress, depression, and anxiety which may be just what the doctor ordered for the challenges we’re facing now with the quarantine season.

Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, is a neuroscientist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Dr. Khalsa, himself, has practiced yoga for over 35 years and decided to observe the potential health benefits of the activity. 

He published his findings in a comprehensive review of yoga’s health benefits in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology (Vol. 48, No. 3). According to the report, yoga has therapeutic benefits particularly beneficial for managing mental health as a way to manage chronic disorders such as anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, and insomnia.

Khalsa explains, "I believe if everyone practiced the techniques of yoga, we would have a preventive aid to a lot of our problems. There would likely be less obesity and Type-II diabetes, and people would be less aggressive, more content and more integrated."

More scientific support

Psychologists at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline further support the benefits that yoga has on mental health. After receiving a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, they conducted a pilot study examining the effects of yoga during a 10-week period on patients. 

The results showed a significant reduction in symptoms of PTSD among female trauma survivors who participated in eight 75-minute Hatha yoga classes compared with those who did not. 

Ritu Sharma, PhD, project coordinator of the center's yoga program says, "When people experience trauma, they may experience not only a sense of emotional dysregulation but also a feeling of being physically immobilized. Body-oriented techniques such as yoga help them increase awareness of sensations in the body, stay more focused on the present moment and hopefully empower them to take effective actions."

Yoga to help stress and pain response

Another small study further shows how yoga can help a person regulate stress and pain responses. Researchers at the University of Utah observed 12 experienced yoga practitioners, 14 people with fibromyalgia (a stress-related condition that physicians believe is characterized by hypersensitivity to pain, and 16 healthy volunteers. 

The subjects of the study each received a painful thumbnail pressure on their bodies. Participants with fibromyalgia, as predicted, reported feeling pain more easily at lower pressure levels than the people in the other two groups. Interestingly, the yoga practitioners showed the highest pain tolerance out of the three groups. After receiving the thumbnail pressure, they reported feeling less pain. In addition, pain-related brain activities showed the lowest response.

These studies reveal how, even during times of trauma and intense pain, yoga can bring relief. Not only do people who participate in yoga regularly get stronger and more flexible, they also experience mental health benefits and feel more at ease.

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ALLISON MICHELLE DIENSTMAN, CONTRIBUTOR
Working from her laptop as a freelance writer, Allison lives as a digital nomad, exploring the world while sharing positivity and laughter. She is a lover of language, travel, music, and creativity with a degree in Chinese language and literature.