After practicing yoga for nearly 4 years, I remain perpetually intrigued by the way postures, breathing techniques, meditation, and mantras improve our mental health and well being. It feels simple to me – life just feels more abundant with yoga. I know, however, there is another dimension to it then just that, as there is always something more to be found in anything truly meaningful. I am interested in studies that explore this complexity of yoga and the myriad of positive effects it can have. One such study has been done recently at the Patanjali Research Foundation in India measuring The Effect of Yoga on Different Aspects of Mental Health. This study is one of the first well rounded attempts to examine a series of positive effects yoga can have on one’s health, such as, improved quality of sleep and reduction in anxiety.
In order to measure such improvements, participants were assessed with questionnaires on the first and last days of a seven day yoga program they signed up to participate in. The questionnaires measured current levels of anxiety, quality of sleep, stress symptoms and breathing discomfort. The yoga program consisted of two sessions per day with an emphasis on breathing techniques taken from the great Patanjali’s teachings. In the end, the studied revealed a significant decrease in anxiety, sleep disturbances, and stress after just one week of yoga practice. There was, on average, a 35.6% decrease in stress, 32% decrease in time taken to fall asleep, and 20% increase in the feeling of being rested in the morning. According to the authors, this could simply be a result of the muscle relaxation and increased feelings of well being that breathing exercises and yoga postures induce. However, additional studies show there is much more going on when practicing yoga that yields such notable improvements in our overall well being. One study from 2007 shows that GABA levels are increased up to 27 percent in yoga practitioners. GABA (which stands for Gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid in the central nervous system that lowers brain activity and elicits a sense of calm. People with chronic insomnia are said to have 30% less GABA activity in their brains. Similarly, people who tend to be anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed suffer from a lack of sufficient GABA production. There are many ways to increase GABA levels in the brain, such as eating foods high in glutamine acid and B6, but yoga really gets the job done. More so then other forms of exercise. The same authors who led the study on yoga practitioners also ran a study comparing GABA levels in a yoga group versus a walking group, both of which were metabolically matched. After twelve weeks, the yoga group demonstrated a higher increase in GABA levels and thus, significantly improved mood and reduction in anxiety. Yoga has so much to give, if you can commit to the practice.