Have you ever done yoga?
For most people these days, the answer you get to that question is “yes.”
Yoga is one of the most popular physical activities and group classes in the United States, although it wasn’t always that way.
Yoga’s reputation started out in the West as something that hippies did for spiritual enlightenment after consuming one of several mind-altering drugs; however, today it is a much more mainstream and respected practice that centers on the physical and mental well-being of practitioners.
If you’ve given yoga a try, you know that it has the potential to be very effective in treating and soothing a wide range of illnesses, issues, diagnoses, and stressful situations. You also probably know that it’s much, much more than a simple exercise or stretching routine; it requires your brain as well as your body.
In fact, it’s one of the few physical activities that do a pretty thorough job of connecting your brain to your body.
If that sounds fascinating to you, read on to explore the relationship between yoga and psychology and look at the many benefits of yoga on the mental and physical health of men, women, and children.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to These science-based, comprehensive exercises will not only help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life but will also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.
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The Relationship Between Yoga and Psychology
Although you may be familiar with the physical practice we call yoga, yoga is actually much more than stretching and holding poses; yoga is a more comprehensive practice—indeed, a lifestyle—that encompasses several life principles, like:
Yama (moral code)
Asanas (postures or poses)
Pranayama (mindfulness of breathing)
Pratyahara (detachment from senses)
Dhyanna (meditation or positive, mindful focus on the present)
Savasana (state of rest)
Samadhi (ecstasy; Ivtzan & Papantoniou, 2014)
You’ll notice that only asanas and savasana are focused on physical experiences. The rest concern mental, emotional, and spiritual experiences.
This is because yoga is much more focused on the practitioner’s “inner” experience than their “outer” experience (i.e., worrying about the body). An authentic yoga practice demands reflection, and earnest consideration of the self. It is a way to connect with our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and core values, opening the window into our deeper and truer selves.
Viewed in this light, it’s hard to see yoga and psychology as separate subjects! However, as close as the connection is between yoga and psychology, it’s even more intimately related to the subfield of positive psychology.
Yoga and Positive Psychology
The link between yoga and positive psychology is a strong one; although yoga started with a slightly different focus, it is now commonly practiced in the West as an attempt to enhance well-being Of course, well-being is a core topic in positive psychology, which explains the frequent use of yoga in intervention and exercises.
Further, yoga offers an excellent opportunity to enter flow, the state of being fully engaged and present in the moment with no attention paid to the time passing. Practicing yoga can help people cultivate mindfulness, develop greater awareness, and improve their ability to focus on what is at hand.
If you are interested in learning more about the connection between yoga and positive psychology, click here to read about a course on the link between the two subjects.
You will learn:
The history, core contributors, and traits researched and highlighted in positive psychology
The inherent similarities between yoga and positive psychology explored through the Yoga Sutras and the Paths of Yoga
How the Yamas and the Niyamas compare to concepts of positive psychology
Practical interventions you can use in your yoga practice and your life
The use and natural connection of the YogaFit Essence and Transformational Language
Specialized cueing and pose selection
What Does the Research Say About Yoga and Mental Health?
Tons of work has been conducted on the impacts of yoga on mental health.
The overall consensus is that yoga has many positive effects on mental health that go beyond the effects of other low- to-medium-impact physical activity and these effects are likely due to chemical changes in the brain (Grazioplene, 2012).
It turns out that practicing yoga actually facilitates a greater release of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) from the thalamus; GABA acts as a sort of “grand inhibitor” of the brain, suppressing neural activity.
This can mimic the effects of anti-anxiety drugs and alcohol—yep, doing yoga can make you feel like you just had a nice, relaxing cocktail! This finding indicates that yoga can actually work to help to “reset” your brain to a calmer, more collected state, giving you the baseline mood you need to deal with the stress you encounter every day (Grazioplene, 2012).
