By Dr. Mercola
Yoga — a form of moving meditation that demands focused attention on your body — has many physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual benefits that can be helpful for those struggling with pain- and/or stress-related health problems. As you learn new ways of moving and responding to your body, your mind and emotions tend to shift and change as well.
In a sense, you not only become more physically flexible, but your mental outlook and approach to life may also gain newfound flexibility.
Yoga appears to be particularly beneficial when it comes to mental health, with studies showing it helps improve psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia.1,2,3,4 Some of these studies suggest yoga can actually have an effect similar to that of antidepressants and psychotherapy.
In studies with teenage participants, yoga has been found to strengthen emotional resilience and ability to manage anger.5 In the elderly, it’s been shown to stave off cognitive decline6 to a greater degree than aerobic exercise.7,8 Most recently, gentle yoga practice has been identified as a valuable aid in healing childhood trauma, known to be a source of not only poor mental health but also a contributor to chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.9
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Benefits Female Juvenile Delinquents
The report10,11,12 in question, published by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, reviews over 40 studies assessing the mental health benefits of yoga, with a focus on female juvenile delinquents, whose trauma13 is disproportionally based on violence within relationships and sexual violations.
Previous investigations have found girls in the juvenile justice system are twice as likely to report past physical abuse than boys (42 percent versus 22 percent), with 35 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system having experienced sexual abuse, compared to 8 percent of boys.
Not surprisingly, girls are at increased risk of psychological problems; 80 percent have received at least one psychiatric diagnosis compared to 67 percent of males.14 As reported by NPR:15
“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.
And the physical activity of yoga, of course, can directly improve health. 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.’"
How Yoga May Benefit Victims of Trauma
Co-author Rebecca Epstein commented on the report’s findings, saying:16
"What we're learning is that fights go down on wards after adolescents participate [in yoga]. Girls are requesting medicine less often. They have fewer physical complaints."
Other noted benefits include improved:
- Emotional awareness and regulation (through the restoration of neurological pathways in the brain’s emotional awareness processing center)
- Coping skills
- Body awareness, “body connectedness” and self-empowerment, in part by rebuilding neural networks in the insula and prefrontal cortex17
- Relationship and parenting skills
- Physical and psychological health outcomes. By improving stress-related imbalances in your nervous system, yoga can help relieve a range of symptoms found in common mental health disorders. Researchers also believe yoga can be helpful for conditions like epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and PTSD by increasing brain chemicals like gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA)18
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.
To support that end, the authors recommend interpreting “existing health laws to allow yoga and mindfulness programs to be introduced into juvenile justice settings,” expanding access to already existing yoga programs and improving on such programs by including “sensitivity to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity in their design,” and lastly, increasing funding and research of yoga and mindfulness-based trauma programs.
Previous research certainly supports the use of yoga in prison settings, showing it helps reduce anxiety and aggression among inmates. After doing yoga once a week for 10 weeks, participants in one such study reported feeling less stressed, and also scored better on tests of executive control, indicating a higher degree of thoughtfulness and attention to their surroundings.19
Other Mind-Body Benefits of Yoga
Other studies have demonstrated that regular yoga practice can impart a number of physical, mental and emotional benefits, including the following:20,21,22,23
✓ Improved immune function24
✓ Improved sleep25,26
✓ Reduced risk for migraines27
✓ Lowered risk of hypertension and heart disease28,29 and improvements in atrial fibrillation30 (irregular heartbeat)
✓ Lowered cortisol (stress hormone) level by down regulating hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and calming sympathetic nervous system31
✓ Improved sexual performance and satisfaction in both sexes32,33
✓ Reduced food cravings34 and weight loss. In one study,35 overweight yoga participants lost an average of 5 pounds, whereas the non-yoga group gained 13 pounds.
This held true even when accounting for differences in diet.
One possible reason for this is yoga’s ability to influence leptin,36 a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure
✓ Improved mood.37 A 2011 review38 of published clinical studies on yoga concluded yoga movements stimulate skin pressure receptors that boost activity in your brain and vagus nerve, both of which influence the production and release of various hormones and neurotransmitters, including serotonin, thought to play a role in mood regulation, appetite control and sleep
One explanation for yoga’s wide-ranging effects is that it actually alters genetic expression, and it does this through its beneficial effects on your mind! In fact, the relaxation response triggered by meditative practices has been shown to affect at least 2,209 genes.39 As previously reported by the Institute of Science in Society:40
“Yogic meditative practices were shown to have positive effects on the heart rate, blood pressure and low density lipoprotein cholesterol, and decrease the levels of salivary cortisol, the stress hormone.
These findings are consistent with a down regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, both of which are known to be overactivated by the stressful western lifestyle. Now, a series of new studies on gene expression profiles in immune cells circulating in the blood are showing that yogic/meditative practices have profound effects at the molecular level.”
Yoga Intervention for Depression
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness,41 nearly 44 million Americans experience some form of mental illness in any given year, and depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S.42 If not effectively treated, depression may become chronic.
