Yoga for Mental Health: Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Wednesday 30 October 2019
9 minute(s) read

I. Yoga and Mental Health

II. How are Yoga and Mental Health Related?

III. A Brief History of Yoga and Mental Health

IV. How Yoga Can Rewire the Brain

V. Yoga and Stress Relief

VI. Yoga for Anxiety and Depression

VII. Yoga-Based Techniques to Counter Stress

VIII. The Future of Mental Healthcare

Yoga and Mental Health

Grayscale image of man in suit wiping tears from eye

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” [1]

Mental health is a fundamental aspect of being human. Mental health is more than just the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. Being mentally healthy may look like being able to cope with stress in a healthy way, have positive self-esteem, or the ability to enjoy life.

Poor mental health may be affected or influenced by a stressful workplace, social changes, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, physical illness, human rights violations, and genetic factors.

Mental health affects us all. You may be affected directly from stress, anxiety, or depression. Or perhaps you’ve seen a friend, member of your family, or coworker experience poor mental health. One in five US adults experience mental illness each year. [2]

How are Yoga and Mental Health Related?

Yoga is a discipline that usually involves physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana). In most yoga classes, the student is directed to focus on the breath and come back to the present moment in a non-judgemental way; this is the practice of mindfulness.

The introduction of mindfulness techniques into everyday life may act as support when dealing with stress. There is evidence suggesting that mindfulness-based therapies are a promising intervention for treating mental health disorders such as anxiety and mood problems. [3]

A Brief History of Yoga and Mental Health

In Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras book, yoga is described as an eight-limbed practice. The physical practice of yoga is known as yoga asana and is one of the eight limbs of yoga.

Although the physical aspect of yoga is emphasized in Western culture, its origins offer a more holistic understanding of yoga. Pantanjali describes the entire emphasis of yoga is on harnessing one’s mind — yoga as a way to restrain the oscillations of the mind. [4]

Therefore, it is not surprising the link that is now being made between mental health and yoga.

Stress is something that everyone has experienced at some point in their lives. Research shows how yoga can help to reduce stress. [5] 

Yoga and its positive effects on anxiety and depression have been thoroughly researched as well. [6]

A few studies are demonstrating the role of yoga in relieving psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. This research indicates that yoga is a feasible add-on therapy in psychosis, due to its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, and increase oxytocin levels in the brain. [7][8]

How Yoga Can Rewire the Brain

Woman looking into camera smiling

Brain gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA works as an inhibitory chemical messenger to block certain brain signals. GABA decreases activity in the body’s nervous system and can produce a calming effect, helping with feelings of anxiety, stress, or fear. [9]

Trials on yoga and brain function have been going on for decades. But it wasn’t until 2007 that a pivotal finding occurred in the world of yoga and brain research. A study by Chris Streeter and his team aimed to identify brain GABA levels pre- and post-yoga session. The study included a group of people that were disciplined yoga practitioners. 

The results demonstrate that in these experienced yoga practitioners, brain GABA levels increase after a 60-minute yoga session. In fact, brain GABA levels increase an astonishing 27 percent. These findings suggest that yoga should be explored as a treatment alternative for low GABA disorders such as anxiety and depression. [10]

The increase of GABA post-yoga-session may prevent the brain from following its previous circuitry. The mind thus becomes less “busy,’ inhibiting fear and stray thoughts that are associated with anxiety and depression. [11]

Yoga and Stress Relief

Woman on yoga mat in a forward fold with arms up

Perceived stressors — such as being late for work or persistent worry about the health a loved one — can trigger a stress response in the body. This stress response is commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight response” and was initially a survival mechanism that kept us alive. 

When a stressful event happens, parts of the brain start talking to each other. The amygdala, an area responsible for emotional processing, sends a signal to the hypothalamus, the command center of the brain. Over time, non-life-threatening stressors can have a lasting effect if the stress response doesn’t know when to stop. Chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, a higher likelihood of clogged arteries, and creates brain changes that can cause mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. [12]

After a stressful event occurs, the hypothalamus releases hormones and triggers a physiological response: the heart and breathing rates increase, and the muscles get ready to respond to this perceived threat. [13]

Because stress is something we all experience to varying degrees, it’s helpful to have tools to deal with and relieve stressors as they come up. Work-related stress can result in anxiety, fatigue, depression, reduced work capacity, and lead to burnout.

