As Elle Woods, a law student in Legally Blonde, defended the innocence of her client (a workout tape star, the glamorous Brooke Wyndham), she argued that Wyndham couldn’t possibly be guilty because “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t.”
And she was right—about exercise and endorphins, at least. Broadly speaking, regular exercise is good for maintaining a balanced mood. One would imagine that yoga, being a form of exercise, falls under this notion—and it does—but there may be more to the mood benefits that accompany yoga than a mere boost of endorphins.
According to The New York Times writer and author of The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards William J. Broad, yoga, when practiced regularly, can play a powerful roll in long-term mood patterns through a variety of means. Relaxing muscles, reseting the blood’s chemical balance through breath work, and fine-tuning the nervous system are just a few of the ways yoga improves mood that science has studied.
As Broad explains, a 1957 study demonstrated that practiced yogis tend to have greater control over the body’s fight-or-flight response, a function of the sympathetic nervous system, which is a part of the autonomic nervous system. When the fight-or-flight response is engaged, the adrenals pump the body with adrenaline and the muscles are prepared for quick action. The heart rate increases, and the individual experiencing fight-or-flight may feel threatened or physically insecure. The parasympathetic system is the sympathetic system’s counterpoint—it controls rest and digestion. It is the “brake,” Broad says, to the sympathetic system’s “accelerator.”
Many styles of yoga engage both sides of the autonomic nervous system. Intense muscle work, challenging poses, and cardiovascular elements trigger the sympathetic system while intentional relaxation through calming stretches, controlled breath, and meditative moments—which sometime occur during challenging poses—tap into the parasympathetic system. Additionally, certain poses, namely inversions, overfill the heart with blood, prompting the body to lower blood pressure and slow the heartbeat, forcing the body into a more relaxed state, even if one is maintaining a tenuous balancing act.
As yoga instructor Mel Robin explains, an effective yoga practice will cycle through “accelerator” and “brake” sequences, so both sides of the autonomic system get a workout. This controlled movement between the two supports mental and emotional flexibility and resilience–i.e. a better mood.
It gets more interesting. Yoga may be a viable treatment for clinical depression.
Sadly, rates of suicide (and attempted suicide) are increasing, despite the increasing availability of antidepressants, but the science on yoga may offer some hope. According to a 2007 study, when beginner yogis practiced for an hour, their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) rose by 27%. GABA, a neurotransmitter, is partly responsible for regulating the human nervous system. As Broad reports, several studies have linked low levels of GABA to depression. It follows that increasing concentrations of GABA through regular practice would have profound benefits for those suffering from mood disorders. The increase in GABA doesn’t occur only in beginning practitioners; the study found that veteran yogis (with 10+ years of experience) experienced an even greater rise in GABA: 47%! And it doesn’t stop there. Broad notes, “One participant who practiced yoga five times a week had an increase of 80 percent, the levels of the neurotransmitter almost doubling.”
Of course, many yogis have felt what this science confirms as true. Long before I looked into the matter, I distinctly felt that yoga put me in touch with my body in a way that long-distance running (my other soulmate exercise) never could. What’s encouraging about this information on how yoga improves mood is that it may be effective encouragement for a skeptic of yoga—or the reluctant yogi who has difficulty justifying her practice to herself. As the saying goes, you’re just one workout away from a good mood.
Related: How Yoga Helped Me Battle Depression
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