How Yoga Unlocks Better Mental Health

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper

A look at the science and research demonstrating the extraordinary benefits of yoga.

Occasionally people ask us why we at The Beekeeper offer counselling and therapy services alongside practices such as yoga, as if they had no connection to each other. In fact, yoga, meditation and other healing practices have a profound impact on mental health and wellbeing, in just the same way as expert counselling and therapy can. The mental health benefits of yoga have been proven not just by scientific studies but many centuries of experience. In the next few blogs I want to explore why we offer the services we do.

The word “Yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “Yuji,” which translates in English to “union,” (1) – as in, the union of one’s mind with one’s matter. Yoga brings together breathing exercises, stretching and poses, and meditation in order to promote wellness and relaxation.


All of the many different practices of yoga are comprised of different combinations of these exercises. In addition, they all share one common goal: to improve mental health through the practice of mindfulness. Practicing yoga has been shown to provide many benefits for both mental and physical health. Below is a list of evidence-based, science-supported examples of the benefits that practicing yoga can provide.


Reduced Stress Levels Of all the potential benefits, yoga is likely most known for its ability to reduce stress and promote wellness and relaxation.


Cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone (2), has been shown in various scientific studies to be reduced following yoga practices ranging from a period of 10 weeks of 1-hour long sessions (3), to a period of three months of 90-minute sessions done twice a week (4). Additionally, in these same studies, participants’ reported levels of self-perceived stress also went down.


When used in combination with practices such as meditation, the ability for yoga to reduce perceived levels of stress is even stronger (5).


Improved Development of Interoception Everyone experiences, usually unconsciously, feelings of hunger, tension, or being too cold. When we have these feelings, we proceed to behave in ways that relieve them, like getting up to eat, self-massaging, or grabbing a blanket. These are just a few examples of our ability to sense how we feel from the inside, or in other words, to perform our “seventh sense,” interoception (6).


A brain region called the insula controls functions related to meditation, such as attention and awareness (7). Scientists suggest that meditative practices, such as yoga, improve our interoceptive capabilities by changing the brain through a process called neuroplasticity (8), which is our brain’s ability to reorganize itself.


Taken together, this means that meditation can physically change your brain, improving interoception and your ability to sense your own needs. This goes to show just how powerful incorporating yoga into your life can really be!


Reduced Fatigue Associated with Chronic Illness A major symptom of many chronic illnesses is fatigue (there is also growing evidence that COVID-19 causes prolonged fatigue in some people). Prolonged experiences of high levels of fatigue can lead to reductions in mental health, such as feelings of depression and hopelessness.


However, studies have shown that incorporating yoga into treatment plans has high beneficial potential. For example, chronically ill patients with different types of cancer show lowered levels of general fatigue, physical fatigue, and depression9 when participating in yoga-based therapies.


Although it is not yet clear exactly how yoga reduces fatigue, it does appear that adding yoga therapy into a treatment routine can result in improvements in both physical and mental aspects of fatigue.


Improved Mood in People Struggling with Depression Regularly practicing yoga can reduce various symptoms of depression10. Chronically ill patients (9), those that have been diagnosed with mild to severe clinical depression (11), and people with alcohol dependence with depressive symptoms (12), all show reduced symptoms of depression after incorporating yoga into their treatment regime.


Studies such as these suggest that yoga may help fight off symptoms of depression; they also warrant further research into yoga’s therapeutic potential. In combination with traditional clinical interventions, such as psychotherapy with a qualified psychologist, or pharmaceutical treatments, practicing yoga may be particularly beneficial.


Increased Management of Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Yoga, when used as a tool for practicing mindfulness, can help with the management of symptoms of PTSD (13).


Although it is limited, currently available research into this topic provides some encouraging evidence for yoga therapy as an alternative treatment option for people struggling with PTSD, such as veterans (14,15). Findings from this line of research suggest that yoga is especially useful for people with PTSD that either do not respond well to or are for various reasons unable to tolerate standard treatment options, such as Prozac.


Yoga is more readily available than common treatments in most cases, making it more easily accessible to a wider range of people. However, given the limited research, yoga should continue to be paired with more traditional treatments for full efficacy.


Reduced Anxiety There is a good amount of research showing that yoga can help relieve anxiety4,16, especially when used as stress management tool.


A research study showed that women with anxiety disorders report a reduction in both state and trait anxiety after practicing yoga consistently for two months (16). A separate study showed a similar result, where three months of consistent yoga practice reduced anxiety symptoms (17). Additionally, there are promising research findings showing that meditative exercises through yoga can help relieve symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) (18).


Given that yoga is commonly used to help cope with anxiety, there’s an extra motivation to practice it knowing of the concrete scientific evidence supporting its use for this purpose.


Overall Improvements in Quality of Life Given the currently available scientific evidence, it is clear that regular implementation of yoga can improve overall quality of life in a wide range of people, from those experiencing mild to severe levels of stress, to those living with mental illnesses.


Finding the time to incorporate yoga as part of regular daily or weekly routine can be of great benefit by reducing symptoms such as depression, anxiety, stress, and by overall improvement of your mental health and wellbeing.


References
1. https://www.mea.gov.in/in-focusarticle.htm?25096/Yoga+Its+Origin+History+and+Development

2. https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/cortisol

3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17544857/

4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16319785/

5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32985243/

6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959438803000904

7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6753170/

8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4960264

9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33026490/

10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16185770/

11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15055096/

12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16740317/

13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33029330/

14. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Patricia_Gerbarg/publication/259079108_Multi-Component_Yoga_Breath_Program_for_Vietnam_Veteran_Post_Traumatic_Stress_Disorder_Randomized_Controlled_Trial/links/02e7e529e8877800f9000000.pdf

15. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jts.21936

16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16306493/

17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19341989/

18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15025884/

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