How Yoga Affects Anxiety and Depression

The idea that yoga helps manage depression and anxiety is nothing new, but science is zeroing in on just how this works. One recent study at Boston University’s School of Medicine shows that yoga increases the amount of GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), which is associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. Depressed people have less GABA in their brains, but not after practicing yoga postures, the study showed. Higher GABA levels are also related to lowered anxiety.

Thanks to magnetic resonance spectroscopy, researchers can actually see the brain to detect before and after differences. The study, led by Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology Chris Streeter, can be read here: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2007.6338

A second study, also by Chris Streeter, PhD., shows that yoga improves our mood by increasing “vagal tone”. The vagus nerve is the biggest nerve in the human body, and “vagal tone” refers to how our body adapts to internal and environmental stress. There is no drug or supplement that increases vagal tone, unless you consider yoga to be your drug of choice. I have often said that young people in particular should practice pranayama (breathing exercises) instead of experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

The calm, relaxed state achieved through strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system (in which the vagus nerve is central) is wonderfully satisfying. It is a feeling of deep connection to the self and to the world we are a part of. Heightened parasympathetic activity increases immunity, longevity, and resilience. Plus it’s free and for most of us, has no negative side-effects.

You might also notice that your yoga practice has honed your ability to focus. This is also related to vagal tone. Hatha yoga, which is the yoga we practice at RBY, encompasses postures, meditation, and breathwork— and all three of these activities have been shown to increase vagal tone. So pause, sit up tall, stretch your arms, take a deep breath. Repeat. And reap the many benefits.