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