Considering the widespread incidence of depression and other stress-related disorders, and the fact that 40 percent of individuals with major depressive disorder treated with antidepressants fail to achieve remission,43 the rising popularity and acceptance of yoga may be a blessing.
In a recent study44 assessing the effect of Iyengar yoga classes on participants diagnosed with major depressive disorder found the practice reduced symptoms by at least 50 percent. Lyengar is a specific form of yoga that focuses on detail and precise alignment of posture combined with deep breathing.45
As noted by study author Dr. Chris Streeter, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, yoga has the clear advantage of avoiding side effects from drug treatments. He commented:
"While most pharmacologic treatments for depression target monoamine systems, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, this intervention targets the parasympathetic and gamma aminobutyric acid system and provides a new avenue for treatment.”
Prior studies using other forms of yoga for treatment of depression have also recorded positive results. As noted by Dr. Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City:46
"The mechanism of action is similar to other exercise techniques that activate the release of 'feel good' brain chemicals … [and may] reduce immune system chemicals that can worsen depression. It has been demonstrated that 'mindful' movement — conscious awareness — has a much more beneficial impact on the central nervous system.”
The findings from the current study corroborate findings from a 2016 study from the University of Pennsylvania,47 in which researchers found participants who suffered from depression, and had an inadequate response to antidepressant medication, found significant relief through yoga.
Improved Mood and Reduced Anxiety Are Core Benefits of Yoga
Indeed, aside from building core strength and flexibility, some of the greatest scientifically-proven benefits of yoga are improved mood and decreased stress and anxiety. Research has linked these improvements to changes in GABA, an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in your central nervous system. GABA is responsible for blocking nerve impulses, telling the adjoining nerve cells not to “fire” or send an impulse.
Low levels of GABA can result in nerve cells firing frequently and easily, thereby triggering or contributing to anxiety disorders and conditions such as headaches, cognitive impairments48 and seizure disorders. Studies have identified yoga as a technique that naturally increases your thalamic GABA levels.49 Improvements in stress response and a possible role in the treatment of PTSD are also attributed through scientific study to the use of yoga poses and breathing.50
Consider Outdoor Yoga for Additional Benefits
Have you noticed how much better you feel when you walk barefoot on the ground, whether it’s dirt or sand or grass? For most of our evolutionary history, humans have had continuous contact with the earth, but this is certainly not the case today. We are separated from it by a barrier of asphalt, wood, rugs, plastics and shoes.
The reason it feels so good walking barefoot is because living in direct contact with the earth grounds your body, producing beneficial electrophysiological changes that help protect you from potentially disruptive electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Some of the harmful EMFs closest to our bodies are those generated by the electronic devices that have practically become a modern appendage, such as your smartphone and iPad.
Your immune system functions optimally when your body has an adequate supply of electrons, which are easily and naturally obtained by barefoot/bare skin contact with the Earth. Research indicates Earth’s electrons are the ultimate antioxidants, acting as powerful anti-inflammatories.
So, if you want to significantly bump up your yoga benefits, take your poses outside, to ground yourself at the same time. Make sure your feet or hands are in direct contact with the Earth, rather than separated from it by a rubber mat. Grass or even sand make suitable yoga substrates on which to take your poses.
Yoga Also Helps Prevent Osteoporosis
A regular yoga routine may also help ward off osteoporosis,51 a common problem among aging women in particular. In one decadelong study, 741 volunteers were enrolled to perform 12 yoga poses every day (fully compliant), or at least every other day (moderately compliant).
The average age of the participants was 68 at the outset of the study, and 83 percent of them had been diagnosed with either osteopenia or osteoporosis. The 12-pose regimen, each of which was held for 30 seconds (for a total workout of 12 minutes), included the following:
✓ Tree pose
✓ Warrior II
✓ Side angle
✓ Twisted triangle
✓ Supine hand-to-foot I
✓ Supine hand-to-foot II
✓ Bent-knee twist
✓ Straight-legged twist
✓ Corpse pose
Participants’ bone density was measured at the outset and at the end of the study. Blood and urine samples, as well as spine and hip X-rays were also taken. Compliance was recorded via an online program. The results, published in the April/June 2016 issue of Geriatric Rehabilitation, were promising.52,53
Those who were either moderately or fully compliant with the exercises had indeed improved their spine and femur bone densities. Bone density in the hip was also somewhat improved, although the difference was not statistically significant. Additional bone quality testing performed on 18 of the participants revealed they also had “better internal support of their bones, which is not measured by a bone density scan but is important to resisting fractures.”
You can find a slideshow demonstration of several of these poses here.54 A copy of the full yoga for osteoporosis program with photo demonstrations and safety instructions for each pose is available on sciatica.org’s website.55 The book, “Yoga for Osteoporosis,” contains an even more comprehensive guide to his program.
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 14 different styles of yoga on MindBodyGreen.com.56 Additional variations can be explored on the Yoga Journal’s website,57 including restorative yoga, prenatal yoga and hybrid variations.