Low impact exercises such as yoga have a number of benefits. Not only can it provide the physical benefits of exercise, yoga may also help lower stress,1 stave off cognitive decline by strengthening brain regions involved in working memory,2 improve overall brain function3 and neuroplasticity,4 reduce body image dissatisfaction5 and anxiety,6 and much more.
Mindful breathing exercises have many similar effects as well.7 Yoga can be viewed as a form of moving meditation that demands your full attention as you gently shift your body from one asana (yoga position) to another. As you learn new ways of moving, breathing and responding to your body’s cues, your mind and emotions start to shift as well.
Yoga may improve many psychiatric disorders
Indeed, yoga has been shown to help with a variety of common psychiatric disorders.8,9 A meta-analysis10 published in 2013, which reviewed more than 100 studies assessing the effect of yoga on mental health, found it had a positive effect on mild depression, sleep problems, schizophrenia (among patients using medication) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (among patients using medication).
Some of the studies cited in this review suggest yoga can have an effect similar to that of antidepressants and psychotherapy, influencing neurotransmitters and boosting serotonin. Research11 has also found that yoga reduces anxiety and aggression among prison inmates.
After doing yoga once a week for 10 weeks, incarcerated participants reported feeling less stressed, and also scored better on tests of executive control, indicating a higher degree of thoughtfulness and attention to their surroundings.
Importantly, the practice also decreased impulsivity, which is known to contribute to prison violence. According to study author Miguel Farias, an Oxford psychologist, “With less anxiety and aggression, prisoners should be better able to reintegrate into society when they are released.”12
The neuroprotective effects of yoga
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that physical activity helps keep your mind sharp with age, and this goes for activities such as yoga as well. Overall, inactivity is enemy No. 1 if you seek to optimize your cognitive function. As reported in a 2015 study13 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience:
“[T]he effects of long-term regular yoga practice on the central nervous system had not been explored until recently when it was shown that experienced yoga practitioners have greater GM [gray matter] volume than matched controls in several brain regions14,15 …
Nevertheless, the cross-sectional nature of these studies does not permit attributing these group differences to yoga practice with certainty, since people with a given brain structure might, for some reason, be drawn to practice yoga.
In the current report, we revisit our data set to address whether the number of years of yoga experience, the amount of weekly yoga practice, and the different aspects of yoga practice impact specific brain regions …
We used magnetic resonance imaging to compare age-related gray matter (GM) decline in yogis and controls. We also examined the effect of increasing yoga experience and weekly practice on GM volume and assessed which aspects of weekly practice contributed most to brain size.
Controls displayed the well documented age-related global brain GM decline while yogis did not, suggesting that yoga contributes to protect the brain against age-related decline.
Years of yoga experience correlated mostly with GM volume differences in the left hemisphere (insula, frontal operculum, and orbitofrontal cortex) suggesting that yoga tunes the brain toward a parasympatically driven mode and positive states … Yoga’s potential neuroprotective effects may provide a neural basis for some of its beneficial effects.”
A more recent study,16 published in 2018, also found differences in the brain structure and function of yoga practitioners compared to controls. Here, magnetic resonance imaging was used “to assess gray matter volume and brain activation” during a working memory task. According to the authors:
“Gray matter volume differences were observed in the left hippocampus, showing greater volume in experienced yoga practitioners compared to controls … The functional MRI results revealed less activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in yoga practitioners compared to controls during the encoding phase of the Sternberg task …
Our results suggest an association between regular long-term yoga practice and differential structure and function of specific brain regions involved in executive function, specifically working memory, which has previously shown to improve with yoga practice.”
Yoga improves neural connectivity
Another study,17,18 published in 2016, explored the impact of yoga on cognitive decline and neural connectivity in older adults, compared to standard memory enhancement training (MET). Twenty-five participants over the age of 55 completed the study, 14 of which took part in a yoga intervention while 11 participated in standard MET for 12 weeks.