A 2015 study looks at the effects of yoga and stress on a group of 60 mental health professionals. In this study, research participants partake in a 60-minute yoga class once a week for 12 weeks. The yoga sessions include slow warm-up movements, breathing techniques, various stretches, and meditation. 

After the 12-week yoga intervention, mental health professionals in the yoga group showed improvements. Participants experienced a significant reduction in work-related stress and an enhancement of stress adaptation. [14]

The influence that a weekly regimented yoga program can have over stress levels should not be ignored. A helpful solution can be to offer workplace yoga programs, where employees can attend classes on their lunch break, or before or after work hours. 

Yoga for Anxiety and Depression

Peaceful woman in seated pose meditating with hands touching

Not surprisingly, stress, anxiety, and depression are interrelated. 

Depression and anxiety are mental health conditions that may, in fact, occur at the same time. An estimated 45 percent of people with one mental health condition meet the criteria for two or more disorders. [15][16]

According to the WHO, depression is one of the leading causes of disability, affecting 264 million people worldwide. [17]

Yoga can be an affordable and accessible form of movement for many people. Because there is a general understanding that yoga can improve quality of life, there is an increasing interest in yoga as an alternative therapy for depression and anxiety. In the scientific community, there is preliminary research suggesting yoga’s many benefits, as well as several ongoing larger-scale studies.

There is compelling evidence suggesting the benefits of yoga in treating depression. A literature review of existing research trials reports that yoga was better than usual care in decreasing depressive symptoms. The meta-analysis concludes by saying that yoga can be considered an alternative treatment option for patients with depressive disorders. [18]

Yoga-based practices may have the ability to regulate the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two main divisions: sympathetic and parasympathetic. [19]

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for supplying the internal organs — it receives information about the body and responds by either stimulating body processes (sympathetic — fight-or-flight) or inhibiting them (parasympathetic — rest-and-digest). [20]

Research demonstrates how autonomic nervous system dysfunction is associated with depression and anxiety. A dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system is associated with chronic stress and inflammation. [21][22]

Yoga-based practices have implications in regulating autonomic nervous system dysfunction. As mentioned previously, one study shows how GABA levels increase 27 percent after a 60-minute yoga session. These increases in GABA are correlated with improved mood and decreased anxiety. [23]

The GABA increase plays a role in increasing parasympathetic nervous system function — the rest-and-digest pathway of our autonomic nervous system. This increase in GABA may be the scientific explanation for the calm feeling that you may have experienced at the end of a yoga class. 

Yoga-Based Techniques to Counter Stress

Man in Warrior two pose on yoga mat at beach on sunny day

Many people are unable to find ways to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression. It can become a negative cycle. When we are stressed, we are usually tapping into our sympathetic nervous system or our fight-or-flight stress response. 

The good news is there are self-soothing techniques we can practice to minimize stress and promote the calming effects of our parasympathetic nervous system. Trying out a yoga class is an excellent place to start. Check out your local community center for affordable classes, or you can watch a free YouTube video from the comfort of your living room.

Dr. Herbert Benson has devoted much of his career to learning how people can cope with stress by using techniques that initiate a relaxation response. These include deep breathing techniques, tranquil visualizations, yoga, and tai chi.

Dr. Benson has created a simple video tutorial as a part of a wellness guide. In this video, Dr. Benson guides the viewer through a series of simple steps where he prompts you to sit in a comfortable position, think of a calming word, and to breathe deeply. Although breathing techniques may seem too simple, give it a try — you may be surprised at how quickly you feel calm only after a few deep breaths. 

The Future of Mental Healthcare

In this article, we discussed the evidence in support of yoga-based practices. Research shows that yoga may be beneficial as a treatment option for stress, anxiety, and depression.

Mental health promotion involves creating an environment that supports mental health. Perhaps there needs to be more support for yoga-based classes in the workplace and medical community. Maybe the future of healthcare should include a stronger focus on yoga as a viable addition in the treatment of mental health conditions.

One article titled “Integrating Yoga in Mental Health Services’ sums up their research findings with a thought-provoking question: “Given the growth of evidence for yoga as therapy in mental health services, would a yoga therapist become an integral part of mental health teams just as psychologists and psychiatric social workers?” [24]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.