Yoga makes an excellent alternative or complementary treatment for issues that require medication and/or therapy, as it is natural, accessible for all, and relatively easy to engage in. In addition, it is a good choice because it is one of the few treatment activities that connect the mind to the body.
In therapy, you generally don’t use your body in any significant way; when taking medication, you generally don’t emphasize the mind-body connection, or even think about it much—after all, you just hope it works, and you may not care much how it works!
The most important pieces of equipment you need for doing yoga are your body and your mind.
Practicing yoga emphasizes the connection between our minds and our bodies, and encourages you to use both at the same time. A yoga session requires precise and mindful movement, but it also calls for mindful thought and enhanced awareness.
Unlike when you go for a run or life weights, yoga is only in “full effect” when both mind and body are completely engaged. This marriage of your mental state and your physical state offers a unique opportunity to make a powerful impact on your mental health.
How strong is the potential impact of a “yoga treatment?” So strong that some therapists and doctors have begun to prescribe it as a complementary treatment on top of medication, talk therapy, or both; sometimes, it is even pursued as the only method of treatment, although that is generally not advised for more severe diagnoses.
Yoga has a sly, clever way of short circuiting the mental patterns that cause anxiety.
Support for yoga as a supplement to other types of treatment comes from a groundbreaking 2007 study of depressed patients who were taking antidepressant medication but were only in partial remission.
The researchers observed that participants who engaged in regular yoga practice (at least three times a week for eight weeks) experienced significantly fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and neuroticism. Some participants even achieved remission from their mental illness, and many participants reported better mood overall (Novotney, 2009).
The Benefits of Yoga
You’ve likely heard about the many benefits of yoga that go beyond alleviating or buffering against mental illness; benefits like:
It builds confidence
It helps you learn to breathe, both literally and metaphorically
It makes you more aware of your posture at all times
It makes you more mindful
It boosts your strength and endurance
It helps relieve stress
Aside from the anecdotal stories about the wonders of regular yoga practice, there is also peer-reviewed evidence to support the benefits of yoga.
For example, reviews of the literature suggest that yoga is at least somewhat effective in lessening symptoms of depression, reducing fatigue, relieving anxiety, and reducing or acting as a buffer against stress, and often boosts participants’ feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem (Büssing, Michalsen, Khalsa, Telles, & Sherman, 2012).
Yoga can be especially helpful for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Several studies on yoga applied to PTSD treatment show that yoga can have outcomes similar to those of talk therapy (Novotney, 2009). The results of yoga on PTSD symptoms highlights this link between the body and the brain, and the potential of yoga to facilitate that connection and skip right over the barrier.
Many PTSD symptoms are physical, such as the increased heart rate and perspiration that sometimes accompany “flashbacks” or vivid memories of trauma. Yoga may be especially helpful in addressing symptoms such as these, as it can target the physical symptoms of stress, anxiety, fear, and depression.
The Physical Benefits of Yoga
The beauty is that people often come here for the stretch, and leave with a lot more.
Overall, although yoga may seem like a relatively mild form of exercise, regular yoga practice can result in the same health benefits as many other types of exercise
In addition to having the same impacts on general health as other types of exercise, there is some evidence that yoga is even more beneficial than most types of exercise when it comes to:
Improving baroreflex sensitivity
Healthy heart rate
Healthy heart rate variability
Improved kidney function
Lessened or buffered menopausal symptoms
Relieving or inhibiting psychotic symptoms
Improving quality of life
Reducing sleep disturbances
Improving social and occupational functioning
Yoga can also help you beat the symptoms of insomnia and depression and boost your energy, happiness, and encourage a healthy weight.
In one study, participants who engaged in a daily 45-minute yoga practice right before going to bed for eight weeks experienced tremendous decreases in the severity of their insomnia (Novotney, 2009).