All had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia. The MET group performed supervised mental exercises one hour a week, plus 15 minutes per day at home.
The yoga group participated in a Kundalini yoga class — chosen for its potential to improve memory, as it involves chanting and visualization — for one hour per week, and were taught Kirtan Kriya meditation, which involves the use of mantras and fluid hand movements, which they were asked to practice at home for 15 minutes a day.
Both groups also underwent cognitive testing and functional magnetic resonance imaging to track the communication or neural connectivity between different brain regions over time. While all participants improved to some degree, the yoga group saw larger improvements. As reported by the authors:19
“The yoga group demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in depression and visuospatial memory. We observed improved verbal memory performance correlated with increased connectivity between the DMN [default mode networks] and frontal medial cortex, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, right middle frontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and left lateral occipital cortex.
Improved verbal memory performance positively correlated with increased connectivity between the language processing network and the left inferior frontal gyrus.
Improved visuospatial memory performance correlated inversely with connectivity between the superior parietal network and the medial parietal cortex … Yoga may be as effective as MET in improving functional connectivity in relation to verbal memory performance.”
Yoga ‘clears your head’
Other research20,21 found yoga practice combined with other exercise, in this case running, resulted in a greater mood lift than either activity by itself. As reported in this paper:
“Mental and physical (MAP) training is a novel clinical intervention that combines mental training through meditation and physical training through aerobic exercise. The intervention was translated from neuroscientific studies indicating that MAP training increases neurogenesis in the adult brain.”
Fifty-two participants first completed 30 minutes of focused-attention meditation, followed by 30 minutes of moderate-intensity jogging, twice a week for eight weeks. At the end of the study, those diagnosed with major depressive disorder (22 individuals) “reported significantly less depressive symptoms and ruminative thoughts.”
The remaining participants (30), which did not have a diagnosis of depression and were otherwise healthy, “also reported less depressive symptoms at follow-up.” According to the authors:22
“Although previous research has supported the individual beneficial effects of aerobic exercise and meditation for depression, these findings indicate that a combination of the two may be particularly effective in increasing cognitive control processes and decreasing ruminative thought patterns.”
Neurophysiological effects of controlled breathing
Like yoga, meditation and controlled breathing are techniques known to improve focus. In a 2018 study23,24,25 investigating the neurophysiological effects of controlled breathing, the researchers identified the locus coeruleus — which is involved in both mental attention and involuntary respiration — as a key facilitator of this effect.
“One might suppose that the object of focus in meditation should be irrelevant, that it is the act of focusing attention and not the object of focus — in this case, the breath — that is important,” the authors write.26
“But the Buddha states clearly, in the Ananda Sutra: ‘from the development, from the repeated practice, of respiration-mindfulness concentration, there comes to be neither wavering nor trembling of body, nor wavering nor trembling of mind.’
According to Svatmarama, in the Hatha Yoga Pradapika … ‘… when the breath wanders the mind is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still’ …
Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras … instructs that ‘through these practices and processes of pranayama, which is the fourth of the eight steps, the mind acquires or develops the fitness, qualification, or capability for true concentration’ …
The focus upon the breath is of clear importance in traditional practice, but how might respiration and attention influence each other from a neurophysiological perspective? …
One interesting possibility is that the respiratory and attentional systems are coupled at the neural level, such that information transfer between the two systems occurs bidirectionally at an anatomical point where the respiratory and attentional systems overlap.
In this review, we describe respiration and attention as a coupled dynamical system. Specifically, we hypothesize that they can be described as autonomous oscillatory systems exhibiting coupling via information transfer through a third autonomous oscillator, the locus coeruleus (LC).”
