Scientists are now giving serious attention to an idea that yogis have known for centuries: that yoga has a positive effect on your mood. Although it’s an ancient mind-body practice, the future of yoga may be in treating mood disorders. For this small study, scientists at the Boston University School of Medicine measured yoga’s effect on depression and anxiety versus walking with a brain imaging study. They found that compared to walking, yoga provides a greater improvement in mood, as well as a decrease in anxiety.
The 34 study participants were randomly selected healthy men and women between the ages of 18 and 45. They were divided into two groups: those who walked for an hour three times a week, and those who practiced Iyengar yoga (a strenuous form of yoga) for the same amount of time.
The subjects’ brain scans were taken using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). This cutting-edge technology measured the participants’ levels of a brain chemical gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA). GABA levels are markedly decreased in depressed people, but those levels increase in those who take medications such as Prozac that target serotonin levels. In the study, GABA levels were monitored before, during and after the exercise. Those subjects practicing yoga reported greater mood improvement than those walking, and their GABA levels matched those improvements.
Originating from India, yoga involves meditative movements and controlled breathing. The various postures, called asanas, are appropriate for most people regardless of any age, weight or fitness level. Yoga reduces stress, enhances concentration and increases flexibility. It”s gentle enough so that beginners don”t feel threatened. There”s no need to twist yourself into a pretzel to realize the benefits. As a quiet retreat from life’s demands, yoga can help you detach from whatever is troubling you.
By looking at actual changes in the brain, scientists are identifying new approaches to treating depression and anxiety. Walking is still a great form of exercise, and any exercise will be beneficial for those struggling with mood disorders. However, yoga improved mood more than walking did in this small study population. While yoga may not be a substitute for treatment, it could be an appropriate add-on. When starting any new exercise, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional and to learn the moves from a qualified teacher.
Bottom line is that while yoga is a great way to get toned, the inner source of calm it provides might also be an effective antidote to the blues.