In another study, participants who practiced yoga more regularly were also more likely to report higher energy, better moods, greater happiness, more fulfilling relationships with others, and more satisfying lives in general
Finally, an overview on the general benefits of yoga found that those who engage in the practice regularly often experience increases in self-efficacy and self-confidence, along with enhancements in balance, flexibility, strength, and weight loss The same study found that yoga has been reported to boost cardiovascular endurance, reduce hypertension, enhance pulmonary function, and more. However, these results are still fairly preliminary, so take these findings with a grain of salt!
The Benefits of Yoga for Men
Besides the physical and mental benefits listed above that are great outcomes for anyone who engages in yoga, there are also many benefits that men often specifically appreciate about practicing yoga.
For example, yoga can help men:
Enhance their athletic performance through improved flexibility, internal awareness, better respiratory capacity, better circulation and motion efficiency, and greater energy.
Prevent injury and speed up recovery through the healing of inflamed muscles, tissue, joints, and fascia, as well as the restoring of connective tissue and increased body awareness, leading to more caution and less injury.
Boost their sex life, by enhancing desire, sexual satisfaction, performance, confidence, partner synchronization, control, and even better orgasms!
Optimize their muscle tone via increased delivery of oxygen to the muscles.
Lower their stress level through movement.
Increase their mental agility through the sharpening of the mind and improved cognitive function that comes with the meditative exercise of yoga
This list provides some pretty good reasons for curious men to give yoga a try! Don’t get jealous yet, ladies—there are also some benefits of yoga that speak to women in particular.
The Benefits of Yoga for Women
The benefits of yoga that are often specifically appreciated by women include:
Helping you to deal with hormonal changes during your cycle and during menopause.
Soothing worry and anxiety caused by a health crisis or serious diagnosis.
Lessening stress and reducing the severity and frequency of anxiety and depression symptoms.
Improving your posture.
Improving your appearance through standing taller, feeling more confident, and more effective weight management
In addition, although we noted some of the impacts of yoga on PTSD earlier, it’s worth emphasizing that it may be particularly helpful for women who have suffered some kind of trauma.
The Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts recruited a group of women who had been diagnosed with PTSD to engage in an experimental yoga treatment. The women attended eight 75-minute Hatha yoga sessions over the course of a few weeks.
Those who participated reported significantly reduced PTSD symptoms compared with women in a talk therapy group (Novotney, 2009). This might not represent the average results of yoga for PTSD, but there are at least some cases where it’s as effective as seeing a licensed professional therapist! At that price (free or very cheap), yoga is definitely worth a try.
Yoga in the Classroom: The Benefits for Kids
If at any point in this piece so far you’ve thought to yourself, “These benefits are great, but those who could really benefit from more relaxation, awareness, better focus, and enhanced self-esteem are children and young people,” you’re on to something!
There has been a lot of interest in yoga for kids for these very reasons; kids have to deal with many of the same stressors and triggers that adults do, but without all of the decades of experiences to teach them what is most effective and the social awareness to know what is appropriate.
In addition, the rise of constant social media has made it even more difficult to simply sit quietly and think, or even sit quietly and just exist for a few moments. Children are also dealing with as much pressure as ever to succeed in school, and perhaps even more pressure from the added competition that our increasingly globalized world introduces to them (Hagen & Nayar, 2014).
Given these truths, it seems that yoga can perhaps help to fill a vital gap in children’s social, emotional, and physical development. Research shows that it contributes to enhanced physical and mental well-being, and may improve resilience, mood, and self-regulation skills
For example, an evaluation of yoga for adolescents in secondary school showed that students who participated in the program experienced significant improvements in ability to control their anger and reduction in fatigue and/or inertia
Further, research has found that regularly practicing yoga can have a positive impact on the following aspects of a student’s or child’s life:
Their academic performance
Their emotional balance
Average heart rate
Experience of anxiety (i.e., yoga reduces anxiety)
Promoting mental health
Increasing resilience and self-regulation (Hagen & Nayar, 2014).
Yoga in Long-Term Care: The Benefits for the Elderly
Yoga is the fountain of youth. You’re only as young as your spine is flexible.
