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The Effects of Yoga on Mental Health

In the age of infinite access to information via the internet, the concept of physical activity improving mental health is hardly new. First researched in the 1970's, endorphins were found to have not only painkilling effects, but lasting benefits to mental health. To avoid getting too far into the scientific weeds, the supporting research is summarized as follows:

  1. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and endogenous opioid peptides (endorphins) are inversely correlated to both anxiety and depression.

  2. Stress-induced depressive and anxious behaviours are correlated with low BDNF levels, while low endorphin levels have been found to inhibit positive feelings.

  3. BDNF and endorphin levels are found to be increased as a result of consistent physical activity.

Physical activity creates more BDNF and endorphins, which results in reduced stress and anxious/depressive behaviours, as well as long term improvements in mental health.

Applications to Yoga

Narrowing this topic down to specifically yoga, the benefits are twofold. The physical aspect of yoga results in the aforementioned increases in beneficial neurotrophins and endorphins. The second benefit comes as a result of the meditation aspect of yoga, which both activates the parasympathetic nervous system and reduces bodily levels of cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone.

But how does the science translate into everyday life? Very well, actually. The Ethical Committee of Kawasaki University in Japan conducted a study wherein a common physical indicator of stress levels, salivary amylase activity, was measured in two groups. The groups were given a two-part questionnaire to record how stressed they felt. The two groups were then subjected to 90-minute yoga classes once or twice a week, for a month. The group aged 65-75 saw a 25% decrease in measurable stress levels and reported feeling 25% and 11% less stressed on the two parts of the questionnaire. In the group aged 20 to 30, measurable stress levels decreased by 30%, while reported stress levels were 20% to 7% lower.

So, what's the takeaway? Not only did yoga cause a scientifically measurable decrease in stress, but the participants also reported feeling less stressed, which hopefully helps quiet the little doubtful voice in your head that asks, "but will the science actually carry over into me feeling better?"

Putting it into Action

In the modern world, yoga is needed more than ever. The ever-increasing aging population, who may be limited by physical constraints, need low-impact approaches to maintaining their physical and mental health as they grow older. Our youth are growing up in a world bombarded by unrealistic expectations and ideals as a result of modern marketing and social media. Inflation, the economy, and personal finances are now reported as sources of stress for over two-thirds of Canadians, at a time where costs are outpacing wage growth.

In a world where challenges to mental health are abundant, yoga presents itself as a highly accessible approach to stress management and mental health concerns. Both science and sentiment maintain that yoga is an effective tool for improved mental health, so find a class that suits you and try putting it into action for yourself.

- C. Riley Terriff

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