Your breath and mind are linked
In other words, breath and focus are linked via synchronization — the coupling of two biological systems. The LC is a primary source of noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in the regulation of brain function, including sleep-waking states. The authors also cite other research showing noradrenaline is a likely candidate to explain many of the effects of meditation. In the discussion section of this paper, the authors note:
“Given our knowledge of the involvement of the LC in attention, cognition, and arousal, its susceptibility to top-down control, its concurrent chemosensitive respiratory function, and the possible respiratory-induced vagal influence on LC firing, we hypothesize that the LC is a critical node in facilitating coupling between respiration and attentional state.
It is important to stress that this coupling is bidirectional … By introducing bottom-up respiratory influences on the LC into this picture, we can then imagine the LC as a nexus of information transfer between these two systems, and visualize the system as bidirectionally coupled.”
In plainer English, what they’re talking about here is the fact that more often than not, scattered focus and lack of attention tends to drive your respiration — i.e., “susceptibility to top-down control” — making your breath shallow and erratic, which creates a cycle of heightened anxiety, poorer focus and more dysregulated breathing.
The good news is you can control this by taking control of your breathing, as the two — your mental focus and respiration — are bidirectionally linked. By taking control of one you can control the other. It’s just that your mind tends to be less easily managed.
Proverbially sandwiched between these two functions (attention and breath), is the LC, which acts as a relay, transferring information back and forth between the two, so that as your breathing calms, your mind calms and vice versa.
Yoga eases trauma and reduces body-image dissatisfaction
Aside from generalized anxiety, yoga can also be a valuable aid in healing childhood trauma,27 known to be a source of not only poor mental health but also a contributor to chronic health problems.
The report28,29,30 in question, published by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality in 2017, reviewed over 40 studies assessing the mental health benefits of yoga, with a focus on female juvenile delinquents, whose trauma is disproportionally based on violence within relationships and sexual assault.
Not surprisingly, these girls are at increased risk of psychological problems; 80% have received at least one psychiatric diagnosis compared to 67% of male juvenile delinquents.31 As reported by NPR:32
“The … report argues that, since the effects of trauma can be physical, ‘body-mind’ interventions, like yoga, may be able to uniquely address them. Regulated breathing, for example, calms the parasympathetic nervous system. Practicing staying in the moment counteracts some of the dissociative effects of trauma …
Yoga that is specifically designed for victims of trauma has modifications when compared with traditional yoga teaching … For example, says Missy Hart, ‘They always ask you if you want to be touched,’ for an adjustment in a pose.
‘I see now that really helped me. Other girls who have experienced sexual abuse, sexual trauma or are in there for prostitution at the age of 13, 14, they had their body image all mixed up.’”
The report concluded that trauma-informed yoga is a “cost-effective and sustainable” way to address and heal the physical and psychological trauma haunting so many young girls in the juvenile justice system.
Similarly, a 2019 study33,34 published in the journal Sex Roles found yoga helped college-aged women struggling with body-image dissatisfaction feel better about their bodies. As reported by the authors:35
“We evaluated the efficacy of yoga as a novel treatment for body-image dissatisfaction in otherwise healthy U.S. college-aged women. Female participants between the ages of 18–30 were randomly assigned to twice weekly yoga classes for 12 weeks or to a wait-listed control condition.
Compared to participants in the control condition, participants in the yoga condition reported significantly greater improvements in appearance evaluation and satisfaction with specific body areas at post-test.
Participants in the yoga condition also reported larger reductions in the amount of time and energy spent preoccupied with their appearance. The results of the current study suggest that yoga … could help college-aged women develop healthier relationships with their bodies.”
Is yoga for you?
Considering the many physical and psychological benefits of yoga, it’s certainly worth considering, and since there are many forms of yoga to choose from, you’re virtually guaranteed to find one that’s suitable for your particular situation.
The emergence of trauma-sensitive yoga is a testament to this, and may offer a way forward for many victims of physical and/or psychological abuse. You can find a quick outline of 11 different styles of yoga on MindBodyGreen.com.36 Additional variations can be explored on the Yoga Journal’s website.37