Although yoga can have some fabulous benefits for children, it can also be extremely effective for improving both the physical and mental health of the elderly. Of course, some of the moves and poses are modified to suit more fragile bodies, but they still provide a challenging and invigorating experience for the elderly.
In Taiwan, researchers sought out elderly residents in a long-term care facility who were diagnosed with mild to moderate dementia and invited them to join a gentle yoga program. The program lasted for 12 weeks, with three 55-minute sessions per week. The experimental group participated in the yoga classes while the control group maintained their usual daily activities.
The results of this study showed that older adults who engaged in regular yoga practice enjoyed several health benefits, including:
Lowered blood pressure
Reduced respiration rate
Strengthened cardiopulmonary fitness
Enhanced body flexibility
Improved muscle strength and endurance
Increased joints motion
Reduced depressive states
Reduced problem behaviors
All of these are positive outcomes for anybody who practices yoga, but they are especially exciting to see in older adults who are struggling with cognitive decline.
Benefits of Doing Yoga Every Day
Any time you take advantage of an opportunity to do yoga, you’re choosing to spend time and energy investing in yourself. No matter how often you do it, it’s always a good decision!
However, as you have likely been told by a yoga teacher, doctor, or other individuals knowledgeable about this practice, you can only fully harness the power of yoga when you do it on a regular and frequent basis.
What are the benefits of practicing yoga every day? It depends on who you ask, but you’ll probably get answers like:
Yoga just makes you feel better!
Yoga increases your flexibility.
Yoga helps you be more productive with your time.
Yoga gives you more energy.
Yoga boosts your metabolism.
Yoga helps you focus and become more mindful.
Yoga helps you sleep better.
Yoga can improve the health of your skin.
Yoga strengthens your joints.
Yoga lubricates and strengthens your spine.
Yoga can improve your posture, both in and out of yoga class.
Yoga can reduce your anxiety.
Yoga enhances your sense of gratitude.
Yoga may inhibit or combat inflammation in the body.
Yoga increases your strength.
Yoga improves your balance (Newlyn, 2016B; Russo, 2017)
You may get some of these benefits by practicing yoga once in a while, but to maintain these benefits you will need to commit to a more regular yoga routine.
As yoga-centric Murdock Movement founder Amanda Murdock states,
“a single yoga class per month will essentially have you starting from scratch each time you walk on the mat… it can be difficult to listen to your body when you are trying to figure out what you are doing in the class”
Instead, Murdock notes that practicing several times a week will net you more long-lasting benefits like those listed above.
You don’t necessarily need to practice every single day to reap these long-term benefits, but aiming for at least twice a week is a good goal to get all the benefits that yoga has to offer!
Is Yoga in the Morning More Beneficial?
The jury is still out on the answer to this question.
Basically, it comes down to personal preference; do you enjoy doing yoga in the morning? Do you find it invigorating and energizing? Or do you feel relaxed and restful after yoga, and ready to head straight to bed?
If you think you might enjoy doing yoga in the morning, it’s certainly a good idea to give it a try! Here are a few reasons why morning yoga is worth a shot:
The movement and stretching help you get rid of the “fuzz” that built up around your muscles during the night.
Practicing yoga as soon as you get up can help lower your cortisol levels and resist unnecessary stress.
Morning yoga can be just as efficient as coffee in waking you up and energizing you for your day.
Doing yoga first thing boosts your mood for the rest of the day.
It helps you avoid procrastinating since you can cross it off your to-do list right away.
A morning yoga session can put you in a mindful and aware state of mind as you continue with your day.
Yoga early in the day can set you up for regular and relaxing breathing from that moment until your head hits the pillow at night.
It can bias your mind towards the positive right from the start of your day.
Morning yoga may also bias you to continue making healthy choices all day.
It may actually turn you into a morning person (Newlyn, 2016A).
If none of these reasons sound good enough to pull you out of bed earlier than you have your current alarm set, don’t worry! Practicing whenever you can is still better than not practicing at all.